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Tiny Houses, Big Possibilities

February 28, 2018

Metro Detroiters are looking to tiny houses to decrease cost of living and build community.

By Karen Dybis

For Keith McElvee, living in a tiny house has brought new serenity to his life. It’s quiet. It’s easy to clean. It has all the comforts of a larger home within an affordable 300 square feet.

Yet there are some things he’s had to grow accustom to during his tiny home adventure, serving as one of the first residents in Cass Community Social Services’ tiny house community. Even after giving half his shirts and shoes away, McElvee had to buy more storage for his clothing. His well-designed bathroom didn’t take a taller man’s height into consideration, and McElvee has a recurrent headache from bumping his head while washing up in the sink every day.

Then there are the tiny home tourists. These looky-loos come by to check out Detroit’s first tiny house community on a regular basis. About half a dozen houses are already completed; CCSS hopes to have 25 unique homes when the project is done. McElvee cannot count the number of times he’s been watching television or washing dishes only to see a stranger’s face in the window. Now, when he wants total privacy, he keeps his curtains drawn to avoid a mild shock when he sees someone peeking.

Keith McElvee is a resident of the Cass Community Social Services’ tiny house community. Brett Mountain/SEEN

“I’ve got high ceilings, security, a comfortable place to sleep,” McElvee says, “but it’s an everyday thing to have someone stop by and want to talk. Tiny houses are like a magnet.”

Tiny houses, those diminutive homesteads that blend minimalism with small comforts, have grown from HGTV aspirations to real-life living as more people look to downsize, simplify and seek new adventures in homeownership.

Metro Detroit is home to several tiny homes, a small community of tiny houses aiming to help people establish long-term stability, a bevy of new builders and many more dreamers who see the potential in tiny homes and what they do to improve lives and cities.

But small packages can hold big challenges. Even though the average tiny house is about 400 square feet, designing and building one of these structures is time consuming, sometimes expensive and requires different skills than a larger build. Builders and homeowners face potential changes in area zoning requirements, and there are still questions about what neighborhoods are going to welcome tiny homes and the curiosity that comes with them.

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Still, the investment is worth the time and money, tiny home advocates say. People of all walks of life — teachers, business experts, retirees — are learning what it takes to develop these unique forms of real estate. Their hopes for these homes are larger than life, even if the footprints of the houses they create are smaller than the average U.S. kitchen-and-dining-room combo.

Besides Cass Community, other groups like the Detroit Training Center are helping people achieve their tiny house dreams. The Detroit Training Center offers classes in tiny house building as well as a new Airbnb tiny house in Corktown to help raise funds for future classes and projects.

There are companies such as Great Lakes Tiny Homes in Mount Pleasant, a passion project for husband-and-wife team Brandy and Aaron Kipfmiller, who started the company about two years ago. The average tiny home takes the couple about three months to construct at a cost of $45,000 to $60,000 for the largest units, including one 40-foot beauty known as the Superior.

There are definite pros to tiny home living, Kipfmiller says. You can downsize to something more affordable. You can limit your purchases to make life less expensive. And you can travel the country if you put your tiny house on a trailer with wheels. But there are cons, such as lack of privacy and space when it comes to raising a family in under 400 square feet.

Yet Kipfmiller says the market potential continues to draw him into making Great Lakes Tiny Homes his full-time job. He is joining national organizations, reaching out to other builders for best practices and putting together a tiny home festival for interested people this fall.

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“It’s definitely a niche market. It’s not for everyone,” Kipfmiller says. “There’s a tradeoff to every decision you make. Every time you add an inch here, you take away an inch there. Everything impacts something else. So, when clients come in, we have to be transparent in the design process. It’s about compromise. If they ask for something like a rooftop deck, we have to be honest and say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ And if we say ‘no,’ we have alternatives that might suit your needs.”

Then there are the dreamers and, hopefully, future doers. For example, interior design newbie Debbie Rossman designed a tiny home for the 2016 Junior League of Detroit’s Grosse Pointe lakefront project and enlisted in the Detroit Training Center tiny house class. Now, she is working to develop a tiny house community to offer affordable home options for people like her. Although her project is yet to launch, Rossman says she has received several offers for help, and she is excited about where her dreams and vision for tiny homes might take her.

“You can do a lot with a little space. The tiny house we created for the Junior League was a complete house that was very functional and comfortable,” says Rossman, an Eastpointe resident and owner of Tiny and Smart LLC. “I want to do a whole community of homes like that — there could be retail, a salon, a restaurant, a community center where people could meet, gardens and parks … Your home would be your shelter, but your square footage would be the world.”

Jaime Bellos, a Center Line High School teacher who lives in Grosse Pointe Farms, started researching tiny homes about five years ago when he saw them on Pinterest. He was a volunteer with the nonprofit Greening of Detroit, and he thought Detroit’s open real estate combined with its urban gardens might make for a dynamic tiny house community.

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Bellos wrote a business plan for a project called Tiny House Experience Detroit, took some classes and even got permission and student interest from his school to build a tiny house with the teens he teaches. The resulting tiny house is nearly completed, and Bellos has learned a lifetime’s worth about himself, his students and the community through this experience. He met other tiny house builders. He received donations of money, time and resources. Most importantly, he found out that, together, people can build something mighty with something tiny.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” Bellos says. “As a teacher, you try to inspire people. I feel like we did that for sure. … They’re small and a lot of work, but they could transform our community.”

McElvee says he understands the passion people feel for tiny homes. He even invites most people who drop by to see his house inside if they’d like. In the end, he says, he’s living proof of how one tiny building can change your life.

“It’s home sweet home,” McElvee says.

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