Thinking small: Homeless advocate promotes ‘tiny house’ communities

GEORGETOWN – According to Housing Alliance Delaware, on any given night in Delaware upward of 1,000 people experience homelessness.

Housing advocate Jim Martin says affordable housing opportunities for the homeless are desperately needed.

Once homeless himself while wrestling with addiction more than a decade ago, the Georgetown man is taking his mission to the streets, social media and to Sussex County Council, seeking affordable housing support for those who cannot afford to purchase homes or pay going rent rates in the county.

In the big picture, it’s “tiny” home communities, he says.

“I am here to ask the council to do a big thing. I am asking you to change the zoning regulations to allow for tiny homes. Can you create a pathway with our zoning for the construction of extremely affordable tiny houses, or micro-apartments for our working poor and our homeless?” said Mr. Martin at a recent council meeting.

Jim Martin

“Our homeless Sussex County neighbors are also working hard at their jobs and try to do the right things, yet they don’t have anywhere to live or even to sleep in our community. Some have lost all hope for a place to live and they fall into a deep despair. And we cry together.”

“There is a tiny home proposal on our website — tapfaith.org — but we are also looking at micro-apartments which may work better,” said Mr. Martin.
While the county has not directly responded to or taken a position on any commentary, affordable housing concerns have not fallen upon deaf ears.

“We are already engaged in a housing study. We have a consultant coming to do this evaluation as to the affordable housing issue in Sussex County; what does exist, what doesn’t exist,” said Sussex County Communications Director Chip Guy. “That work is underway, and it is going to several months out before we have some conclusions and some guidance on what we have in the county and how best to proceed.”

“As far as the tiny house issue, we are doing an affordable house study. We just implemented that about three weeks ago,” said Brad Whaley, the county’s Community Development and Housing Department director. “We have a consultant that is working on that. We’re just getting ready to start a series of focus groups.”

Tiny homes are permitted in Sussex County, but like other home sizes they must adhere to code and agency requirements.

“When you talk about tiny houses, you talk about the house itself has to meet the building code requirements,” said Mr. Whaley, noting there would size requirements for kitchen and bathroom. “The truth really is you can build a very small home on a lot that doesn’t have any restrictions from HOA (Home Owners Association) or developer, but you could only build one. One tiny house, or one 3,000-square-foot house.”

“The issue is not so much what the county code is, but you have to understand that you have other requirements that go beyond county code, not the least of which include sewer or septic (DNREC), DelDOT and Fire Marshal,” said Mr. Guy. “So, there are other considerations that would have to be taken into account. Theoretically, you do it. I can’t say that we are seeing a lot of demand in that regard. I think what is being proposed is far different. Somebody is proposing bringing in a multitude of tiny houses on a parcel. Well, you could do that, but all of the lots would have to be a minimum of three-quarter acre with a conditional use.”

“Unless you allow for high-density designs, smaller place living and basic incentives for the land development community, the housing shortage catastrophe will continue to get worse day after day, month after month,” said Mr. Martin. “Our working poor — with two jobs each – are working 60 hours a week, scared to death, voiceless, oppressed and overwhelmed to be able to be present here at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning to tell you all about it. So, I am here to tell you about the Subway sandwich makers, the coffee brewing people, the workers at supermarkets, hotels, restaurants, chicken plants, schools and hospitals. These are the people who need to double up or triple up with family in homes with one bathroom or to live outside our county in order to find a safe place to rest at night. We are now in the midst of a housing shortage catastrophe for people making $20 an hour or less.”

Mr. Whaley said the county utilizes data from Housing Alliance Delaware, a statewide nonprofit formed in 2017 by the merger of two longstanding nonprofits, Delaware Housing Coalition and the Homeless Planning Council to end homelessness, for conditions of housing throughout the state and downstate Delaware.

Statistically speaking
Some recent 2018 Housing Alliance Delaware data:
• Delaware was the 15th most-costly rental market in the United States;
• Delaware had the 15th highest two-bedroom rental-housing wage in the U.S.;
• Although renter wages have risen slightly in the past year, the corresponding increase in Fair Market Rent statewide has wiped out any rental affordability gains. Additionally, Delaware’s eviction rate is twice the national average, which further strains housing stability;
• On January 31, 2018, the annual HUD Point-in-Time Count in Delaware, 1,082 individuals and families statewide were experiencing homelessness, including more than 200 children and more than 50 age 62 or older;
• In 2018, at the then Delaware minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, a renter would have to work 106 hours, or 2.6 full time jobs, to afford the Delaware Fair Market Rent of $1,136 for a two-bedroom unit;
• In 2018 the 16,027 Social Security recipients in Delaware would need 126 percent of their $750 monthly benefit to afford the state Fair Market Rent of $937 for a one bedroom rental unit.
• In Delaware 29 percent of all households are renters, and 25 percent of all renters are Extremely Low Income (ELI) renters with income at or below, 30 percent of the Area Median Income;
• In Delaware, there are only 24 available and affordable rental homes for every 100 ELI renter households, while nationally there are 35 available and affordable rental homes for every 100 ELI renter households. Delaware is one of 22 states with less than the national average of 35;

During the annual Delaware HUD Point-in-Time Count of homelessness, 20 percent of adults reported being diagnosed with a mental illness and 40 percent reported being diagnosed with a disabling condition, including physical impairment, cognitive disabilities and/or the disease of addiction.

