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Could a tiny house fix a big problem?

The members of a Forest Lake church want to know, and they have begun plans to build a group of tiny houses — each about 100 square feet — that would house chronically homeless people, a first-of-its-kind effort in Minnesota.

The tiny-house village would sit on trailers parked on the church property and could open as soon as next year if plans and fundraising come together, said the Rev. John Klawiter, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church.

"This is a very compassionate ministry," said Klawiter. "It's something that we should be doing."

Church members voted last week to join forces with Settled, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit fighting homelessness, to explore the idea. The Forest Lake site would be the first for Settled, which was founded two years ago by a pair of women who believe tiny houses on church properties might offer a powerful tool to eradicate homelessness.

They hope that Faith Lutheran will be the first of many churches to house Minnesota's chronically homeless population, which according to some estimates is around 1,200 people.

The Faith Lutheran community would be for chronically homeless veterans, said Klawiter, each of whom would be asked to pay about $200 a month in rent. Some of them might find work at the church to help them meet their monthly bills. About a quarter of the tiny houses would go to people who want to serve the community housed there.

Tiny houses face a thicket of zoning and building code problems that might block widespread adoption in most cities — unless they are set on trailers, which make them more akin to recreational vehicles and therefore exempt from code requirements for a house on a foundation. No sewer or water hookups are necessary, for example, and minimum building sizes don't need to be met.

The interior of the prototype tiny house.
The interior of the prototype tiny house.

Marci Schmitt, Star Tribune

A federal law that grants broad authority to churches over the use of their land, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, makes it possible to situate a tiny house on church property much more easily than on a conventional city lot, said Settled co-founder Gabrielle Clowdus.

"Churches have this amazing ability that no one else [has]," she said.

The holder of an architecture degree, Clowdus built a prototype house for $20,000 using basic materials and simple construction techniques. The house is fit for a single occupant, with a bed, dry toilet and a gravity-fed water tank and catch basin. It has electricity but no plumbing.

The settlement would include a "common house" with flush toilets, showers, a full kitchen and communal space, making daily interaction necessary among the tiny-house dwellers.

'A unique ministry'

Klawiter said he first heard about the idea several months ago, shortly after receiving a $50,000 gift from a church member. The gift was to be used for battling homelessness and helping veterans, but Klawiter said he didn't know at first how best to use the money.

After learning about Settled's plans to find a church home for its first tiny-house community, Klawiter went to a talk that the nonprofit's founders were giving in Mahtomedi.

"As they started talking I was doing some math in my head," said Klawiter. When he heard that the tiny houses could be built for $20,000 to $30,000 each, he thought of his parishioner's gift. "That would be two tiny houses right there!" he said.

So Klawiter and others at the church started talking up the idea with the Faith Lutheran community. Over the past few months, church members have discussed homelessness and what role their church might play in putting roofs over people's heads, and even met some chronically homeless people to hear their stories.

Clowdus said that was the first phase of the project, when church members started looking at homelessness through a new perspective. "Then it's not 'those people,' it's Alex on the park bench," she said.

The vote taken last week was 155-58 with the majority in favor of the project, said Klawiter. Since some opposed the plan, he said he wants to continue discussing how the village could take shape.

"This is going to be a big deal," he said. "This is a unique ministry. It's not been done before."

Clowdus said the group is now moving into a development phase that requires putting together a budget and site plan, figuring out the regulatory path as they obtain needed city approvals. The church plans to hold open houses to allow neighbors to voice their concerns.

Five attorneys are working pro bono to explore the regulatory hurdles that might get in the way of the tiny-house village. Others are lobbying the state to classify tiny houses on trailers as permanent dwellings.

"It's a grassroots movement of people saying, 'We need to do this,' " said Clowdus.

Those who live there to serve tiny-house residents, she said, will be choosing "a lifestyle to live among the poor, to share your life, to share your abundance, and really feel what it means to live communally."

The nonprofit has a nine-month training program for people who want to become so-called "missionals" and live in the tiny-house community. Clowdus said she toured a tiny-house community in Austin, Texas, and met people who chose to live there in order to help the formerly homeless.

Klawiter said he foresees a day when church members will take pride in the settlement, seeing it as living proof of the Christian values that they espouse. "It will do all of the things that we preach about on Sundays," he said.

Clowdus hopes the village succeeds and becomes a model for many others.

"We want to do this hundreds of times, thousands of times," she said. "We think we need hundreds of churches to rise up and say, we can take 10, 20, 30 people on our land and we can eradicate [homelessness]."

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329