As the proposed tiny home village to provide housing for Salt Lake City’s chronically homeless has been slowly grinding through the city’s planning process, the would-be village’s operator hasn’t been sitting still.
The Other Side Academy and its partners have been plowing ahead, gearing up the village’s programing and working with university students to bring to life the first homes that they say would do much more than simply provide a roof overhead.
The Other Side Village would be a “permanent, beautiful, self-reliant community for the chronically homeless that does more than provide a house,” Joseph Grenny, chairman of The Other Side Academy board, said during the tiny home’s public unveiling Monday.
“Its purpose is to change lives.”
The Other Side Academy and Salt Lake City leaders unveiled this week what would be the village’s first tiny homes — if the village wins approval from the Salt Lake City Council.
The tiny home, built by University of Utah School of Architecture students, now sits in the parking lot at The Other Side Academy campus in downtown Salt Lake City. If the project gets the green light, the home will be moved to the roughly 40-acre lot in west-side Salt Lake City at 1850 W. Indiana Ave., where The Other Side Village has been proposed to be built.
Inside the tiny home
The modular home has 243 square feet of livable space. But it doesn’t feel cramped. It features a queen-size bed, a bathroom with a sink and shower, a kitchen with sleek white cabinets, a mini fridge and a compact microwave. Furnishings donated from Denton House give the space a cute, modern and homey feel.
“It may be small,” said Tanya Takoda Peatross, who has gone from a life of couch surfing to now a sophomore in The Other Side Academy’s program in her journey toward self-sufficiency. “But this could do. ... I could definitely live here.”
Peatross is one of Other Side’s so-far six “neighbors” that would be eligible to live in a tiny home in The Other Side Village, which is envisioned to initially house 60 residents in its first phase and, eventually, if other phases are built out, house over 400 chronically homeless residents. It’s also envisioned to be a sober community that offers on-site social services like substance abuse and mental health treatment as well as “coaches” to help people toward independence.
Peatross currently lives at Safe Haven, a housing facility operated by Valley Behavioral Health for individuals experiencing chronic homelessness. As someone who craves her own space and self-sufficiency, Peatross sees how a tiny home in The Other Side Village would be more than a place to sleep.
“It’s freedom,” she told the Deseret News in an interview Wednesday. “It would get me back on my feet and start possibly even my journey in life of living on my own, in a real house.”
The Other Side Village is modeled after a master planned tiny home community that has caught national attention in Austin, Texas: Community First! Village. In 2020, the Deseret News visited the village and gave an inside look at what makes it a unique solution to chronic homelessness.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall for years now has eyed it as a model she’d like to see replicated in Utah’s capital city. In April 2021, she unveiled what she acknowledged was an “ambitious” plan to have at least a few homes built and open for some of Utah’s chronically homeless by that winter.
That didn’t happen. When winter fell over the Wasatch Front in the waning months of last year, Utah’s new homeless resource centers stayed at or near capacity, and on-street camping continues to be a problem, especially throughout Salt Lake City. The Other Side Village remains a concept, for now, as it makes its way through the city’s meticulous planning process — and now even a tiny home itself is waiting to move in.
However slowly, the city’s gears are turning. The Salt Lake City Council is slated to receive a cost-benefit analysis for the project from Mendenhall’s administration in coming days. As of Wednesday, Mendenhall’s spokesman said a final draft of the analysis was being reviewed by the city attorney’s office.
If the City Council approves the rezone, that will be the “last step” to clear the way for the village, the mayor said.
“Absolutely The Other Side Village can be a success,” Mendenhall said to cheers during the home’s unveiling. “There is unique potential, tremendous potential, in every population of human beings who can be seen and loved and supported into well-being.”
A ‘virtual village’ already formed
When the endeavor was first announced over a year ago, Grenny acknowledged neighbors in west-side Salt Lake City’s Glendale and Poplar neighborhoods became “understandably nervous.” Other critics, he said, “took aim at the belief that the chronically homeless are capable of self-reliance,” and some “still say creating such a large community is a recipe for disaster.”
“But we’ve seen over the past 16 months that most don’t share that skepticism,” Grenny said. “In fact, we’ve seen Utah come together to bring this vision to reality.”
A “virtual village has already formed,” he said, noting Glendale and Poplar neighbors have “opened their arms” to help, and a survey of the neighborhoods show most residents “welcome the village. They’ve seen we come bearing gifts, not problems.”
Builders, developers and donors have given their time and money, and others, including university students, have put their skills to the test to make the village a reality, Grenny said.
“We now have much more than a dream and some graphics,” he said.
In addition to the home unveiled Monday, Ogden-Weber Technical College has also completed a tiny home build, said Camille Winnie, Other Side Academy’s director of community outreach.
The motto given to the students to help inform the designs, she said, was to build homes “we would all be proud to live in.” The goal is to help the chronically homeless settle “not just into a house, but a community that will surround and support them.”
Sarah Winkler, assistant professor at the University of Utah who oversaw the project, said the team of about a dozen graduate students started in mid-May and completed the work on Aug. 3 — in less than three months. She said it gave them not only hands-on experience, but also a sense of satisfaction, knowing they were helping solve an issue facing their community.
“A house does not solve the problem. The house is a vessel. And that’s a really important thing for our future architects to understand,” Winkler said. “The architecture doesn’t solve the problem on its own. It’s the people and the social structure to it.”
How much will it cost?
Each tiny home is estimated to cost around $90,000 to build, Winnie said. In total, the first 60-unit phase of the village is currently estimated to cost about $7.5 million, plus roughly the same amount in in-kind donations.
It wouldn’t be free for residents to live there. After first integrating into a “welcome village” envisioned to help ease residents into the village, they’d be expected to pay rent and hold down jobs within the community. Larger tiny homes with more amenities would cost more, meant to incentivize residents to work to earn more money to afford upgrades.
The village is envisioned to operate on a self-sufficient budget, with rent payments helping to offset its cost.
The $90,000 cost per home may sound expensive — but homes in that price range simply don’t exist in Utah these days, Winnie said, and that’s the cost of housing. Plus, the goal isn’t to just provide a place to survive, but to thrive.
“Why is somebody who is homeless less value than you or I?” she said. “Why is it OK for them to live in a shack? It’s not. Just because they don’t have money doesn’t mean you should put them in a shed or a lean-to and call it good. They deserve anything that I deserve.”
Jack Stiles, another one of the Other Side’s “neighbors” eligible for a house in the village, told the Deseret News he’s been trying to get back on his feet after he spent time in jail and was sentenced to probation under mental health court supervision after he pleaded guilty in 2014 to threatening a mass shooting at City Creek Center. Since then he’s spent years in mental health programs, and currently lives at Safe Haven, where he was recommended to be considered for the Other Side Village.
He interviewed for the program, and “they liked me,” he said.
“It would be a wonderful thing,” Stiles said. “I’m looking forward to it. I hope to see the council will support it ... The project is looking good and self-sufficient so far. The houses look great. But freedom? To have my own home ... that would be nice.”