According to the data from the Delaware State Housing Authority:
• A minimum-wage worker in Delaware (based on the previous $8.25 wage) would need to work 85 hours per week to afford the 2-bedroom Fair Market Rent (FMR) of $915 in Sussex County;
• An annual income of $36,600 is needed to afford the two-bedroom FMR of $915 in Sussex County;
• The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that the rent affordable at mean renter wage in Sussex County is $629;
• Annual median home sales price in 2017 was $301,000.
And, according to the DSHA, 2019 Fair Market Rent in Sussex County is: studio/efficiency, $707; one bedroom, $812; two bedrooms, $1,053; three bedrooms, $1,521; and four bedrooms, $1,721, while the Median Rent Prices in Sussex are: studio/efficiency, $766; one bedroom, $879; two bedrooms, $1,140; three bedrooms, $1,647; and four bedrooms, $1,863.

That data doesn’t offer many housing opportunities for persons working for minimum wage or slightly more, Mr. Martin says.

“Our current affordable housing is not affordable for many of the working poor and not even available for most who need it. This is causing homelessness to increase. The working homeless are instead paying 50 to 75 dollars a night at rundown motels; $1,500 to $1,750 a month,” said Mr. Martin, whose advocacy base is The Shephard’s Office on North Bedford Street in Georgetown. “Housing has become inaccessible to the working poor and the ‘unbanked.’ Have you ever heard the word ‘unbanked?’ I’ve seen a lot of them out there. These are folks that don’t have bank accounts, or credit cards and their credit ratings are poor.”

“The housing gap is growing wider,” said Mr. Martin. “Help me to change a working class desperation into a working class aspiration so people who are our working poor can aspire to a better day instead of being desperate to just barely survive a day in our rural Sussex County.”

“It is challenging because housing is so expensive,” said Jeanine Kleimo, chair of the Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing. “And I know that’s even more the case in eastern Sussex. I think that there is not an easy path towards getting out of homelessness for most people. I think that people don’t always know all of the steps that it takes to move forward.”

In December 2018, Sussex County government committed upward of $35,000 as the county’s match for Home4Good, a housing locator program funded through partnership between the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh and the Delaware State Housing Authority.

The partnership with Home4Good is structured to reduce homelessness in Delaware through housing “location.” Home4Good helps those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness by channeling dollars to local service organizations that know how to help.
“The housing locator project is very different from the housing search program that is online,” said Marie Morole, Executive Director of the Sussex Community Crisis Housing Services at that Dec. 12 meeting. “The housing locator would go out and find the hidden housing market. There are a lot of different types of housing. There are rooms, there is mobiles, there is some kind of cooperative housing that these landlords do not put online. They are not required to provide this information on the online service.”

Housing locator
About two months ago, Ryan Leonardo with the Sussex Community Crisis Housing Services assumed the housing locator position.

The mission: address homelessness by matching willing landlords with “homeless” people seeking a roof over their heads.

“What I am tasked is to do recruit and retain landlords throughout the county that are willing to work with homeless individuals and low-income individuals and families, that either have vouchers or may not have a housing voucher, or may just be in the Rapid Rehousing program where they would have the rent paid for the first three months there,” said Mr. Leonardo. “I am recruiting and retaining landlords that are willing to do this.”

Thus far, response has been mixed in the early going.

“It’s mixed. Mind you, for the first two months I am also learning the lay of the land. I’m just starting to get out there the last couple of weeks and call on landlords,” said Mr. Leonardo. “Some want no part of it. Some are interested and are willing to work with these individuals.”

“But I mean, we can’t expect them (landlords) to do this out of the kindness of their heart. They are trying to make money as well. We kind of want to balance that with, ‘You’re doing something good and there is money to be made,’” said Mr. Leonardo.

He is compiling a data base that can then be tapped by other local agencies in Sussex County, such as the Crisis House, People’s Place and other agencies “trying to rapidly rehouse individuals.”

“Right now, I’m doing it through word of mouth with other agencies,” Mr. Leonardo said.

