Rebuilding Dayton in small steps: Micro houses

I’ve worked on more than a few Habitat for Humanity builds. I think that Habitat is a noble organization. But, I think that the answers to our problem with homelessness, with affordability, and with repopulating Dayton are that we’re still trying to use yesterday’s paradigms for today’s problems.

It’s a question of size. I live in a castle by the standards of many in Europe, Asia and NYC. My house was super affordable- $14,500 purchase price in 1986 (but don’t worry, thanks to the Wizards of Wall Street, the house 2 doors down from me, that’s actually bigger sold for $14,000 a few years ago). As one New Yorker said to me- “that’s what I pay for my parking space for a year.”

Dayton has a glut of vacant houses, with a 29-year back supply to demolish. We can’t demolish our way to prosperity (Nan Whaley is all about tearing down houses- which doesn’t solve the fundamental problems of the City- it just solves the neighbors’ problem- if they can wait 29 years). What we have to do is find new ways to build our population and tax base. We have to strengthen our neighborhoods by filling them up- not b tearing them down. One of the answers, I believe, is micro housing.

Alternative Housing Options

My cousin, the world-traveling architect, was enamored with his NYC apartment in Park Slope in the early 90’s- it was 300 square feet, and only $1,200 a month in rent. In a year in Dayton he could have bought  my house.

NYC has people paying a million dollars to buy apartments that are under 900 sq feet. It’s perfectly possible to live in something way smaller than my 1,700 square-foot house- and a lot more affordable when you think small.

Unfortunately, we have laws in place, foisted on us by the construction industry, the insurance industry, and probably the Real Estate industry that preclude the construction of homes under 900 square feet, and with minimum lot sizes. It’s probably impossible to even set up a lot smaller than 1/4 acre in the County Auditor’s database for tax valuation. This is America- we live large. But, when you’re a homeless person trying to transition to a home, the utilities alone can equal the rent for a 900 sq.-foot home, so we have to rely on social welfare systems to subsidize the outsized home.

I’ve talked about SRO before- or Single Room Occupancy, the kind of housing that immigrants who flocked to this country last century often used as starter housing. It’s where you rent a room, maybe with a sink and a toilet, maybe not, but shared a kitchen, a shower, etc. In Dayton, these are called rooming houses and they are illegal- unless of course you are the University of Dayton, and it’s called “student housing” where you charge by the room by the semester and make a killing. SRO would be one way to start bringing back housing and creating opportunity- but, it’s not the same as getting someone into something they own. That’s theirs- that they can take pride in.


Photo of tiny house community

From a tiny house community

Micro houses  are inexpensive small houses, that can be affordable and easy to manage for people transitioning from homelessness, or downsizing, or as a temporary option when foreclosure strikes.  They don’t have to be boring small boxes as you’ll see if you look at some of the designs in architecture competitions or browse the Tiny House Blog or The Tiny Life. Often, they’ve been built out of found materials. It’s not just a small house, it’s a new way of life. But, this is where it gets interesting: we have the materials and a unique manufacturing facility in Dayton to begin building these today.

James Kent, or Architectural Reuse Company has deconstructed over 200 homes in Dayton using ex-offender labor. The materials he’s harvested could have easily built over 1,000 LEED Certified micro homes, where we can provide a low-cost base of operations for those re-entering the workforce. Not only could we provide housing that’s affordable to minimum wage workers, but, we’re preventing materials from going into landfills and creating energy efficient homes all at the same time. The homes could be built on the computerized wall panel assembly line now owned by Vaughn Interior Concepts that used to belong to the ISUS charter school. Craig Vaughn is working with the VA and veterans groups to turn the plant into a Veterans re-training facility. (full disclosure- both ARC and VIC are clients of my firm The Next Wave)

An entire genre of these homes were designed for post-Hurricane Katrina- the Cusato Cottages were a better option than the FEMA trailers that the government came up with.

The micro housing could be installed on larger blocks that have low occupancy, or in former industrial sites. By drilling a few wells, we could heat and cool the entire complex with geothermal energy and cut utility bills even more. Building one shared space for socialization and joint laundry facilities, workout area, and space for yard tools, bicycle storage etc., with a shared fiber internet node would further advance the desirability and value of these new housing options. Include a community garden and hoop house, and even food costs are cut.

Tie in the addition of a bike share system, and you’ve now eliminated another major expense for those living at the poverty line or below, because cars are the second most expensive part of most people’s living expense- tied with health-care costs.

We’d have to change a bunch of rules to make these micro homes a possibility, including the requirements of “graded lumber” as an acceptable building material for the insurance industry. We’d also have to determine if these homes are going to be treated the same as houses or as trailers/manufactured homes- a deed or a title? As it is, banks probably won’t loan on these properties causing us to find creative ways to finance them. But, when you offset the social subsidies required for full-sized homes for the operational costs, or the considerably higher taxes and or total price of a conventional home, it may be a much more efficient solution to housing.

Also note, these aren’t just for low-income people, these are potentially a way for seniors to downsize efficiently, and for single mobile workers to live without being tied to an anchor of a mortgage or maintenance of a larger home.

SRO and micro houses are actually a return to the kinds of housing that enabled America to prosper in the last two centuries, Dayton could become the role model for how it’s done in this century.

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