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Racine tiny homes offered as model for Janesville's homeless

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JANESVILLE

In the heart of Racine, wedged between a blue-collar residential neighborhood and an industrial district, sits Veteran Village, a collection of 15 tiny houses just 128 square feet each.

The tiny homes are clustered on a 1-acre lot. The rectangle-shaped bunkhouses are about the size of college dorm rooms with sloped roofs, rustic siding, windows and front stoops.

The tiny homes are used as transitional housing for homeless veterans under management by Racine nonprofit Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin.

In Janesville, a local man wants to try something similar to help the homeless.

Rich Snyder, a craftsman and stained glass artist, is best known locally for leading a multimillion-dollar revamp of the Oak Hill Cemetery chapel that at one time faced the wrecking ball.

Snyder’s latest dream is to build a cluster of five or six 200-square-foot tiny homes on a residential lot somewhere in Janesville.

In Racine, the vets earn money at jobs and live rent-free in tiny homes. Their residency is paid under a privately-funded program run by Veterans Outreach.

The houses give residents their own roofs, their own spaces and doors that lock behind them as they sleep. The village of 15 homes, along with an on-site community center where five Veterans Outreach full-time employees work, creates a feeling of security, self-worth and community for people who’ve spent time isolated in homelessness, the agency’s executive director, Jeff Gustin, said.

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A village of tiny homes in Racine stands as an example of how one nonprofit group offers transitional housing for homeless people.

The group’s aim: to help its clients build enough momentum to escape homelessness and, at some point, find permanent housing.

“We’re trying to give them a sense of pride and ownership. That’s the big thing that we want to thrive into their future,” Gustin said.

The Janesville idea

The tiny homes Snyder proposes for Janesville would serve as a small transitional housing village for the local homeless population. Snyder envisions the tiny homes as rent-free quarters where people recovering from homelessness could live while saving money for an apartment or permanent home.

Snyder believes it would take a local nonprofit to run and manage the tiny homes as a self-sustaining program. The directors of one area nonprofit that serves homeless people plans to discuss his idea with its board this month, he said.

Meanwhile, “about 15 people” associated with the Oak Hill Cemetery chapel project have said they’d donate labor to the project. He’s now applying for a grant that could put some of the tiny home building in the hands of local students.

Snyder in January pitched his idea and some tiny home plans to city officials. He said he has gotten some feedback from the city.

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Each 128-square-foot tiny home in Racine has a coffeemaker, microwave, refrigerator, television, loft bed and couch. The goal is to encourage residents to utilize the community center for much of their everyday needs outside of their tiny homes.

Under Snyder’s proposal, the homes would be prefabricated before being set on concrete slabs on a city-owned residential lot. Ideally, he said, they’d be linked to city services.

Snyder said he has eyed two vacant lots adjacent to a residential area west of the former General Motors assembly plant. Both sites, he said, are close to a city bus stop.

Snyder believes that with donated materials and labor it could cost about $40,000 to build five or six tiny homes. Snyder believes the total project could be less than $200,000, although he said that estimate might not include the price of land.

This month, Snyder hopes to build a prototype tiny home with a bathroom, kitchenette and sleeping and living quarters. He’d use it to showcase the project to potential donors or volunteers.

“I haven’t really had anybody tell me, yet, that it’s a bad idea. I feel like as soon as we had some concrete plan, we could produce them,” Snyder said.

Tiny homes—homes typically smaller than 400 square feet—aren’t allowed in Janesville because they’re far too small to meet city residential code requirements. City rules require homes to have floor space of at least 800 square feet, and the rules allow a single one-unit or two-unit dwelling on a typical residential lot. A tiny home village would place multiple homes—each one potentially with its own electric, gas and water service—on a single lot.

According to city rules, a proposal such as Snyder’s could be presented to the city’s plan commission as a “planned-use development.”

Under city rules, the plan commission would have the authority to make exceptions to city housing standards for specific housing proposals.

One city council member, Douglas Marklein, told The Gazette he has been in touch with Snyder on the proposal.

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Sun streams into a tiny home at Veteran Village in Racine.

Marklein, a professional home builder, said he lauds Snyder’s idea but said a tiny home proposal would likely face months of research by city staff and a slew of questions from city residents.

“More power to him,” Marklein said. “I wouldn’t discourage him, but it’s a lot of questions and few answers. I think he understands that he’s got a hill to climb, but everything starts that way if it’s hard.”

Among the largest questions, Marklein said, would be who might manage and maintain such a village.

Safety and growth

The Racine tiny homes at Veteran Village have electric heat and air conditioning but no running water and no bathrooms.

Residents can use a communal garden and courtyard.

On the lot where Veteran Village is located, Veterans Outreach retrofitted a former Teamsters union hall into a hub serving most of the residents’ daily needs. It’s where the residents shower, cook, eat and get job placement and counseling services. The center also serves as a food pantry.

