First city discussion regarding future homeless tiny house development brings new insights, questions

More information about location, design and other logistics of a tiny home village known as the Sacred Settlement, a proposed long-term homeless community on the property of Faith Lutheran Church, were discussed at a joint planning commission and city council meeting on Monday, July 20.

The tiny home village is a collaboration between Faith Lutheran Church and Settled, a Twin Cities-based non-profit organization which aims to create communal living between the long-term homeless population and others who would act as mentors. Settled and Faith Lutheran Church are still in the early planning stages, and say if the project does move forward, it could be months before any homes are built on the property.

Background

Last spring, Faith Lutheran Church’s senior pastor John Klawiter was handed a $50,000 check by church member Chuck Tollefsrud requesting that the church put the money toward helping the poor, particularly homeless veterans. Shortly after accepting the donation, Klawiter was invited to a presentation by Settled CEO and co-founder Gabrielle Clowdus. Clowdus is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota whose research focuses on homeless issues. Her work at Settled, based on that research, is about building tiny houses in a community setting to help solve the issues of homelessness and other issues which stem from it. With each tiny home’s estimated cost of $25,000, it occurred to Klawiter that this might work for the church.

“In order to honor Chuck’s gift, I got to thinking ‘Wow, what if we were able to make two tiny houses for $50,000?’” Klawiter said.

On Jan. 16, the church voted 155-58 in favor of working with the organization to begin a feasibility study and to work with city leaders, community stakeholders, and the church’s neighbors.

Need and impact

Homelessness is a continual problem in the county, said Washington County Commissioner Fran Miron. However, he said that since the pandemic hit the area, there’s been an even more heightened need.

“Much of that is because of the closures of the faith-based facilities that are serving Washington County because of their inability to deal with the COVID response, and those close and more pressures have been put on Washington County,” Miron said.

He noted the recent closure of the nearby homeless shelter by St. Andrews Church in Hugo as an example. Miron said that they’re currently housing the homeless in hotels, which is far more costly.

But outside of the pandemic, Clowdus said that according to her research, they’ve seen a 60% increase in street homelessness in the last three years, and that has a significant impact.

“Our national understanding [of homelessness] is based off of wrong assumptions. The smallest portion of the homeless portion are those that are trapped in long-term homelessness…they take up 80% of the resources, but are just 20% of the population of homeless,” Clowdus said.

“What we’re saying is that they don’t just lack housing, they lack community. Shelters are good when you’re just dipping into [homelessness], but our most expensive population is that long-term homeless population. Studies have shown they cost over $100,000 per person per year to maintain.”

And that’s where faith organizations can help, she said.

“We want to partner with faith communities to do that because a faith community already has a social network and support system,” she said.

New details emerge

New plans of the settlement have emerged. The current plan calls for 10 to 18 single-story tiny houses, roughly 100-200 square feet each, located on the east side of Faith Lutheran Church’s property. Each tiny house, while on wheels, would be lifted and then anchored to a foundation to meet city code and ordinances, and would also include a small gravity-powered water tank system, bed space and seating area for hospitality.

Plans also call for a common space between neighbors, including amenities like a community garden, a larger communal home, and a shared yard.

Each tenant would pay rent, and according to Clowder, the business model is set to be sustainable due to the low cost of maintaining the properties, which keeps the housing affordable and also keeps renters interested in maintaining their property.

“Everyone’s got skin in the game,” Clowder said. Because of the intentional community-based model, Clowder says her research shows it is most effective in helping curb long-term homelessness, so there is no limit to how long a renter can stay in the home.

Because the church has a preschool that meets during the week on the property, extensive background checks would be required for any renter.

“We’ve had direct conversations with the [preschool] director and parents of those preschoolers, and it’s been decided the criteria is there’d be no sex offenders — we have several other ways outside of just registry lists — and that there will be nobody with violent criminal histories or selling drugs,” Clowder said.

She also noted that a professional management service would provide all the services needed so “the church can just be the big open arms and property management can be the finger waggers.”

City response

Planning Commission member Susan Young noted her concerns were about the likely requests the church would be asking of zoning codes.

“You’re asking to essentially waive just about every provision of our zoning code. I haven’t found any you haven’t asked us to waive yet,” Young said. “I am a little concerned that once we do this, going back is not an option. Yes, the concept is way cool, and I understand the need…but in terms of our responsibility to the city, we need to be thoughtful and deliberate about the zoning ordinances, and the precedent this is setting for not just your application but other opportunities to use the changes to the code you’re proposing.”

Mayor Mara Bain echoed that sentiment, adding that her biggest concerns centered around density.

“The question to think about [is] if tiny homes are allowed, under what circumstances are they allowed and under what density?” Bain responded.

Planning Commission chair member Eric Langness questioned the density issue as well, but also added concerns over how that could affect city infrastructure, and if it would be capable of sustaining that type of change.

Young also noted concerns over volunteers possibly drying up over time. Clowder said that there are multiple churches with volunteers to help the tenants, and so the volunteer base is extensive and doesn’t remain squarely on Faith Lutheran Church’s shoulders.

Still, Klawiter says his congregation is set.

“We have a mission of being able to help our neighbor. This is the thing that inspires our congregation. If there’s a need, that’s what our church loves to do,” Klawiter said.

Open dialogue

Klawiter said what’s most important at this stage is communicating with the public about what this project will look like and how it will be run. He and Clowder recognize that there will be concerns the public has and they’d like to address them.

“We’d like to get that on the have that community conversation soon — there’s no firm date yet — where people would be able to see the site plans and more visuals to get an understanding of it and to dispel some of the myths and fears of what it is or isn’t. I think seeing things helps things put things into better perspective,” Klawiter said.

City meeting briefs

The Forest Lake city council unanimously passed a continuation of its emergency declaration at its July 13 meeting. The emergency declaration allows the city to maintain flexibility in its meetings, as well as apply for disaster relief funding, and appoints an emergency manager to conduct operations.

“Under the current situation, those are all very valid and timely provisions,” said Bain. “Wish we were under different circumstances, but I feel like this is the right thing to do at this time.”

The city also approved the purchase of an aerial lift truck, which is used to trim trees throughout the year and put up decorations and do repairs on lights. The current vehicle is now 12 years old with 130,000 miles, both of which exceeded the city’s 10-year, 100,000-mile replacement policy. The truck, which came just under the $150,000 budget for replacement, won’t be expected ready for use for another 10 to 12 months.

City Engineer Ryan Goodman noted the roundabout at Highway 97 between Goodview Ave. and Highway 61 will close sometime in mid-August for two to three weeks to work on the surfacing.

Hannah Davis is the Area Editor at the Forest Lake Times. You can contact her at hannah.davis@ecm-inc.com or (763)233-0709

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