A Roof of One’s Own, With or Without the Gingerbread

DETROIT — Colorful little homes are springing up alongside an arid freeway bank in the Dexter-Linwood neighborhood here, a few miles northwest of downtown. Although tourists sometimes think the buildings are playthings and knock on the doors, the site is actually intended to help solve desperate urban problems.

“Every single house is different on purpose,” said the Rev. Faith Fowler, the executive director of Cass Community Social Services, a nonprofit group that is building the property’s two dozen homes of a few hundred square feet each. Low-income adults, including people formerly homeless or incarcerated, are moving into the compound, which is surrounded by long, sad stretches of Victorian ruins.

Cass’s eclectic oasis is meant as the antithesis of monolithic public housing. Its builders have scattered gingerbread ornaments on exteriors made of brick, stucco, shingles, clapboards and recycled barn boards. Breezes rustling through mature trees help drown out the freeway noise, and butterflies are descending on the residents’ new flower beds and vegetable patches.

Gladys Ferguson, who is in her 60s and has severe arthritis, rents Cass’s yellow gabled house for $350 a month. (Seven years of her accumulated rent will eventually finance her outright purchase of the property.) “It’s just a gorgeous little thing,” she said. When she first entered the house for a preview, shortly before she moved in a few years ago, she sneaked away for a nap in the tucked-away bedroom. “That was the most serene thing you’ve ever seen,” she said.

Charities nationwide are creating similar tiny-house clusters for people in need. The building type, best known in recent years for starring in reality TV shows like “Tiny House, Big Living,” is gaining gravitas. It can offer reassuring domestic coziness for residents, and its nonthreatening appearance also appeals to wealthier neighbors, who might have raised “not in my backyard” objections to nonprofits’ proposals for more institutional designs.

“It looks like their own house, but on a smaller scale,” said Andrew Heben, the project director at SquareOne Villages in Eugene, Ore. At the nonprofit’s enclaves of mini-homes, roofs are arched, gabled or slanted and facades come in earth tones or candy colors. The cuteness factor and the quick construction turnaround time have helped persuade volunteers to raise money and provide pro bono services. Dan Bryant, SquareOne’s executive director, said contractors had been known to stop by works in progress unprompted and ask, “What have you got left over to do?”

The Community First! Village in Austin, Tex., is providing hundreds of tiny houses and places for their residents to work, raise produce and access medical care. “It’s succeeded beyond any of our imaginations” since it opened in 2015, said Alan Graham, the organization’s founder. Residents prefer the “refuge and safety” of having their own four walls, however small the enclosure — many suffered trauma on the streets and ended up considered “the most despised outcasts,” Mr. Graham said. A handful of longtime tenants are now working with architects and builders to customize their own new homes.

“We’re treating them like they’re billionaires,” Mr. Graham said. One proposal, he added, resembles a Japanese pagoda: “It looks, on paper, cuter than all get-out.”

Nonprofits can keep costs low for small homes, but some experts wonder whether the trend will spread widely enough to make a noticeable dent in the nation’s problem with homelessness.

About half a million Americans every night, after all, have nowhere safe to lay their heads. Matthew Gordon Lasner, an associate professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College in New York, said he could not quite envision diminutive dwelling compounds turning into “a scalable solution.” Yet the sites do raise awareness of a critical societal need — more engagingly, perhaps, than politicians’ affordable-housing manifestos — and they attract visitors including scholars. “I love poking around them,” Mr. Lasner said.

Ms. Ferguson said she had lost count of how many journalists and researchers had interviewed her. She has prepared a handwritten list of talking points about the advantages of tiny-house living. She explained how she carefully researched flowers to introduce in her garden, to maximize appeal to butterflies. She and her neighbors are encouraged “to feel proud of themselves,” as they tend the buildings and grounds together, she said. She added, firmly, “We are a friendly community — you can write that down.”

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