As Gustin explained, his agency’s tiny homes are spartan. They’re set up mainly as places to relax and sleep.

“It’s a place where they feel safe. If you can imagine living totally homeless or in a shelter, it’s a huge thing when you can actually have your own space where the door locks behind you, your possessions are safe when you’re not there,” Gustin said.

The village and its community center run as a self-contained neighborhood and social service office for the residents. Gustin said it costs about $500,000 a year to maintain and operate. It’s privately funded through grants, donations and fundraising, he said.

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Sun streams into a tiny home at Veteran Village in Racine.

Over time, he said, some people from the neighborhood next to Veterans Village have begun to pitch in and get involved with the neighborhood.

Many residents of Veteran Village are recent military veterans who suffer from anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. The village’s community center helps the clients—a population that can tend toward personal isolation—gel as a mini-community and self-sustaining support network.

The village has been up and running for about a year as transitional housing, Gustin said. The village is a “dry” and drug-free community.

Its residents face background screening for violent crimes and sex offenses, and they must follow curfew rules and submit to random drug and alcohol testing.

Gustin said all the residents are employed, and each has a personalized program based on goals they set themselves. Veterans Outreach tries to help the residents learn to manage their finances and rebuild social, workplace and life skills.

The program is designed to put clients on track to live independently in a year or two, Gustin said. Of the village’s first 15 residents, one formerly homeless military vet recently transitioned out of his tiny home and into an apartment.

The man now works nights monitoring a group home for people with disabilities. It’s a job Veterans Outreach helped him find. The man’s horizons have expanded beyond a 128-square-foot home, Gustin said.

“People can grow. As they grow, the idea is they’ll start to outgrow a tiny home,” Gustin said.

Patience and review

As Marklein suggests, Snyder or anyone interested in his Janesville plan might need patience.

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An American flag flies at one of the 15 tiny homes in Veteran Village in Racine.

Amy Connolly, development director for the city of Racine, said it took about six months of discussion between city planners and Veterans Outreach before the group’s tiny home proposal came before the plan commission and city council.

She said it took a few months for public hearings and review, but there was little neighborhood resistance to the project. The city monitors Veterans Village for code compliance, and Connolly said there have been no problems in that area.

During earlier discussions, Connolly said, Racine city officials worked up “creative” zoning ideas that permit a tiny homes village as a standalone entity. Ultimately, Connolly said, the city used a “rooming house” designation for zoning similar to a motel that classifies each tiny home as an individual “rooming unit.”

“It’s an approach that would only work for this model and this situation,” she said.

Gustin said city officials were up front with his group about one core concern.

“Everybody’s concern was that we’d build this village, and all the sudden every slumlord in town was going to come in with a proposal to build some tiny homes,” Gustin said.

Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag told reporters after his annual “state of the city” address Thursday that the city is considering a plan that would permit homeless people living in their cars to park and sleep overnight in a designated parking lot.

It’s among about a dozen concepts Freitag has talked about in the months since the city launched a public-private task force on homelessness. The task force initially was formed last summer to respond to homelessness that’s rooted in the city’s downtown, officials said.

Freitag said he’s aware of Snyder’s tiny homes idea. He said the city Community Development Authority is studying tiny homes and similar transitional housing concepts, but he said the city has “nothing tangible” in the works for such housing.

Snyder said officials in the city’s Neighborhood Services division have suggested Snyder focus instead on constructing larger homes of 400 to 600 square feet.

Snyder said he’s more interested in homes that are small enough to operate rent-free. He thinks many homeless people who are trying to rebuild their lives might find a tiny home easier step than a small house with rent marginally lower than market rate.

In Racine, Veterans Village wasn’t a clean fit for a typical municipal housing project, Connolly said.

Projects such as Veterans Village are unlikely to qualify for federal housing subsidies municipalities can offer. She said federal housing funds are designed for permanent housing projects, and transitional tiny homes “kind of flip the model” used by programs under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.(tncms-asset)8ee9084b-d996-5d92-8721-782efd4ca8cd[5](/tncms-asset)

Snyder’s not proposing the city subsidize a Janesville tiny homes development or take on its management.

“The plan is not for the city to run this or organize it. A private organization with experience dealing with the homeless population would be the ideal group to run and manage a tiny home village,” Snyder said. “What I’m asking the city to look at is zoning, and if there’s land the city owns, if they could help with a land donation.”

Snyder started work on his tiny home idea last year after he’d learned about the local task force on homelessness. He realizes that his proposal would take time for the city to vet.

While he’s not a member of the task force, he said his idea seems to match the group’s initiatives.

“The city says it needs new ideas of how to approach homelessness. Well, here’s an idea,” he said.

“Something like this, you’ve got to start beyond just talking about it,” Snyder said. “Look at the weather we’ve had the last few weeks—30 degrees below zero. We’ve got homeless shelters that go over capacity in winter.

“We need a solution now. This is a small project that could help so many.”

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