The tiny house tucked behind the Mosaic Christian Community on St. Paul’s East Side has all of the essentials.
There’s a twin bed, a hot plate, a mini fridge, a gravity-fed water basin, a bathroom with a dry toilet that can be emptied daily, a butcher-block counter, a table and chair, pegs for coats and a leather chair — all within about 140 square feet.
There’s even a junk drawer “because every home has a junk drawer, right?” said Gabrielle Clowdus, who designed the tiny house.
Clowdus, the CEO and co-founder of Settled, is working with metro-area churches to build tiny-house communities — called Sacred Settlements — for people experiencing homelessness. Settled is currently working with Mosaic and with Faith Lutheran Church in Forest Lake.
Both churches’ plans call for people experiencing homelessness to move into tiny houses on church property. Residents would share facilities and amenities such as a kitchen, dining area, restrooms, showers, laundry, gardens, workshops and gathering areas.
Each tiny house is expected to cost between $20,000 and $30,000 to build. Each resident would pay rent, about $200 a month, and be expected to contribute to the community, Clowdus said.
“We’re not just building housing; we’re trying, really, to build community,” Clowdus said. “We’re trying to stitch ourselves back together, knit our hearts together, to recognize that we belong to one another.”
Community advocates and specially trained volunteer neighbors — called “missionals” — also would live on site to ensure a “thriving community,” Clowdus said. “They’re the secret sauce. They’re people who have never experienced homelessness, but have a calling and desire to live among the poor, be a good neighbor, demonstrate a healthy lifestyle and invite their neighbors in for family meals, games, walks.”
Rose Larson, 30, of North Minneapolis, has already signed up to be a missional at the Mosaic site. Larson, the associate pastor of Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, said she was moved to live in a Sacred Settlement because “that’s what Jesus did: He walked alongside people and lived with them.”
“I think of John 7:37-39 — Jesus yelling out: ‘Anyone who is thirsty, come to me and streams of living water will flow from within them,’ ” Larson said. “All of us are filled with his spirit when we trust and believe and walk with him. It’s living out the love of Jesus Christ in our daily lives. It’s just inviting people along for the journey.”
Mosaic’s plan calls for six tiny houses — four for formerly homeless people and two for missionals — to be placed in a wooded area next to the church on Wheelock Parkway.
Mosaic and Settled officials have already hosted three open houses to introduce the concept to the neighborhood. “Two went very well. One did not,” said Jeff O’Rourke, Mosaic’s lead pastor and co-founder. “They brought up a lot of concerns and some neighborhood fears and worries. We really want this to happen, but we know we’re not going to get 100 percent neighbor support.”
Concerns have ranged from security to a decrease in property values, O’Rourke said. “We get that,” he said. “I live in the neighborhood. My kids ride bikes in the neighborhood. But the missionals living on site should help alleviate those concerns.”
Mosaic’s mission is to work with the poor and marginalized and mobilize the community, O’Rourke said. Last year, for example, the church hosted 34 guests through a program called “Safe Parking,” which allows women with dependents who are living in their cars to park in their church’s lighted parking lot and use a portable toilet on site.
“Our process is to engage strangers, invite them to be guests and equip them to be hosts,” O’Rourke said. “Settled just blends right in with our vision and mission. We didn’t have to try to convince our people why this is important for us. Everybody already understood why this was important. It was more of just the how. It’s almost like an extension of who we are already.”
Eventually, the hope is that the formerly homeless “would get to a place where they can buy a home in the neighborhood,” he said. “That would just be truly remarkable.”
First, Settled must get the OK from St. Paul and Forest Lake officials. Tiny houses face numerous zoning and building-code issues, said Travis Bistodeau, a deputy director of safety and inspections for St. Paul.
A federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, protects faith organizations from zoning laws that substantially burden religious exercise. More problematic, according to Bistodeau, is what is allowed under the state building code.
A variety of building-code provisions that the tiny houses don’t meet had “safety of the occupants at the forefront in mind when they were crafted,” Bistodeau said.
Clowdus, a Ph.D. candidate in housing and research fellow at the University of Minnesota Center for Design, argues that the Settled plan meets the requirements for “temporary use.” By building the tiny houses on trailers with wheels, the houses qualify under state law as recreational vehicles that provide temporary shelter, she said.
“Because they are off the ground on wheels, we’re no longer beholden to restrictive building codes that don’t allow for us to build simple, small, quality dwellings,” she said.
State law, though, mandates that people cannot live year-round in an RV.
Clowdus said she is working with state officials on a process to approve the tiny houses “as permanent dwellings within a Sacred Settlement. It’s no different than the camper cabins that we all enjoy in our state parks with centralized bathroom facilities.”
But Bistodeau said the Sacred Settlement would require a third-party accreditation to determine that the structures meet those specific standards. The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry also would need to approve that accreditation and standard as a surrogate for the state building code.
Still, St. Paul officials recognize that the city has an “unsheltered housing crisis,” Bistodeau said. “We are looking for alternatives in any way, shape or form that increase the safety of individuals who are currently unsheltered. Living in a tent is not safe, and it’s certainly not dignified.
“We’re trying to be as flexible and dynamic and creative as we can to solve the challenge,” he said. “But, from our perspective, we’re beholden to the state building code, and that’s where our hands get tied.”
Forest Lake Mayor Mara Bain said the Faith Lutheran project faces the same issue. The church would like to build 12 tiny homes for homeless veterans in Washington County on its 7.8-acre property, but Bain said no plans have been submitted to the city. “We really can’t evaluate anything until we receive an application,” she said.
Clowdus is trusting that the issues will get resolved. Settled is moving forward with construction of several tiny houses. One was built this summer by the congregation of Colonial Church in Edina, she said. Four others will be built by different church communities in October at Woodland Hills Church in Maplewood.
The demonstration settlement will be open for tours “so people can see the difference between tent encampments and a well-managed, well-built community, supported by well-trained people,” Clowdus said.
“We’re just kind of taking it one step at a time, and we’re building the homes in anticipation of the first Sacred Settlement,” she said. “We’re taking that step of faith that this will happen.”
On St. Paul’s East Side, Clowdus proudly shows off the contents of the tiny house parked in the parking lot behind Mosaic. She points out a ceramic mixing bowl she said “you could imagine was on the hip of your grandmother.”
“They’re all genuine, authentic materials: real wood floors, butcher-block countertop, a cast-iron pan, ceramic bowl and a really great, comfortable leather chair,” Clowdus said. “We want to tell people who have been living a life feeling like they are the outcast of society that they are of great worth. We can do that by giving them things that are valuable and will last a long time.”
The bedroom — dubbed “The Womb” — does not have any windows. “People on the streets do not have great sleep,” she said, “so we just made it like this little cocoon where you get in, and you feel protected and safe.”
There’s an extra chair at the table so “you can invite someone in and make them a cup of tea. You can be the host.”
In cubbies on the wall are objects for “healthy hobbies … to encourage people to reimagine what they used to be interested in and what they can be interested in again,” Clowdus said. There’s yarn, musical instruments, paints, a notebook, a hand-carved walking stick, a fishing rod and binoculars.
Many of the items came from antique and thrift stores, but each house will have new towels, sheets and mattress.
Each resident is expected to contribute to the community by putting in a certain number of service hours per week. They will meet regularly to discuss problems or concerns and to share a common meal that they take turns cooking.
“People need to have a purpose, a meaning, a role in the community and a place where, most importantly, they are known and loved — that’s what we all need,” Clowdus said.