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Maybe you've heard of this new trend in housing, the tiny home, living spaces as small as 50 to 300 square feet. For some people, it's a stripped-down way of living that forces you to minimize your belongings. Now these tiny houses are being seen as a solution for housing the homeless. In Chicago, advocates want these places to be safe havens for homeless young adults. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: On this day, a tiny home is on display at the University of Illinois' Chicago campus. It took a construction crew just two days to build it.
LON STAUSLAND: You actually enter through a breezeway, kind of a covered porch area that is eight feet deep.
CORLEY: Lon Stausland is part of the three-member team that won the American Institute of Architects competition to design a tiny house community for Chicago. The prototype is fairly big by tiny home standards.
TERRY HOWELL: This is closer to 300 square feet.
CORLEY: That's architect Terry Howe. And the third team member, Marty Sandberg, says there's another way the structure is different from other tiny houses.
MARTY SANDBERG: We designed this to actually be one of a series of row homes.
CORLEY: A brick facade surrounds the bright yellow front door. Inside there's a twin bed, a bathroom and a combined kitchen-living room area. The open house was part of a Chicago tiny home summit on the practicalities and experiences of building the houses. Activist Tracy Baim, who spearheaded the summit, says the gathering was an outgrowth of another conference on the issues that homeless youth face.
TRACY BAIM: Most of the cities of the country that have already implemented tiny homes for the homeless are doing it for chronically homeless or veterans. So no one yet is doing it specifically for the youth population.
CORLEY: Especially for youth who identify as LGBTQ.
BAIM: They're living in group homes where shared showers, where violence and all sexual assaults can happen. Your stuff is stolen constantly.
CORLEY: At a fast food restaurant, I meet up with three 20-year-olds, all formerly homeless. Lala Thomas, William Okamura and Maria Cwiklik live in a transitional housing shelter. All go to school. And they were part of a chosen group to offer design suggestions about what a Chicago tiny home should look like. Thomas was a little surprised by the size.
LALA THOMAS: I really didn't like it. I'm going to be honest because, like, you can put that much stuff in that little house. I mean, I just think it was, like, little - it would be bigger than that.
CORLEY: Even so, Okamura likes the tiny home idea.
WILLIAM OKAMURA: By having those walls up, I feel 100 times safer than being outside with nothing.
CORLEY: And Maria Cwiklik says even though planning may be in an early stage, she's optimistic about a tiny home village for youth in Chicago.
MARIA CWIKLIK: As long as we got more support and as long as we get more youth involved in this program, it's going to happen.
CORLEY: But there are obstacles. Zoning attorney Danielle Meltzer Cassel says in addition to building codes and zoning ordinances, there's the whole, not in my backyard or so-called NIMBY opposition from residents. So she says advocates in Chicago must face a dose of reality.
DANIELLE CASSEL: If this is pitched as something that is for the folks who are the most needy in our society, the door's going to slam shut.
CORLEY: The numbers of tiny home enthusiasts, though, has grown, in part due to TV shows. Activists at the conference say, while appreciative of the popularity, their focus remains on alleviating homelessness. Reverend Jeff Obafemi Carr, with Infinity Fellowship in Nashville, says advocates have to be inventive as they try to provide needed housing. His group raised money and built six tiny homes without seeking permission.
JEFF OBAFEMI CARR: Cities and municipalities don't know what to do with it. The code and zoning laws are antiquated. So there's going to take a mix of guerrilla tiny home building and planned development.
CORLEY: The next step in Chicago, says Tracy Baim, is to create a privately funded tiny home village pilot to show the huge role such housing could play in making it safer for young people with no place to call home. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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