Facing A Worsening Housing Crisis, Chico, Calif. Tries Tiny Homes For Homeless California's deadliest wildfire worsened an already bad housing crisis in rural Butte County. But the fire has jump-started a local effort to build a tiny home community for area homeless.

Tiny Homes For Homeless Get The Go-Ahead In The Wake of California's Worst Wildfire

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California's most devastating wildfire, the Camp Fire, killed 85 people and torched 14,000 homes. The destruction exacerbated what was already a housing crisis in and around the city of Chico. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, the fire has now helped breathe new life into one small effort to help the homeless.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Like so many here in and around the town of Paradise, Cynthia Davis was wiped out by November's urban firestorm. Her uninsured, rented mobile home in the small community of Magalia burned to dust.

CYNTHIA DAVIS: The best place we ever had for two and a half years, almost three. And I lost everything, including what my dad gave me.

WESTERVELT: Her voice chokes and then trails off.

DAVIS: Every time I talk about it, it just hurts. Yeah, it hurts so bad.

WESTERVELT: Davis walks with a limp and wheezes with a hacking cough.


WESTERVELT: The 54-year-old's health problems were worsened by living some two months in a cold tent trailer on the edge of the Chico fairgrounds shelter the Red Cross is working to close down. Today, more than 50 ragged RVs are still parked here at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds. Davis worries she and her son and husband will be among the last fire refugees to leave this dirt parking lot.

DAVIS: I just want to go home. I just want to be at home, that I could sit down and relax and not be sick. I'm at my last straw right now.

WESTERVELT: I'm sorry.

But where is home? Davis is in line for a FEMA trailer, but that's only temporary, meant to be used for 12 to 18 months. After that, she's not sure what she'll do. Davis doesn't want to end up homeless, worsening a homeless problem here that was already bad before the Camp Fire.

CHARLES WITHUHN: More or less, where that fence is down to where that big tree is, big open area.

WESTERVELT: Charles Withuhn walks through a flat, grassy field on the south side of Chico. Tall, lanky, with an Abe Lincoln-style beard, Withuhn is giving me a tour of the nearly three-acre future site of a new tiny home park for some of Chico's homeless called Simplicity Village.

WITHUHN: There are a lot of problems in the world that I can't fix. I can put together a little tiny house.

WESTERVELT: The retired sign maker and contractor is an organizer with the Chico Housing Action Team, or CHAT. The nonprofit floated the tiny home village idea some four years ago, but they were met with NIMBYism, indifference and foot-dragging by the city council at the time. It took the Camp Fire to finally help get the idea moving.

They'll soon break ground on 33 tiny one-room homes as well as five communal meal and gathering places, a workshop and a shower building. The group has signed a long-term lease for the land. They're working with the city to get water, sewer and electricity lined up. It's all being done with private and corporate donations of money, materials and labor. It's a citizens-led make-it-happen approach, says CHAT organizer Bill Kurnizki.

BILL KURNIZKI: We're a volunteer army, Eric. We fundraise by doing musical programs, putting letters out to people and asking for donations, all donations. So the windows, doors, siding, roofing - all donated.

WITHUHN: The tiny home village will not be solely for Camp Fire homeless. But CHAT volunteer Leslie Johnson says about a third of the new units will be set aside for older people made homeless by the wildfire. Johnson, a local attorney, notes that many homeless often get some federal subsidies, Social Security or disability. Simplicity Village will charge just $200 a month to cover all rent and utilities.

LESLIE JOHNSON: People just can't afford conventional-sized housing. Lot of people just can't, you know? But a little tiny house, they can afford to rent that. We just have to look for every kind of opportunity to try to help solve this housing situation.

WESTERVELT: It's not just Silicon Valley and San Francisco where the housing market is cutthroat. Here in rural Butte County since the fire, rents have skyrocketed. Further, homes are selling well above asking. And there are almost no vacant rental properties available.

This Chico tiny home village, organizers admit, is just one small piece of a much bigger housing puzzle here. The group is also calling for more mobile home parks, more subsidized apartments, more tiny home villages and other creative solutions that Charles Withuhn says is not about political ideology.

WITHUHN: Politics has nothing to do with this. This is about human rights, human dignity, having a community. Are we going to be civilized and pull together as a team when there's a crisis? Or is it just guy with the most toys at the end wins - that's it? Who cares?

WESTERVELT: We're saying we'd rather be part of a community, Withuhn says, that's pulling together to solve a problem.


Eric Westervelt, reporting on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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