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Small World, Big IdeaBy MICHAEL TORTORELLOFEB. 19, 2014
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Quixote Village opened Dec. 24 on 2.1 acres in an industrial park near Washington's capital. Jeremy Bittermann for The New York Times
OLYMPIA, Wash. On Christmas Eve, Kevin Johnson received the following gifts: a bed and mattress, a blanket and sheets, a desk and chair, a toilet and sink, towels and washcloths, toothpaste and floss, and a brand-new house.
Mr. Johnson, a 48-year-old day laborer, did not find that last item beneath the Christmas tree, although it nearly would have fit. At 144 square feet 8 by 18 feet, or roughly the dimensions of a Chevrolet Suburban the rental house was small. Tiny would be a better descriptor. It was just half the size of the "micro" apartments that former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg proposed for New York City.
This scale bothered Mr. Johnson not at all, and a few weeks after moving in, he listed a few favorite design features. "A roof," he said. "Heat." A flush toilet! The tents where he had lived for most of the last seven years hadn't provided any of those things.
In what seemed like an Oprah stunt of old, Mr. Johnson's friends (21 men and seven women) also moved into tiny houses on Dec. 24. They had all been members of a homeless community called Camp Quixote, a floating tent city that moved more than 20 times after its founding in 2007.
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Camp Quixote, a floating tent city, became Quixote Village.
Beyond its recent good fortune, the settlement was and is exceptional. Quixote Village, as it is now called, practices self-governance, with elected leadership and membership rules. While a nonprofit board called Panza funds and guides the project, needing help is not the same thing as being helpless. As Mr. Johnson likes to say, "I'm homeless, not stupid."
A planning committee, including Mr. Johnson, collaborated with Garner Miller, an architect, to create the new village's site layout and living model. Later, the plans were presented to an all-camp assembly. "Those were some of the best-run and most efficient meetings I've ever been involved in," said Mr. Miller, a partner at MSGS Architects. "I would do those over a school board any day."
The residents lobbied for a horseshoe layout rather than clusters of cottages, in order to minimize cliques. And they traded interior area for sitting porches. The social space lies outside the cottage. Or as Mr. Johnson put it, "If I don't want to see anybody, I don't have to."
It is rare that folks who live on the street have the chance to collaborate on a 2.1-acre, $3.05 million real estate development. Nearly as surprising is that Quixote Village may become a template for homeless housing projects across the country. The community has already hosted delegations from Santa Cruz, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle; and fielded inquiries from homeless advocates in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Salt Lake City; and Prince George's County, Md.
In a few other cities, "micro-housing" is close to sheltering populations of the chronically homeless. OM Build, a subsidiary of the economic-justice movement Occupy Madison, runs a workshop to construct 99-square-foot wood cabins on wheels in Wisconsin's capital. After appealing to the City Council for the right to park these structures on lots like church property, Occupy Madison began a $50,000 crowdfunding campaign to build 10 more dwellings. A prototype finished last fall cost $5,000, said Bruce Wallbaum, a workshop organizer. "We could probably do it cheaper, but we're trying to do a home," he said, "not a shed or an RV."
Some advantages to building small are obvious. Ginger Segel, of the nonprofit developer Community Frameworks, points to construction costs at Quixote Village of just $19,000 a unit (which included paying labor at the prevailing commercial wage). Showers, laundry and a shared kitchen have been concentrated in a community center. When you add in the cost of site preparation and the community building, the 30 finished units cost $88,000 each.
By comparison, Ms. Segel, 48, said, "I think the typical studio apartment for a homeless adult in western Washington costs between $200,000 and $250,000 to build." In a sense, though, the difference is meaningless. Olympia and surrounding Thurston County hadn't built any such housing for homeless adults since 2007.
Most of that demographic, an estimated 450 souls, is unemployed. While the residents of Quixote Village are expected to pay 30 percent of their income toward rent, 15 of the 29 individuals reported a sum of zero. Ms. Segel added that the average annual income for the rest of the residents including wages, pensions and Social Security payments is about $3,100 each.
Regular affordable housing is a luxury these folks cannot afford. "This, to my knowledge, is the first example of using micro-housing as subsidized housing for very poor people," Ms. Segel said. "It's such an obvious thing. People are living in tents. They're living in cars. They're living in the woods."
The "woods" is both an abstraction and a real place. See the fir trees behind Quixote Village, on the far side of the freight rail tracks? Last summer, Rebekah Johnson (no relation to Mr. Johnson) subsisted out there in a tent with her former boyfriend, just off a bike trail.
