A Vision for Affordable Housing: Addison County Nonprofits Consider “Tiny Homes”

By ANNA WOOD

MIDDLEBURY — In recent years, housing costs have reached a crisis level throughout Addison County, significantly increasing homelessness among low income residents. A coalition of Addison County nonprofits are coming together in an effort to address shortages and increased demand.  

Organizations including Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, The Counseling Service of Addison County and Middlebury’s Charter House Coalition are currently searching for roughly two acres of land to build about a dozen housing areas for the homeless. Called “Middlebury Shares,” the project will be financially supported by various nonprofits and businesses, which will sponsor each individual dwelling.

The vision behind Middlebury Shares is to create 10 to 15 units that will function like “tiny homes,” a concept favored by Ingrid Pixley, an organizer of Middlebury Shares and resident service coordinator with the Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC).

“The idea is to have a shared common space with shared resources; a place that’s close to the downtown area or to transportation downtown so that residents can get to work back and forth,” Pixley told The Campus.

The “tiny home” model is a series of buildings, all less than 500 square feet, structured around a common area that would facilitate both independence and community living. These consolidated spaces, complete with solar panels, would allow for an energy efficient, subsidized living situation among Addison County’s homeless. 

“It’s an affordable way for someone to live. A lot of people don’t need the big footprint and would rather choose to live more affordably with others,” Pixley said.

This past fall, local human service officials determined that 49 households in Addison County are in need of a permanent residence. While individuals comprise most of this number, there are nine couples and five families who are food and shelter insecure.

“Right now, there’s the Charter House; that’s always full,” Pixley said. “People move around and go from friend to friend, sleep on couches, and stay in storage units.”

“If you make minimum wage, you cannot afford to live in Middlebury, and you need a vehicle too,” said Doug Sinclair, co-director of the Charter House Coalition. “We are trying to help those who need a stable way to live. I can tell you that half of the people in Charter House shelter have jobs and can’t afford to live in the community.”

Those experiencing homelessness often also have to grapple with health complications, which can be made more difficult due to a lack of access to stable housing, Sinclair explained. “They can go to the ER or Urgent Care and get assistance there, but it’s band-aids; it’s not taking care of chronic challenges,” he said. 

Members of Continuum of Care, a long-term program that guides patients through various health services, believe the county needs a deeply subsidized housing option that provides support and help for residents complying with the terms of their lease. Middlebury Shares hopes to provide just that, along with services to help them learn tenancy skills and connect with other community-based programs.

Currently, the project is facing multiple roadblocks. The nonprofits funding Middlebury Shares would like to build the units on Seymour Street, but they still have a long way to go before the concept can be brought to fruition. According to Elise Shanbacker, creator of the initial Middlebury Shares proposal, the project is a “three legged stool.” 

“You need capital to build the housing, operating subsidy to pay the rent and money to pay for on-site services,” she wrote in an email published in the Addison Independent.

“A big barrier to building this kind of housing in Addison County is that the Vermont State Housing Authority doesn’t have any more project-based Section 8 vouchers to make available, so we lack access to operating subsidy that can pay for housing expenses,” she said.

Despite the economic and environmental benefits the tiny home villages could offer, some town officials have offered pushback, concerned with the aesthetic component of the project. 

“The concept we’re fighting is that the tiny home is cheaply put together, not eye pleasing and that Middlebury has to look appealing,” Pixley said. “Town officials are asking, ‘What will this look like? Will it be an eyesore? Will it be seen from the road?’ and those kind of perceptions.” 

But, Pixley added, “Maybe they can look traditionally Vermont; there are so many ideas out there, right now we’re just talking with all kinds of people. There’s amazing interest in this tiny home movement.” 

According to Pixley, Middlebury Shares is applying for a grant from a state arch group who does free designs for community projects. 

“Vermont sees itself as a progressive state, yet other areas, such as Syracuse and Ithaca, have big tiny home villages,” Pixley said. “Some places have figured it out and they are good working communities. We just haven’t quite figured it out yet.”

To learn more about or donate to the project, visit www.charterhouse coalition.org, www.hope-vt.org or www.csac-vt.org.

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A Vision for Affordable Housing: Addison County Nonprofits Consider “Tiny Homes”