Chicago architects design tiny solution to youth homelessness

By Harry Huggins

Three Chicago-based architects won a competition to design a minuscule solution to a large problem, youth homelessness. The Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects announced Thursday that Terry Howell, Marty Sandberg and Lon Stousland won the first ever Tiny Homes Competition. A prototype of their design will take center stage at the Tiny Homes Summit in April.

The competition solicited designs for small independent living communities that could be built at a low cost as a rapid response to rising rates of homelessness among Chicago’s youth. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimates that more than 11,000 people aged 14 to 21 lived in the city without permanent homes in 2015.

Tiny homes communities would allow people with a wide range of needs to live in independent, freestanding homes connected to supportive services through a central community area.

The winning design, titled “A House for Living In,” includes 11 tiny homes and a community space arranged around a shared garden and courtyard, all on roughly four city lots. The architects estimate that each 336-square-foot home will cost less than $19,000 to build, compared to the average cost to build one unit of affordable housing: $350,000.

Tracy Baim, editor and publisher of the Windy City Times, took a leading role in organizing the competition. Homelessness prevention is a passion project for Baim.

“It’s personal to me,” Baim said. “This issue has been very frustrating to cover, not only because nothing ever seems to change, but because you see people are becoming homeless younger and younger.”

Baim’s interest in tiny homes as a solution for homelessness comes from presentations she saw at a youth homelessness conference.

“It’s cheaper, quicker, and for certain populations, it has a lot more dignity,” Baim said. “For populations that have a lot more independence, putting them in large group facilities, the level of dignity is really diminished.”

The homes included in the winning design will cost less than $19,000 to build each unit. (Courtesy of AIA Chicago)

Baim sees that Chicago is building very little new affordable housing, but, with so much vacant land on the South and West Sides, the city should be fertile ground for such experimentation. Before tiny homes communities can spread throughout Chicago, developers will have to raise building funds, acquire zoning approval and earn the acceptance of neighbors.

“All kinds of supportive housing is needed here,” Baim said. “This should be another part of the tool kit.”

The tiny homes movement has spread across America. Communities of small homes built around shared community areas already exist in Eugene, OR; Madison, WI and Washington, D.C.

Marisa Novara, the director of housing and community development at the Metropolitan Planning Council, helped judge the more than 250 contest submissions. She sees an urgent need for creative solutions like tiny homes as federal budgets for affordable housing shrink and demand increases.

There are, however, obstacles to building tiny homes in Chicago. Novara said that the city’s zoning code just isn’t set up to allow many small homes to be built on one lot. Chicago requires one building per lot, but Novara and supporters of the tiny homes movement are hoping to creatively use the townhouses ordinance, which allows multiple homes across several lots.

The central communal space within the winning design excites Novara the most.

“This is a setup where people’s own individual space may be quite small, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only space they have to live,” Novara said. “It’s an experiment in how people interact with one another if they’re given spaces that allow for real communal living to shape up.”

Eithne McMenamin, who works at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, is developing a tiny homes project—separate from the competition—with her church, St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Lincoln Park. The project is awaiting clearance from the city’s zoning department.

Other Project
Eithne McMenamin’s tiny homes project with her church is still waiting for approval by Chicago’s zoning department. (Courtesy of Eithne McMenamin)

She said the simple living aspect of the tiny homes movement meshed well with her passion for housing justice.

“Personally, I struggle to stay organized and keep a handle of the things in my life,” McMenamin said. “Living smaller, living a more intentional life in terms of your relationship with your stuff…I will feel more organized and my mental health will be better.”

The prototype of the winning contest design will be on display at the Tiny Homes Summit on April 18 and 19 at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Photo at top: The winning design for the Tiny Homes Competition includes 11 small homes and a communal space on four city lots. (Courtesy of AIA Chicago)