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Tiny houses give low-income Detroit residents a shot at home ownership

A rent-to-own tiny house in Detroit from Cass Community Social Services

Cass Community Social Services (CCSS) is a Detroit-based nonprofit that has remained unfailingly focused on feeding the hungry and providing job opportunities for formerly homeless men. But under the visionary leadership of Rev. Faith Fowler, this powerhouse of a social services agency has grown and moved on to even bigger things.

Well, not too big.

Spanning two vacant blocks on Detroit’s northwest side, CCSS is building tiny houses — 25 of them, to be exact — as part of an innovative rent-to-buy housing program that gives students, seniors, the formerly homeless and other low-income Detroiters the chance to achieve something that may not otherwise be financially feasible: home ownership.

To be clear, these aren’t the garden shed-esque emergency shelters that cater to the chronically homeless. (Found in transitional housing villages, those 100-square-foot micro-dwellings often don’t feature much more than a roof, a bed and an all-important front door with a lock. They also rely heavily on communal facilities.)

In contrast, the structures built by CCSS are legit. Just look at that Tudor-style model unit with the decorative stone chimney pictured above — it’s certainly worthy of any micro living-obsessed lifestyle blog.

Ranging between 250 and 400 square feet, the dwellings being built at this budding tiny home enclave are smaller than the average American home, no doubt, but they’re also fully kitted-out and include all the amenities — full bathrooms and kitchens along with the standard appliances and furnishings — that one would expect from a “normal”-sized residence. Complete with porches and/or back decks, they’re independent, functional living spaces … just with a dainty footprint.

“It’s not tiny at all,” Fowler says in the below introductory video to the project. “It’s a game-changer.”

Tiny housing meets plus-sized largesse

CCSS recently completed work on the first round of rent-to-own residences at Detroit’s debut tiny house development.

These six structures, constructed by professional builders and finished by CCSS volunteers to help keep labor costs down, join the development’s handsome 300-square-foot model unit, which was unveiled this past September and features granite countertops, a dishwasher, air conditioning and a washer-dryer combo according to The Detroit News.

The homes are all situated on foundations (no wheels here) on their very own regular-sized lots.

At the end of May, CCSS held the Cass Community Social Services Tiny Homes Progressive Tour, a fundraising event in which donors were treated to a sneak peek of the community’s soon-to-be-inhabited inaugural homes.

Speaking to Crain’s Detroit Business, Fowler explains that the initiative has raised roughly $1 million in just under a year, including a $400,000 investment from The Ford Motor Company Fund and additional major donations from the United Way of Southeastern Michigan, the McGregor Fund and the RNR Foundation. A slew of local churches also have been crucial benefactors during the initial fundraising stages. (Founded in 2002, CCSS has its roots in the Cass Community United Methodist Church.)

May’s open house event, which was the only chance for the general public to see the homes’ interiors before residents move in, aimed to raise $10,000 more in funding.

The first six homes cost between $40,000 and $50,000 to build with a decent chunk of that going towards utility hook-ups and foundation work. In addition to volunteer labor, several companies including Michigan’s very own Herman Miller have stepped up to donate furnishings and building materials.

“What’s interesting about this project is there’s not a government dime, not a penny in it,” Fowler tells Crain’s. “Detroit is full of many, many neighborhoods that need redevelopment. It’s fun to be a part of one that’s doing something exciting.”