"He went to jail, and I just couldn't stay out there anymore," Ms. Johnson, 34, said. "If you leave, someone is going to steal your stuff. You're not very social with people."
Solitude did not suit Ms. Johnson. On a recent Saturday morning, she was sitting in the community center, calling out to everyone who walked by, while also tucking into a plate of French toast, working on a 500-piece puzzle and flipping through a vampire-hunting novel by Laurell K. Hamilton.
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Residents wanted a horseshoe layout rather than a cluster and traded interior space for sitting porches. Jeremy Bittermann for The New York Times
Ms. Johnson, who last worked as a cashier, ran through a list of the other places she had stayed recently. There was jail, where she landed after her arrest for meth possession. And before that, a drug house. "And before that I was in a three-bedroom apartment," she said. "I went from living in a home with my children to living in the woods alone."
Her oldest child, 15, now stays with his father. "My younger two kids live with my parents," she continued. "I'm working on going through treatment so I can get my children back." She went to see "Frozen" with them recently, and they toured her new cottage at Quixote Village just before she moved in.
Custody may be a long way off, Ms. Johnson admitted, but she was trying to look at her circumstances another way. Her children were never going to come see her while she was out in the woods.
Jon Waddey, who lives a few cottages away, describes Quixote Village "not as an end, but a means." He had been cooking in a restaurant that closed, and bottomed out in jail on a felony heroin possession.
Even after starting methadone, he was in no state to look for another job. "I had a huge beard," he said. "I needed a place to shave and shower. I just needed a place to feel human."
At other homeless shelters, the staff rummaged through your bags, breathalyzed you and kicked you out from morning to evening time. "It's a horrible feeling having no place to be," Mr. Waddey, 41, said. At a facility like that, "you're really made to feel where you're at."
Of his new cottage, he said: "I absolutely love it. I have my little writing desk, my reading desk, a lovely view of the trees. In a way, that's what I've always wanted."
A few weeks after settling into Quixote Village, Mr. Waddey was starting to investigate how long it would take at the Evergreen State College to finish his long-deferred undergraduate degree. At night, he was making his way through the John le Carré BBC mini-series "Smiley's People," and cooking for friends in the community kitchen.
"I think cooking is one of the most fundamental things you can do," Mr. Waddey said. "To feed people and see how happy it makes them."
The classic image of a tiny home is a grown-up dollhouse, a spot to play make-believe. The scale is humble, but the architectural detail is rich: eyebrow windows, stick-style trusses. This is the jewel box you'll see on a website like Jay Shafer's Four Lights Tiny House Company or in a dream-book like Lloyd Kahn's "Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter." It stands somewhere on a lost coast, or in a hermit's hollow: private Edens, places you'd like to be.
The tiny houses of Quixote Village, by contrast, stand 10 feet apart in what looks like an industrial park. Check that; the site actually is an industrial park, two miles west of the state capital. Parked across the street is a fleet of gas-delivery trucks.
This is the vacant land that Thurston County gave to Quixote Village on a 41-year lease (at $1 a year). It wasn't easy to find an agreeable site, said Karen Valenzuela, 64, a county commissioner who supported the project. The next-best location, she said, was "a piece of property adjacent to our county waste and recovery center known as the county dump."
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Theresa Bitner is a resident.
Before construction began, the planners discovered that you could practically reach the water table with a straw. All this drainage had to go somewhere. And so, during Olympia's galoshes season, which appears to be eternal, the water collects in three retention ponds qua mud pits.
The residents hate these overgrown puddles, Mr. Miller admitted. "I like to joke that you have waterfront property," he said.
The original design called for the community center to have a loft and library, visitors' quarters and an infirmary. Ultimately, all these items went the way of "value engineering."
Likewise, the first drawings of the cottages show handsome cedar-plank siding and cork flooring. The finished units ended up with board-and-batten and bare plywood floors. Almost impossibly, the dimensions shrank, too. Within the five-inch-thick insulated walls, the mattress, bathroom and closet fill up almost half the interior dimensions of 123 square feet. If these houses were any tinier, you could fit them in a bottle.
"I've done plenty of high-design projects, and that's not what this is at all," Mr. Miller said. "It's about providing houses for people who were in tents a month ago."
Another thing Mr. Miller cut: about half his fee. He had previously volunteered as an overnight host when the tent city quartered at his church, First United Methodist, as part of a seven-church rotation that saw Camp Quixote move every 90 days.
