Plan for a small village of homes a first for Rochester, Monroe County NY
A concrete barricade crosses the dead end road that is Clarence Park.
Two lampposts and a patch of sidewalk on the other side are all that remains of what years ago was a tight cul-de-sac of two-story homes.
The city-owned one-acre piece of land, sandwiched in the Edgerton neighborhood north of downtown, became a dumping ground. The plan is to turn it into a village – building the first small houses in the area to house the homeless or those at risk of becoming homeless.
A proposal being drafted by REACH Advocacy shows nine to 12 units, a mix of single-family and duplex – detached and permanent foundations – each with a kitchen, bathroom and living room/bedroom, encapsulated in a 16-by-24 foot space.
“Bigger than a tent and a car but smaller than a lot of living rooms,” said Marcia Reaver, project manager for REACH Tiny Home Village.
Nothing is official. A city spokeswoman calls the concept “hypothetical.” But momentum is building, with an eye on starting construction in the spring of 2023.
“The goal is – it’s a step out of homelessness,” Reaver said. “It’s not a step towards acquiring a well-paying job and wealth, it’s a step towards getting there.”
REACH Advocacy has been working with the homeless and has been operating winter shelters in the city since 2015. The village concept, developed in consultation with their residents and neighbors, is expected to be funded entirely by grants and donations.
Social, medical, dental and behavioral health services would be available, and the on-site manager would be trained in trauma-informed care. REACH partners with other agencies for life and work skills training, and the Rochester Housing Authority for housing assistance. City Roots Land Trust would own the land. YouthBuild and Edison Tech students from the Catholic Family Center would be enlisted to help build the village, giving them construction training.
This would be permanent housing, with no time limit on how long a person would stay. But the intent is to fill a transitional housing need and for people to move into an apartment or other larger housing option in time.
Having a community is essential, officials said, so there will be group meetings and community meals. The same goes for giving people their private space.
Eligible residents would be subject to a background check and screening process.
“What I hope from (the original small village) is that it can be seen as a pilot project, that these small communities can exist,” said Andy Carey, co-chair of REACH.
He is also a social worker and co-founder of MC Collaborative, which would provide case management for the village.
“We are in such an incredible situation now with the number of evictions, the number of homelessness,” he continued. “A lot of these things are lifesavers now.”
In what seems like an ever deeper and more turbulent ocean.
“It was hell”
A small suitcase was on the bed, but most of David Dorch’s clothes were still in the wardrobe. Dorch was moving – from one homeless shelter to another.
“After I get together, I’m going to take an apartment,” the 56-year-old said.
That means finding a job, something Dorch hasn’t been able to do since arriving here in January. He came from North Carolina when his aunt died in Buffalo. He initially stayed with a friend here in town, but soon landed on the Open Door mission before learning REACH.
It brought him to winter shelter in a former church rectory on West Main: “One of the best places I’ve ever stayed,” he said.
The program stopped for the season last week. So Dorch packed his bags.
“You just have to learn to survive with it,” he said of the instability.
“It was hell,” said Nehemiah Yisreal, 60, describing the three and a half months he and his wife were homeless and in a shelter last fall.
They lived in a house on Genesee Street which was sold, forcing them to move. He’s on disability benefits, but they couldn’t find an affordable rental. Staying in a shelter meant sleeping in separate quarters and leaving each morning and then returning in the evening.
In the mix were “a lot of mentally ill people who are not treated,” he said. “Then a lot of people fall through the cracks unaided. … I’ve never seen it at this level.”
Now with an apartment and stability again, he volunteered at the REACH shelter, explaining, “I’ve been where they are. … People don’t understand, they could be here today, and there tomorrow. “
As the number of deportation requests increases, concern grows
There have been 1,630 new residential eviction filings in Rochester since a state moratorium expired Jan. 15. More than half have come in the past 45 days. Most remain unresolved.
All this volatility is fueling fears that more people will fall into homelessness. Mayor Malik Evans has convened a housing quality and stability task force, with recommendations expected this month. The number of local homeless people has remained stable in recent times, but has increased from a decade ago, especially among those not living in shelters, records show. This while homelessness has declined nationwide.
On any given night in 2020, more than 800 people were homeless in Rochester and Monroe County, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
These are the most recent and comprehensive figures available and reflect pre-COVID levels.
The alliance’s analysis is based on federal data that, due to the pandemic, was limited in 2021 to only people living in shelters. This report showed improvement, which could be attributable to resources and moratoriums aimed at stabilizing housing conditions nationwide, or people avoiding shelters for fear of contracting COVID.
Tiny houses protect human dignity, lawyer says
The pandemic has laid bare the precariousness and inequalities of housing here and across the country. This, in turn, raised awareness, translating into increased public spending.
COVID has also demanded individual rather than collective housing options for the homeless. And there are anecdotal claims here and elsewhere that the mental health of residents has benefited.
Other communities like Syracuse and Ithaca built tiny homes for the homeless, but on scattered sites or outside of town. What REACH offers – a close, permanent and supportive community – is more in line with the model advocated by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“This to us is what a response to homelessness should look like,” said Steve Berg, the alliance’s vice president of programs and policy, speaking generally of the key areas. “The solution to homelessness is housing.”
The county has yet to see any officially proposed tiny house projects, officials said.
Patrick Tobin is one of the volunteer industry experts to have joined the REACH team over the past year. A former vice president of Christa Construction, his notable local projects include The Sagamore on East, an upscale condominium development that has helped revitalize downtown.
He sees tiny homes as a viable housing option for Rochester, looking more broadly at the city’s desire to provide more housing choices and do something with its abundance of vacant land.
For the homeless, tiny homes are a safe and logical choice where “you have your own place, it’s not too much,” Tobin said. “We don’t really see this as a permanent home for anyone.”
Still, he added, “They really are amazingly wonderful.”
Tobin warns that while a tiny house may require less maintenance, it’s surprisingly not much cheaper to build.
Unit costs are $200,000 to $225,000, with kitchens and bathrooms being major cost drivers in housing construction, he said. Subsidies are needed to achieve affordability. Initially, Casey was not a fan, given the high cost and low number of people served.
“Then I realized there were still a lot of people on the streets, not coming in,” he said, and the past two winters have shown the benefits of private living spaces. “It’s amazing how much better the mental health situation is (for these people).
“It’s just more dignified to house people that way.”
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