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Tiny homes nonprofit overcomes big hurdles as Vancouver project nears completion

By , Columbian staff writer
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Fruit Valley Terrace is a tiny homes community organized by the local housing nonprofit Community Roots Collaborative to help alleviate homelessness.
Fruit Valley Terrace is a tiny homes community organized by the local housing nonprofit Community Roots Collaborative to help alleviate homelessness. (Steve Dipaola for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Community Roots Collaborative had to overcome large obstacles as it worked to build a tiny homes community in Fruit Valley to alleviate homelessness, but the project is nearly complete.

The project — similar to the city of Vancouver’s plan to create formal, supported campsites for people experiencing homelessness — has been in the works for a while. The goal is to have the homes ready for tenants by the end of August and at maximum occupancy by October.

Chris Thobaben, a founding member of local housing nonprofit Community Roots Collaborative, said there have been many setbacks — mostly due to the nonprofit’s inexperience with big projects.

Thobaben said financing took four months longer than planned. During that time, the permitting process was on hold by contractors to ensure enough money was allocated to execute the project. All in all, it was a three- to four-month delay.

“We’ve had a challenge getting the public money, our C Roots money, and the bank money aligned at the right time,” Thobaben said.

About $3.7 million dollars has been raised from the city and state, and private and community efforts, and $1.8 million has been used so far.

Several financial factors also increased, and the nonprofit wanted to ensure living wages for workers.

“It’s something we culturally believe in at C Roots to support higher wages; it’s not something we scoff at,” Thobaben said.

Thobaben said the building cost went up 15 percent since the project started. The original estimate for developing some of the area was around $300,000 but ended up at $660,000. Switching from gas to electric also caused an increase of about $18,000.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused some delays in the supply chain and slowed the group’s progress by having to move to virtual meetings.

Twenty-one tiny homes will be built, with six already finished and more on the way to production.

Each home costs around $156,000 to build and should last 50 years.

“We didn’t seek just for lowest unit cost upon entry, but we saw it for lowest lifetime cost,” Thobaben said.

Each home will be about 408 square feet and house one to three tenants, with half of the tiny homes being ADA accessible. A washer and dryer, air conditioning and solar panels will be included. Utilities will be around $50 per month — with total rent at $650.

In addition to the tiny homes, a common area will be available to house community group meetings and on-site help for health issues. It’s Thobaben’s hope the community will provide support, in addition to housing.

Tenants will need to be referred to the tiny homes community by Kleen Street and Community Services Northwest.

Looking toward the future

Thobaben said he was happy to hear about Vancouver’s plan to address homelessness by setting up camps but hopes this won’t be the “end-all, be-all.”

He characterized the city’s approach as the first phase in sheltering people and identifying those ready to move onto the second phase, where they receive help to determine their long-term goals. Phase 3, the nonprofit’s approach, is where they receive permanent housing.

“Homelessness is something that will never go away,” Thobaben said. “We know that this state of housing insecurity is here to stay. The question is, ‘How do we solve it?’”

A purchase of 3 acres of land in the St. Johns area is in the works for a second tiny homes community. Thobaben plans on having that community open by winter 2022 for over 50 tiny homes.

He said the experience he had organizing the first community will help him be better prepared for what’s to come in the next one.

“We’re extremely excited and optimistic to open, it’s truly been a humbling experience to learn,” Thobaben said.

Columbian staff writer

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