Are tiny houses the solution?
Some of Delaware’s homeless advocates are feeling discouraged.
“I used to be pretty positive about it,” said Jim Martin of The Shepherd’s Office in Georgetown. “I’m really disheartened.”
The biggest problem, Martin said, is a lack of affordable housing. He lobbied the Sussex County Council to change building and zoning codes to allow tiny houses, which he sees as the most effective solution.
“I did it every Tuesday for like six months and I got blank stares the whole time,” he said. “It’s a bureaucratic quagmire.”
Martin isn’t alone in attempting to provide Delawareans with affordable tiny houses. In Kent County, Port Hope, a nonprofit run by Sue Harris and Cathi Kopera, has been trying to find land on which to build a tiny house village for years.
In 2016, they were actually given five acres of land by Victory Church in Dover, which they hoped to have rezoned as a campground in order to place tiny houses. Neighbors pushed back and the effort failed.
“We’re in limbo right now,” Kopera said. “The neighbors caused so much trouble.”
A stigma surrounding low-cost housing has would-be neighbors panicked, packing the county zoning meetings that would allow it. Sussex County Councilman I.G. Burton has seen it firsthand.
“Everyone comes out says they want affordable housing, just not where they live,” he said. “But our demographics, they’re going to need service people. They’re going to need firemen … teachers, nurses, cops.”
The nonprofit Housing Alliance Delaware runs the state’s centralized homeless intake, matching people in need of emergency shelter with available beds. Each year, they conduct a point-in-time survey to get a sense of the number of homeless.
In 2019, there was a 15% reduction in Delaware overall while Sussex County saw an increase of more than 50%. That’s partially because the hourly wage to afford a two-bedroom rental unit in Delaware is $21.97. On minimum wage, that’s two-and-a-half full-time jobs for one person.
Sussex County hired Alexandria, Virginia housing consultant LSA to outline the best solutions. Their report was released in November.
“To help mitigate current and future housing challenges, support economic growth and promote a high quality of life for County residents, Sussex County should encourage the production of rental and for-sale homes affordable to households in different income ranges,” the executive summary states.
In Kent County, a task force made similar recommendations.
Not in my back yard
The Sussex report offered three strategies. The first priority is to modify the zoning code and the second to establish a local housing trust fund, both to incentivize builders. Third, preserve existing affordable housing.
“The real tightrope walk is density,” said Sussex County Councilman I.G. Burton. “It’s the solution and the problem.”
More affordable housing means smaller houses (or apartments, condos, even tiny houses), and smaller houses mean a higher density of people. Right now, that often means builders have to apply for a zoning change and face a public hearing.
At those hearings, nearby residents show up in droves to voice concerns about the crime they fear affordable housing would bring, and the effect of higher population densities on infrastructure like roads and schools.
“That gets touchy,” Burton said.
Homeowners have big sway in politics.
“There is an unfortunate phenomenon in the United States, which is that what communities would really like homeless people to do is go someplace else,” Kevin Polk, executive director of the American Tiny House Association, told the Washington Post in 2018.
Sue Harris, with Port Hope, can relate.
“We stopped even wanting to fight it when we saw how ridiculous the neighbors were gonna be. They wouldn’t let it go it would have been a constant fight,” she said. “We learned a lot from it. If we had been able to get out in front of it we might have been able to curb it some. It’s a hard concept for people to wrap their arms around, but I think it’s getting better.”
A little finesse can sometimes make it work. Zoning changes to accommodate tiny houses and other high-density housing are increasing across the country, and what seems to bring neighbors around to the idea is engagement.
The same Washington Post story cited “moon bounces and barbecues” as a great aids in convincing the community to buy into the idea in Kansas City, Missouri.
According to godownsize.com, about half of the states permit tiny houses in certain areas, with certain restrictions.
Burton doesn’t see tiny houses happening in Sussex.
“I applaud Jim Martin for what he’s doing, but I don’t know that tiny houses are the answer,” he said.
Burton is focusing on incentivizing builders financially, which is what a local housing trust fund would do.
“It has to be advantageous to the guy building it. The market right now is pretty hot, so why would a guy want to build [low-cost homes] when he can build $200,000 homes?” he said.
According to Burton, the council will “begin addressing” the recommendations over the next six months, prior to adopting the budget in June.
In Kent County, Harris and Kopera’s situation is a little different. In 2016, they managed to get the county to clarify that their code would allow tiny houses in areas zoned as campgrounds. Now, they’re struggling to find appropriate land.
“We’ve asked the city and the county to work with us, over and over,” Harris said. “We’re not asking them to pay for it or build it, but they do have properties … think of some of these abandoned sites.”
She mentioned the now-closed PPG paint plant on Lynnbury Woods Road and the Garrison Tract, both in Dover.
“If only they found this a good enough priority,” she said.