Church hopes to create a village for homeless

 

Pastor Aaron Appling inspects the tiny house model at Victory Church of Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Pastor Aaron Appling inspects the tiny house model at Victory Church of Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER ­— Back in February, Sue Harris and Cathi Kopera were chatting about how to help the homeless in Dover when the idea of tiny houses came up.

“It’s something we had heard about happening in other areas of the country — not only tiny houses but villages of them to serve homeless people,” Ms. Harris said. “And we just said, ‘There’s no reason we can’t do that here.’”

Ms. Harris and Ms. Kopera have formed a partnership including the non-profit Port Hope Delaware and Victory Church of Dover to formulate plans for a Tiny Home Project in Dover. It would include 15 tiny homes on four acres.

Neighbors, however, are objecting and no formal plans have been sent to the county for consideration yet.

“We’re a church that’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Victory Pastor Aaron Appling said. “We take lunches to the homeless downtown every single day and it just makes sense for us to get involved in something like this that does more to help the homeless.”

Tiny house villages for the homeless have thrived across the nation since the mid-2000s, starting primarily on the west coast.

The idea for Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon was sparked from the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement.

“There were people camping out on the sidewalks with tents who were allowed to do so because it was in political protest so you had homeless individuals joining them because it gave them a way to legally sleep on the streets,” said Pastor Dan Bryant, a co-founder of Opportunity Village. “You had these middle class people becoming engaged with the homeless and they knew that after the protest, something needed to be done for these people.”

As a result, a task force was formed. Research was conducted and urban planners were consulted and plans for Opportunity Village, a community of 29 units, were approved by the City of Eugene by a vote of six to two in 2012.

Easy, affordable housing

Victory Church got signed on in early May and dove in head first, recruiting volunteers to build a model tiny home it has taken to city events to raise interest.

The model home is 8 feet by 20 feet but the actual village houses will be 10 by 20 feet. They take about two weeks to construct.

Each costs about $7,000 each, but much of the materials and labor have been donated so the actual cost is much lower.

“They’re small but they’re nice,” Pastor Appling said. “The mattress will be a pull-out from under the kitchen, the bathroom is a separate room and there’s even space for a small sitting area.”

The 15 houses planned for the village will be single occupancy and include a an electric connection, a bed, kitchenette and bathroom.

“This site used to occupy a school so there’s already a well and sewer so set-up wouldn’t be difficult to accommodate the homes,” Ms. Harris said.

The village is planned to be placed on four acres of land — the western half of Victory’s property on Forrest Avenue in Dover.

Each of the 15 residents will be approved through an application process involving their current homeless status, how long they’ve been on the streets and their background.

“For the most part, we’re going to see a lot of older guys who are just looking for a place to stay,” Ms. Harris said. “It’s not going to be a place that’s loud or dangerous. These are the kind of people that really keep to themselves.”

Pastor Bryant said that vetting and regulating a tiny home village is key to success.

“There had been a homeless village here the mid-’90s that didn’t work out,” he said. “It was a place where anyone could come and go and there were problems with noise and fights. But when you have regulations, rules people agree to abide to and actual residents, not people just there to crash, problems can be easily prevented.”

But neighbors like Tom Farrington, whose Sharon Hill residence backs up to Victory’s property show concern about the village’s distance from downtown.

“These people are going to have to walk down Route 8 to get anything they need as far as food and supplies,” he said. “And they’re going to have to walk right past Dover High every day. How supportive do you think parents are going to be of this?”

Pastor Appling argued that the village’s proposed location several miles from downtown Dover will make it less likely for any of the residents to bring trouble of one kind or another into the village.

“The whole ministry is 100 percent supportive of this plan,” he said. “We have many members who at one point were some kind of homeless, whether they were living on the street or just staying with a relative, so they see the importance of this kind of initiative.”

The residents of Dover’s Tiny Home Village will each pay rent between $200 and $300 — depending on what the cost of operation turns out to be, because materials and construction costs have already been pledge by local businesses and churches.

“It’s definitely a reasonable price that these people should be able to pay whether they have a minimum wage job, are on disability or social security,” Ms. Harris said.

“I think it’s safe to say that affordable housing is no longer affordable,” Pastor Bryant said. “Here in Oregon, if you apply for low-income housing, you may be on a wait list for months, even years and it’s happening all over the country.”

Pastor Appling and Pastor Bryant both pointed out that in many cases, it’s impossible for single people who have a full-time minimum wage job to pay rent and utilities even at low-income housing.

“So homeless people who are approved to live here, will be able to pay a reasonable price living on minimum wage and in some cases will even be able to save up money to move into an apartment of their own.”

