Could tiny homes be the solution for affordable housing and mental health inclusivity?

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On Friday, something big is happening to make way for something little. The site for Tiny Homes Village, a community of affordable tiny homes for those with mental health challenges, will begin its groundbreaking.

The site will be located on the grounds of The Farm at Penny Lane in northern Chatham County. The village aims to include 15 tiny homes at around 400 square feet each to provide housing opportunities for those on a fixed income, veterans or residents with health issues.

Surrounding the houses will be a clubhouse for classes and other activities.

Thava Mahadevan, founder and CEO of XDS Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Chatham that aids individuals with disabilities, is the founder and director of the Tiny Homes Village and has been working in the intersection of human services and mental health for years.

But for Mahadevan, who experienced homelessness as a refugee from Sri Lanka 30 years ago, the project is personal. 

“I really understood the importance of how much housing can play into somebody’s mental health, as well as the fact of having some security,” Mahadevan said.

He added that this drove him to look for a more specialized solution to affordable housing crises.

Ultimately, those who will qualify to live in the Tiny Homes Village will pay, on average, $250 to $300 for rent, or around one-third of their monthly income.

Mahadevan said the small size of the houses keeps costs low for residents. He also said Hobbs Architects, PA, which is a partner on the team, has been helping design houses to keep each below $50,000.

Five of the village’s 15 total homes will also be reserved for veterans with chronic health conditions. 

Though groundbreaking for the site will be this month, the whole process is divided into four stages: conceptual development phase, the permitting phase, the horizontal construction phase of infrastructure and the vertical construction phase.

Mahadevan said the property that will be the Tiny Homes Village was bought from Chatham County in 2009. Mahadevan said that the total mortgage at the time for the land and the houses for the future village was around $300,000.

He said affordable housing was a need in Chatham, so the decision to locate the site there was intentional.

Chatham County has a higher median price of homes, growth in home prices and cost per square food than Durham Metro and Wake County, according to Zillow. 

Residents are slated to move in at the project’s completion in 2021. The homes will come with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room. 

The project also relies on grants for its construction. A $1 million grant from the Oak Foundation awarded to the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work will help push the timeline forward. 

The UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health (part of UNC School of Medicine), UNC School of Social Work and the nonprofit organization Cross Disability Services (XDS Inc.) have been working to develop the community. 

The development, which is considered a demonstration project, also hopes to be replicated in other parts of the state. The team will look to assess what works in the community once it’s inhabited, what can be improved and how residents are served. 

Amy Blank Wilson, co-director of the project and an associate professor and social work researcher at the School of Social Work, will be the primary researcher on the Tiny Homes Village.

In 2015, Wilson met Mahadevan, who told her that he was interested in having some research embedded in the development of the community. But that wasn’t initially the plan. 

“Initially, our goal wasn’t to create generalizable knowledge,” Wilson said. “It was to use research to inform the design of the village. And we did that.”

Mahadevan said the research will be published, and there will also be a cookbook of sorts published to help share the findings and successes of the project. 

At the groundbreaking on Friday at 2 p.m., several speakers, including Mahadevan and Wilson, helped host the ceremony. Attendees could also tour the model tiny home and talk to the team about the project.

“Every step of this project, we’ve been amazed and humbled at the interest people have in what we’re doing,” Wilson said. 

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