It was these same congregants who, after forming relationships with the residents, became the staunchest advocates for a permanent housing site. Jill Severn, a member of the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation, was one of them. "When you pack a City Council meeting with 30 homeless people and 120 nice church people," she said, "they can't say no."
Ask the residents about Ms. Severn, 66, and they will describe her as a Trotskyist, a second mother and a saint. All true or true-ish. By her own account, she has also done stints as an overnight talk-show host, a garden writer, a union organizer, a speechwriter to two Washington governors and an author of the state's middle-school civics textbook.
As the (now former) board chairwoman of Panza, Ms. Severn called on several of those vocations to bring Quixote Village into existence. In 2011, for instance, she cooked a home meal for Hans Dunshee, 60, the Democratic chairman of the Washington State House Capital Budget Committee.
Ms. Severn's lobbying campaign was effective. "She got me drunk," Mr. Dunshee said. Their supper conversation eventually led to a $1.5 million allocation in the capital budget. Joking aside, he praised Quixote Village's penny-wise approach as a kind of pilot project.
Frank Chopp, 60, the Democratic speaker of the house, was another backer. "Fifty percent of the homeless have some kind of mental illness," he said. "The best way of responding to that is housing. It doesn't have to be much. Just get them out of the rain, and out of the street."
Still, no one would mistake the homeless for a powerful or popular constituency. Funding 30 cottages is not the kind of act that wins elections.
Mr. Dunshee said: "Speaking as a politician, I don't think there's any political value in this. You wake up feeling, I did something decent."
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Showers, laundry and a shared kitchen have been concentrated in a community center, with a blackboard to share information.
The whole unlikely story of Quixote Village can feel like a Frank Capra movie reshot through a radical lens by, say, John Sayles or Ken Loach. Ms. Severn said, "In fifth grade, I fell in love with democracy: that people should vote and make choices."
The weekly residents' meeting, which comes after dinner on Wednesday nights, strikes her as the quintessence of direct democracy.
Mr. Waddey said: "I've left meetings very touched by something someone said. Or very mad. They may be wild, but they're democratic."
A top agenda item in the new location: why, oh why, is there no cable TV?
Villagers like Arin Long, 28, have been struggling with a related aspect of living in an industrial park. "Point blank: there's nothing to do," Ms. Long said. "Especially for drug addicts who are getting clean. And that's everybody."
She has tried collaging, beading and sewing new pink curtains for her cottage. (What was wrong with the original set? "Look at them!" she said. "They're retro not my style.") And yet, unexpectedly, Ms. Long said, she has found herself daydreaming about the old Camp Quixote and sleeping rough.
There were trenches to dig when it rained and it always rained and tarps to tie down in the wind. "I miss that stuff," she said. "It's labor. It keeps you busy."
At the same time, other residents like Theresa Bitner, 24, and Brie Wellman, 21, have embraced domesticity without reservations. Their beds are warm, their books are dry and raccoons aren't getting into their clothes.
Ms. Bitner and Ms. Wellman have been a couple for seven years, since high school. "We bonded over mixed-media art," Ms. Wellman said.
Though they keep separate cottages, the couple bunks at Ms. Bitner's. And the décor reflects the life they are now free to make together. To the left of the door hang Ms. Wellman's spatter-art canvases, inspired by Jackson Pollock, she said. There's a fairy altar on the window sill and a stack of novels on the desk.
"We're both bookworms," Ms. Wellman said.
Ms. Bitner said, "I like anything by Neil Gaiman."
When (if?) the rain stops, they'll be sowing an herb garden in the dooryard. Their jittery black cat, Loki "formerly feral," Ms. Bitner said could use a dose of catnip. It's a commitment to stability, too: If you plant a garden in April, you might as well hang around until September's harvest.
Mr. Johnson was thinking of growing roses, and maybe grapes, a decidedly long-term crop. But then he had managed to stick with Quixote from its very first week, through all the upheaval and turmoil. "You wouldn't have liked me six years ago," he said. "I drank. I'm not a good drunk. I've learned to think about someone other than myself. I don't beat people up anymore. It's weird. I never thought that way before."
The old Camp Quixote ceased to exist on Dec. 24, Mr. Johnson said. And it was high time for their homeless community to redefine itself. No one who lives in Quixote Village is homeless.
A version of this article appears in print on February 20, 2014, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: Small World, Big Idea. Order Reprints |Today's Paper | Subscribe