He says housing in Sussex County presents a major challenge, more so compared to upstate Delaware.

“There is a huge disconnect with the housing down here,” said Mr. Leonardo. “Sussex has very unique problems as far as the distances and transportation and jobs. It’s not the same as it would be up in Wilmington.

It’s a lot tougher to house people down here. They have to get to work. It’s not a big city where people can hop on a bus and get to where they need to be in five minutes. There are very unique challenges.”

“I think in the coming months we’re going to have some workshops where we invite landlords in,” said Mr. Leonardo. “I don’t know how that is going to go over, but we’re going to try it and bring them in and educate them on the need.”

Efforts in Kent County
Homelessness and affordable housing challenges are certainly not exclusive to Sussex County.
“First of all, I will say there is no single solution,” said Ms. Kleimo. “We actually have quite a few things going on.”

“One is that we – and by we, I don’t mean necessarily Dover Interfaith Mission, but a new housing organization that we have set up to address homelessness with membership of several organizations concerned with this issue – are leasing some houses and renting rooms to individuals as one possible approach,” said Ms. Kleimo. “We find that some landlords are willing to lease to us when the organization is taking on the lease, and not homeless individuals or people who have, I’ll say, ‘erratic’ work history and so on. We’re the ones who take the chance by finding people who can pay the rent.”

As a hypothetical example, if there was a four-bedroom house with monthly rental of $1,200 the total cost might be $1,600 with operating/utility costs.

“Then we might be able to rent rooms at $400 a month to four different individuals. We try to cover all of the housing costs in a single charge so that people don’t have to 1) pay for the utility deposit and that challenge on their own, and 2) they don’t have to have the uncertainty of what the bill is going to be and perhaps fight over it with people who are not accustomed to splitting up the cost. That is an approach that Dover Interfaith has taken for some years, and that we are expanding with some other local organizations.”

The effort in Kent also includes the possibility in acquiring a building that had been a youth shelter.
“It needs some renovations, but we’re looking at the potential, which I think will be workable for providing housing for 15 to 20 women in that place. They would be able to stay there for a period of time, while we do the case management that is necessary for them to get their lives ack on track,” Ms. Kleimo said.
“I think that we feel here in Kent County that incorporating case management into any housing that is developed is critical because people have ongoing challenges as they face life with an increased measure of stability that they maybe haven’t had to manage of their own or for a while,” said Ms. Kleimo. “We’re trying to make sure that people are stable enough and have a requirement to participate in case management so that someone checks up on them and makes sure that they are maintaining their work and what-not so that they don’t slip into homelessness again.”
Mr. Kleimo thinks “tiny houses” is of interest to some.
“I think that there is a resistance to it in the part of having it within the city. But it’s viewed by the people in our task force of homelessness here as a potentially suitable approach for a more rural setting,” she said. “Small groups together, because many homeless people are accustomed to, I’ll say, an informal community. Let’s say, you and I might know each other but if we were homeless and we are in neighboring tents in an encampment we would probably start looking out for one another. I might worry about you if aren’t home at night. You might bring me some extra food …”
“That kind of informal support network develops and so we don’t want to see people removed and put into isolated settings where they don’t have the support of their friends that they have come to rely on,” Ms. Kleimo said. “So, living in shared houses or other shared settings, perhaps a tiny house community could be workable. But I think that they have to have access to some case management or someone following up with them to make sure that they don’t again slip into homelessness because life is fragile for those at low levels of income and lack of a good solid work history, and family networks and all of those things.
“So, we need to make sure that something takes the place of that and they are not isolated.”
Resources are vital in addressing homelessness and housing.
“So again, we need to make sure that people have the resources that they need. We have a daytime resource center and we feed 400 to 500 unique individuals a year, which is reasonable gauge of the people who are truly homeless in that period of time,” she said.
“But there are also many people who are what we would call tenuously housed, where they are sleeping in their friends’ houses or garages or whatever they can find sometimes on a temporary basis where somebody just says, ‘Look, I’ve fallen on hard times. Can I stay at your place for a week or two?’” Maybe that stretches on and maybe they find another friend who is willing to take them in for a while. Families are doubling up. There are just a variety of situations that people are not necessarily entirely without a place to sleep but they are not really reliably houses either.”

Ms. Kleimo says this is affecting a lot of families with children, school-age children and not just individuals.

“That is a really big issue for us to deal with over the months and years to come,” said Ms. Kleimo. “Certainly, we need very affordable housing. We know that there is not much in the way of housing assistance in the form of rental assistance and things like that. The waiting lists are long. Many people don’t qualify because of criminal records and things like that anyway. So, there a lot of people who I will say kind of give up and don’t know what to do next. So, we try steer them in the right direction …but there is not always an easy direction to steer them into.”

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