Tiny homes in church parking lots — that’s how Settled, a Minneapolis organization, is planning to address homelessness. Instead of looking for residential space to house the unhomed, Settled’s co-founders, Gabrielle Clowdus and Ann Franz, are looking to partner with faith communities to park tiny homes on wheels on the property of faith communities across the Twin Cities considering that helping the homeless is a natural fit with the mission of most faith-based organizations.
Settled, founded in 2018, originally stemmed from a healthcare project focused on emergency room visits as part of Clowdus’s Ph.D. work at the University of Minnesota. The Hennepin County Medical Center, now Hennepin Health, was looking to the University of Minnesota’s Design Center to craft a creative solution to the cost that the healthcare provider was incurring for patients with nowhere else to go coming into the ER for a bed and a meal. Clowdus saw it this way: “Housing is not an entitlement in our society. We can say it’s a human right, but we haven’t ratified human rights. We know housing is a social determinant of health,” she says, “but so many people are unhoused or unstably housed.”
“Our national model is housing first,” Clowdus continued. “But there’s a gap in the literature on the housing first models [when it comes to] community integration and increased social belonging. People with chronic homelessness are the most outcast from society, despised and unloved. Often times there are stereotypes and judgements that they’re lazy or drug addicts or sex offenders.”
For Clowdus, it became clear that what was missing was a sense of community, looking to the Austin-based Mobile Loaves and Fishes’ Community First! Village for inspiration for what could be done in the Twin Cities to begin to help the roughly 10,000 Minnesotans who were homeless in 2018. The Mobile Loaves and Fishes team “started sleeping on the streets alongside the homeless and what they learned is that almost every one of their stories were stories of extreme neglect and abuse and violence from childhood, realizing that housing alone isn’t going to solve homelessness,” Clowdus explained. “People need family. That’s what they’ve lost.”
At its core, it’s a community to replace the support that the Twin Cities’ homeless have lost that Settled hopes to create. So far they have built a $20,000 tiny home — a 100-square-foot house on a trailer outfitted with an extra-long twin bed, hot plate, refrigerator, heater, sink and toilet — at roughly one twelfth of the cost of typical low-income buildings. It’s by partnering with faith communities that Settled says it can keep the costs of housing down.
While it’s currently illegal to live in recreational vehicles and other temporary housing permanently in Minnesota, Settled is lobbying the Minnesota state legislature to change that.
In addition, typical building codes require “minimum square footages and require sewer and water and the fees that come along with them,” Clowdus says,” which really adds to development costs.”
Parking the tiny home on religious property, however, may get around many of those barriers.
The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a law designed to shield religious groups form neighborhood oppression, is part of Settled’s plan.
Settled is banking on RLUIPA and the five pro-bono land use lawyers that are helping them out alongside an amended statute to protect their dwellings from interference. “[Our lawyers] have reviewed our proposal as it relates to RLUIPA and believe we have a strong legal case,” Clowdus says.
In other cities, this interpretation of RLUIPA has run into snags.
In Nashville, a tiny home village housed on church land came under scrutiny in 2017. A city leader challenged a judge’s ruling allowing the village to remain by calling into question whether it was truly a church project or that of their partner, Open Table Nashville. Last year, the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld the judge’s decision, allowing the village to proceed — for now.
Also in 2017, a St. Cloud, Minnesota, church ran into issues when it tried to house a homeless person in a tiny home on wheels on its property. The issue was eventually settled when the church swapped the 168-foot tiny home for a 364-foot house with a foundation and connection to the church’s water and sewer lines to meet city and state zoning codes and ordinances.
While skipping typical infrastructure might be a way to increase access to housing, Brooke Spellman, a principal associate in the Social & Economic Policy Division of Abt Associates, highlights the importance of gauging interest from the homeless population.
“We usually guide our strategies based on a set of principles that are an overarching baseline that we would want all housing interventions to include. I’d would test [approaches like Settled’s] against those principles,” Spellman says. “I think one thing we don’t do enough is ask the people who are going to be served with that approach if that’s something they’re interested in and if it meets their needs. Maybe that’s a co-design opportunity in terms of the actual structure and where it’s located. It might be a good regulatory solution, but is that where they want to live?”
Spellman also draws attention to another important variable. “Almost everyone experiencing homelessness is facing challenges with income and poverty, but some also have additional challenges that they’re experiencing like mental illness. [There are issues] related to equity and racial discirmination and there may be additional issues related to sexual or gender identities,” she says. “There are so many factors that present challenges for [those looking to address] homnelessness to come up with a range of solutions that will allow [solutions] to have individualized responses.”
In order to create a communal sense of extended family, Settled is aiming for an average of 12 tiny homes per lot. Franz is in conversation now with a Minneapolis-based church to hopefully turn Settled’s plan into reality, something she hopes can spread across the country to places with megachurches that are capable of housing many more people.
Beyond just housing, the project wants to avoid concentrating poverty by having resourced tenants live alongside the previously homeless, “paying the same amount of rent and getting groceries from the same gardens they’re all tending,” Clowdus says. She expects rent to clock in at around $200-$300 a month to supplement ongoing donations.
In the meantime, the project is being funded through private donations. Clowdus says Settled doesn’t want to pursue government funding “so we’re not competing for scarce resources,” she says. Settled has so far received grant funding from the Dayton and Pohlad Family foundations, but the vision is that a household, Bible study group or the like could sponsor individual units.
After spending the last year building their tiny home prototype and lobbying the state to recognize tiny homes as permanent dwellings rather than RVs, Clowdus and Franz hope to soon reveal the site they’re exploring and, within the next 12 to 16 months, “build our first sacred settlement,” Franz says.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.