Chicago exploring pilot ‘tiny houses’ project to help homeless

SHARE Chicago exploring pilot ‘tiny houses’ project to help homeless

Ald. Ed Burke. | Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration may build “tiny homes” on vacant city lots to give homeless Chicagoans an “independent” alternative to “dangerous” shelters, aldermen were told Tuesday.

Anthony Simpkins, managing deputy commissioner of the Housing Bureau of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, disclosed the feel-good pilot program one day after tents set up by homeless residents were swept away from viaducts at Wilson and Lawrence avenues as the two crumbling Uptown structures are rebuilt.

Testifying before the City Council’s Housing and Human Relations Committees, Simpkins refused to say where or how many tiny homes would be built or who the builder and operator might be.

He would say only that the city has been “approached by a number of developers,” including Catholic Charities, and is exploring the possibility of building “at least one, maybe two” projects on “vacant city land” after surveying similar projects in other cities.

No changes to the building or zoning code would be required, assuming the designs “comply with minimum standards for inhabitability,” such as electricity, water and heat, Simpkins said.

“For Chicago to build tiny homes like you see in Seattle would actually probably do more harm to residents than good. So we’d have to make sure that we’re looking at a model that works for . . . the homeless population in Chicago,” Simpkins added.

Tiny House. | Tumbleweeed Tiny House Company

Tiny House. | Tumbleweeed Tiny House Company

“While we agree that tiny homes can be built and frankly should probably be encouraged as part of a broad strategy to increase the supply of housing and access to affordable housing, we must be thoughtful and considerate of those intended to live in these tiny homes. … If we were to develop our own Chicago model specific to our climate, we would require certain features not contemplated in … the Seattle model, like heating for the winter season.”

News of the potential Chicago pilot program was music to the ears of aldermen, including Finance Chairman Edward Burke (14th), who urged his colleagues in late May to explore “out-of-the-box solutions to a chronic problem that all major urban centers face.”

Burke argued then — and again Tuesday — that Chicago should follow the lead of “10 states — from Florida to New York to California and the Pacific Northwest” and build 320-square-foot homes that cost just $2,000 and can be put up in a few weeks.

“These tiny houses afford a level of privacy unavailable in crowded and often dangerous homeless shelters,” Burke said.

The City Council’s resident historian then recalled the “shanty-town encampments” that became one of the ugliest and most painfully enduring symbols of the Great Depression during the days of then-President Herbert Hoover.

“We certainly don’t wish to see the emergence of modern-day shanty towns or Hoovervilles in our city. Instead, we should explore the possibility of creating well-maintained communities of people given new purpose in life,” Burke said.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) grew up in Cabrini Green and serves on the board of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. He used to be “one of those people who had to sleep on everyone’s coaches … and carry all of my clothes from place to place.”

Although his ward includes a West Loop area exploding with residential and commercial development, there are homeless people living under viaducts along Hubbard Street.

Burnett said when he has tried to persuade them to go to a shelter, “They don’t want to go. … You still got gang-banging going on in shelters. You’ve got extortion.”

“People just want their own space. They want their shopping cart, their suitcases or whatever they have in their own space. And no matter how many times you move ’em, they’re gonna take all that stuff and find them a spot for their own space,” Burnett added. “This would give them an opportunity to have dignity, to have their own space. They can lock their door. They can protect whatever they have and have a place to lay their head. It’s a very humane thing. … I would welcome it in my ward. They’re human beings. Some folks have challenges in their lives. We just have to be considerate of that.”

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) said he has had “the great honor” of having one of the “model tiny homes” in his ward at 46th and Marshfield.

“Though many people sometimes look at the tiny home as something cute and something interesting, I have to say that it’s something that is viable, something that is needed and something that can actually help all categories of homelessness finally have a place to call their own,” Lopez said.

Eileen Higgins, vice president of Catholic Charities, said the group has approached the city about putting up seven tiny homes for homeless veterans at 78th and Emerald, where it already has a veterans campus.

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