It hasn’t been determined yet whether the village will serve as a stepping stone or if it will be forever housing for the residents but Pastor Appling said it will most likely be determined on a case by case basis.

But neighbors like Mr. Farrington are questioning why a rent would even be required.

“From what I’ve heard, most everything is going to be donated to start the village, so I don’t know why they’d be collecting rent for any reason other than making money for the church,” he said.

He added that at a meeting held at the county building about a month ago, the Project was offered land on Horsepond Road but declined the offer, insisting the village be on Victory’s land.

“If they’re actually trying to get this done for a good cause, there’s no reason they should be so persistent about the location,” Mr. Farrington said. “Really, they’re just in it to make money.”

Rep. Trey Paradee, D-Dover, has met with Pastor Appling to discuss alternate locations but the offer search has yet to come to fruition.

“I offered and he seemed very receptive to the idea, but a few days later was no longer interested,” Rep. Paradee said. “The area they’re looking at, even though it’s on Route 8, it’s very residential — a neighborhood practically. There’s no reason not to explore other options.”

Obstacles to realization

Even though many people are supportive of the proposed tiny village, two things stand in the way of making the proposal a reality — the county and Victory Church’s neighbors.

Planning a village of 15 tiny houses is obviously very different than planning several single family homes that could fit on the same property but Kent County Planning and Zoning is waiting to look over official plans.

The neighbor next to Victory Church of Dover has posted signs opposing the tiny houses at the church.  (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The neighbor next to Victory Church of Dover has posted signs opposing the tiny houses at the church.
(Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Although Ms. Harris said the Project has met with Kent County twice, no plans have yet to be seen by Kent County Director of Planning, Sarah Keifer.

“Our timeline really depends on when we can get approval from the county,” Ms. Harris said. “Everything else is already in line.”

She said the same land, which is currently zoned AR (agricultural residential), could be zoned for four residential homes but there will likely be complications because the village could qualify as high density housing like an apartment building or a trailer park.

“If four houses were built on that same land, there could be 20 people living on that property and we’re only asking for 15,” said Ms. Harris. “So I don’t see why there should be a problem if it’s essentially the same number of people.”

“Well, it’s a wonderful concept and there’s a need for it, but the land on Rt. 8 isn’t the place for it,” Rep. Paradee said. “They just won’t be able to build there — there aren’t the proper utilities, no access to transportation and they’re essentially proposing a trailer park outside the growth zone. So, it’s not going to happen — not there, at least.”

Ms. Harris said that an architect is now working on plans to soon submit for approval.

“From what I understand, they’ve met with the county several times but gone in with more of an idea than an actual plan and that’s not going to get you far when you’re looking at something as serious and technical as planning and zoning,” Rep. Paradee said.

While plans are being drawn up, the Tiny Homes Project is already preparing for every possible obstacle that could be thrown their way.

The Project has already linked with the ACLU and is exploring any exemptions it is eligible for as a non-profit, faith-based organization.

“Everywhere you go, affordable housing is getting more and more difficult to find, so I think it’s safe to say that if we encounter any problems, we’re not going to back down anytime soon,” Ms. Harris said.

The Project has also started an online petition at change.org to bring the idea to the attention of Gov. Jack Markell and other state officials.

“We see this as a perfect starting point but we don’t want this to end in Dover,” Pastor Appling said. “This is something we want to do across the state because we need to do everything we can to help those in need.”

But nearly every neighbor opposes the proposed village due to the homeless population and the community’s relationship with the church. They’re not being shy about it either — every yard has at least one “no tiny houses” sign.

“You don’t think that homeless all the way from Wilmington to Salisbury will be coming here trying to get one of these places?” Mr. Farrington asked. “There are a lot of older people here and a lot of woods so there are obviously concerns about homeless people staying in the woods and being on our property.”

Mr. Farrington explained that there’s already animosity between the neighbors and the church that dates back some time.

“The cops have been called on them dozens of times in the past few months alone,” he said. “Almost every night they crank the music up around 7 and it’s going on all through the weekend — so loud it rattles the windows and I’m here trying to care for my mother with dementia. And we’ve seen and heard fights right from our backyard. Who’s to say this kind of thing isn’t going to get even worse bringing the homeless onto the church’s land?”

Pastor Bryant said the nay-sayers are typically a vocal minority but when it comes to the Dover project, it seems like the nay-sayers are actually the majority.

“There is not one neighbor who’s in favor of this idea,” Mr. Farrington said. “Everyone here is already losing equity just because of the church and this village is only going to make it worse. Living next to this church is just a fiasco.”

More information about the Tiny Home Project and a link to the online petition can be found online at victoryde.org/tinyhomeproject.

Reach staff writer Ashton Brown at abrown@newszap.com. Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

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