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News / Clark County News

Renovated railhouse, 21 tiny homes heart of Fruit Valley project

Program aims to help those who've been homeless

By Calley Hair, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 29, 2020, 6:02am
7 Photos
Community Roots Collaborative, a local nonprofit seeking to alleviate homelessness, works on renovations to the old Fruit Valley railway switch house in Vancouver on Monday. The building will house four tenants for $450 a month starting in March.
Community Roots Collaborative, a local nonprofit seeking to alleviate homelessness, works on renovations to the old Fruit Valley railway switch house in Vancouver on Monday. The building will house four tenants for $450 a month starting in March. (Photos by Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

An 1870s-era railway switch station undergoing renovations is nearly ready for tenants, the first piece of a planned development in Fruit Valley aimed at people who have been homeless.

The building will be ready for four people by March, if all goes according to schedule, said Chris Thobaben, a founding member of local housing nonprofit Community Roots Collaborative.

It kicks off the initial phase of a larger project already in the works — one that would see 21 tiny homes transported onto the adjacent property, building an entire neighborhood in miniature on 1.5 acres.

The nonprofit group closed on the property in December. They’re hoping to have people moving into the tiny homes before the summer is out, ideally paying down their 300-square-foot houses in a lease-to-own contract that costs tenants $700 a month.

“We’re hoping to beat back recidivism into those housing crisis situations,” Thobaben said. “Allowing people that are ready to stand on their own to stand on their own, in a community of people who are also trying to do the same.”

Breaking ground

Part one is the railhouse. The preliminary remodel, budgeted at $30,000, is just aimed at making the building safe and habitable, including reinforcing the porch, replacing kitchen appliances and clearing out ducts and vents.

The house will have four private bedrooms and shared living space, including a kitchen, bathroom, living room and basement laundry room. Prospective tenants need to have been referred by a partner group or regional addiction recovery programs, such as Kleen Street and Community Services Northwest.

“Right now, we’re getting everything safe and habitable so we can get bodies off the street,” said Justin Crouch, general contractor for JC Remodeling and Construction, working at the site on Monday.

“The goal was to by the end of February have everything livable, and we’re definitely going to meet if not exceed that.”

A more comprehensive remodel is scheduled for the coming months, paid for in part by a $100,000 grant from Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Fund, and will see the roof replaced, the existing paint stripped and replaced, and a renovation performed to transform the basement — originally built to accommodate a horse and buggy — into a laundry room and office space for the nonprofit.

The tenants will be a “community mix,” Thobaben said, meaning that the house is inclusive of all ages and genders. Sex offenders and people convicted of violent felonies are ineligible.

Rent per room would be tough to match elsewhere: $450 a month.

The 150-year-old building isn’t without its charms; historic details, like carved wooden awnings and intricately engraved door hinges, survived the restoration. But it also has some quirks. Expensive quirks. They’re already about $6,000 over budget.

“If you’ve ever done a remodel, you peel back the wall, and you find five things you didn’t know about,” Thobaben said. “You budget the best you can based on what you can see.”

“The older it gets, the harder it gets,” Crouch added.

For the three-man construction crew, the project marks a kind of full cycle. They’re all graduates of the Kleen Street recovery program, a group that helps addicts experiencing homelessness overcome their substance abuse problems and put the pieces of their lives back together.

Crouch got addicted to opioids after a back injury nearly 20 years ago. He lost his family, his job and his home, and he was living in his truck.

“Every time you use could be the last time. I had five overdoses. The goal is to be able to get people through a program like Kleen Street, or through Community Roots, and get people back to the fortunate position that I’ve been in, to get back to a normal life,” Crouch said.

Crouch said he knows firsthand that the community a recovering addict surrounds themselves with makes all the difference. Neighborhoods like this one could go a long way.

“You pick up the characteristics, to an extent, of the people around you. If you’re around people that are trying to achieve the same outcome, you tend to kind of pick up those traits,” Crouch said.

The next phase

The major phase of the Fruit Valley development will take place over the summer.

Through a contract with Wolf Industries, a tiny home builder based in Battle Ground, the nonprofit is commissioning 21 structures for $58,000 apiece.

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Derek Huegel, owner and founder of Wolf Industries, said Monday that his company can produce approximately one tiny home per week. This is a major contract for the company, which Huegel says has built about 80 houses since opening in 2016. So far, most of their business has been primarily accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, he said.

“If we can scale this appropriately, then we’ll be able to start in May,” Thobaben said.

A model version of the tiny homes headed to Fruit Valley includes one bedroom, a kitchen with a refrigerator and stove, and a bathroom with a toilet, shower and sink.

Why tiny homes for an affordable housing project?

They’re cheaper than traditional houses. But unlike trailers and mobile homes, which depreciate in value over time similar to a vehicle, tiny homes act like a miniature real estate investment.

“These are built to Washington State Labor & Industry standards,” Thobaben said. “They are actual houses. They just happen to be able to be moved. They retain value over time.”

Tenants will be able to pay down their tiny homes in a lease-to-own agreement. If they pay down their unit, they’ll continue to pay rent on the land, similar to agreements in traditional mobile-home parks. But the rent will drop from $700 to $250, not including utilities, and they’ll have the option of moving their home to a different location.


Thobaben said his ultimate hope is to create a model that’s not only successful but replicable. The Fruit Valley community would be the first of its kind in the county, but ideally not the last.

It’s not a complete solution to homelessness in Clark County, Thobaben acknowledged.

“There’s the housing-first approach, which is essential,” Thobaben said, citing a homelessness strategy that prioritizes housing before other issues like addiction can be properly treated. “This is not that, though.”

“The folks we have identified out of Kleen Street are folks like Justin. They have six months to two years in the program already, they’re ready to graduate, they just need the space to do it, and they need an affordable space.”

And he said it’s discouraging that even with so many factors cutting down project expenses — including the project manager and engineer, Ginn Group and PLS Engineering, offering services at-cost, as well as charitable donations and public funds — monthly rents on the tiny homes can’t go any lower than $700 a month to keep the project solvent.

That’s still a high hurdle, Thobaben said, especially for many people transitioning out of recovery programs and rebuilding their lives. The high rent is indicative of a larger problem that Community Roots Collective isn’t necessarily equipped to handle solo, he added.

“We need housing, and we need it in a bad way,” Thobaben said.

Columbian staff writer