ROCKPORT, Maine — In a region with a growing homeless population, no emergency homeless shelter and just one family shelter, constructing tiny homes might be the most reasonable solution.
“We’re looking at and trying to brainstorm and creatively think about solutions to the problems, and I think there’s a lot of interest in building tiny houses,” Becca Gildred, director of development for the Knox County Homeless Coalition, said last week.
In the midcoast, which includes Knox, Waldo and Lincoln counties, there are anywhere between 150 and 225 homeless people at any given time, Stephanie Primm, executive director of the Mid-Coast Hospitality House, said.
The Mid-Coast Hospitality House — a renovated barn on Old County Road that serves as the region’s only family shelter — has a 23-person capacity and is “always full,” with a waitlist of people, Primm said. It houses single women, single-mother families and nuclear families. Single men and others on the waitlist are housed in nearby hotel rooms, which gets expensive quickly, Primm said.
Unlike places such as Portland, where the homeless population has the option to sleep in a shelter at night and leave in the morning, the midcoast lacks that option.
“In a rural environment like ours, homelessness is invisible to most,” Primm said.
The unique nature of rural homelessness, coupled with the costs associated with building an emergency shelter or a larger family shelter, limits the viable options, Tia Anderson, executive director of Midcoast Habitat for Humanity said. She suggested both organizations look at constructing a community of less-expensive tiny homes that can meet the needs of both populations in a long-term way.
Not only would this bring shelter to more individuals, Anderson said, it also will foster an atmosphere of community and support for residents who need it most.
“The goal is not to sequester,” Gildred said. “We must rely more and more on a village concept.”
The collaboration between Primm’s and Anderson’s organizations has led to the idea to construct a 192-square-foot tiny home prototype — 12-by-18 feet with a front porch that extends out 4 feet — to be located on the back acreage of the hospitality house’s 5.6 acres.
Primm and Anderson are working with the town of Rockport on the project and will have to receive approval from the planning board and town planner before more units can be constructed.
They hope to build at least 14 individual units in a cluster, connected with sidewalks, almost as though they’re built around a cul-de-sac. Some, which will be geared more toward families, could be connected with a hallway. A central common building for cooking and gathering would accompany the cluster of homes. Each home would cost about $15,000 to build.
Anderson said cities across the country are taking this route — using tiny homes as an affordable overflow to help mitigate and support growing homeless populations. This particular model was inspired by a similar project in Easley, South Carolina, where a nonprofit organization called the Dream Center built a neighborhood of about 20 tiny homes.
The neighborhood model is important because rebounding from homelessness is more than just having a roof over one’s head, Gildred said.
“It’s helping them define what makes them tick so they can feel hopeful and then work toward being a positive contributing member of a community,” she said.
In the midcoast, the median income bracket individuals are who apply most for Habitat homes, Anderson said. Those families often make enough money not to qualify for a Habitat home but not enough to afford the rising rent costs in the region, she said.
According to the most recent Maine Housing Authority data, the median cost of a home in Knox County is around $180,000 and requires an average income of $49,000. By state housing standards, that price is considered affordable.
In individual Knox County towns such as Camden, Rockport, St. George, South Thomaston and Cushing, however, those figures are much steeper and considered unaffordable.
In Camden, for example, the income needed to afford buying a median-priced $331,000 home is $92,500; the actual median income is just more than $60,000.
The rental market isn’t any more lenient.
An average of about 58 percent of residents in Knox County, which is 3 percentage points higher than the state average, are unable to afford a $964-per-month payment for a two-bedroom apartment unit — the average cost in the county.
For those in the median income bracket and below, the summer tourism industry undoubtedly exacerbates the lack of affordable housing, Primm said.
“So many service businesses geared around seasonal tourists pay minimum wage or less,” Primm said. And the fact that “property owners often will prefer to rent their investment properties to seasonal visitors to garner maximum return on investment,” there “simply is almost no affordable housing,” she said.
“I doubt [Maine’s unofficial motto] ‘The Way Life Should Be’ that welcomes people to Maine would resonate if our seasonal visitors really knew the magnitude of the issues at hand.”