The first tiny house at YSA was designed and built by youth. Photo: Courtesy Youth Spirit Artworks

Berkeley may become home to the first tiny house youth village in the country, at least if homeless advocate Sally Hindman has her way.

“If Berkeley is going to have success with tiny houses, we have to start somewhere,” said Hindman, founder and executive director of Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA). YSA works with about 150 homeless and housing-insecure youth every year, offering them job training skills, art jobs, nonprofit management skills, and now, construction skills.

Hindman believes the first five tiny houses can be be up and running in about 18 months, well before the city’s planned Pathways Project for the  homeless is operational. YSA is working with the city to get permits to place these five houses in the large lot behind the group’s offices, at 1740 Alcatraz, as well as an adjoining property they are about to lease. The lots are already zoned for residential/commercial use.

In addition, Hindman hopes to build 20 more tiny houses and place them in a lot the group has identified in West Berkeley. The timeline for that “village” will depend on when the leasing and permitting process is completed for that site. YSA must also raise several hundred thousand dollars for the community house that will provide bathroom, kitchen and social facilities for the youth living in the tiny houses. Each house measures eight by 10 feet and does not include plumbing. YSA plans to contract with a professional management company that will serve as a landlord for the West Berkeley village.

The 25 tiny houses are part of a more ambitious YSA campaign to create “100 Homes for Homeless Youth” over the next 10 years. The next phase will be the purchase of five homes in South and West Berkeley that can be converted into group houses for five homeless youth each. The final phase, which may take eight to 10 years to complete, will consist of a large affordable housing project that will provide 50 units of youth housing.

“We want to be in the pipeline as soon as funding becomes available,” Hindman said. “Right now every affordable housing project is on hold until the city’s Berkeley Way project is completed. We can’t even apply for money from the Housing Trust Fund now because all that money is tied up.”

Current BUSD data lists 105 homeless high-school students in the Berkeley Unified School District, and 295 homeless students in total. Hindman estimates that, on any given day, there are as many as 400 homeless and unstably housed/couch surfing youth, ages 16 to 25 in our community.

“Tiny houses make a lot of sense given the housing market in Berkeley,” said Osha Neumann, staff attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center. The center is helping YSA with the legal part of the approval process. “There is a lack of low-income subsidized housing, and we’re not going to find apartments that the homeless can rent. The question is what is Berkeley willing to do to deal with that situation. So far, it hasn’t done very much.”

One out of 10 youth is homeless

Youth homelessness is a national problem that is just beginning to be recognized, according to a national study released this month. “One in 10 youth ages 18-25 experiences a form of homelessness over a 12-month period,” according to a report from Chapin Hall, a research center at the University of Chicago. Those with the highest risk of homelessness include youth with less than a high-school diploma; unmarried parenting youth; youth with a household income of less than $24,000; LBGTQ youth; and youth of color. YSA participated in this national study, and their clients mirror the national average.

Hindman, a Quaker who previously served as executive director of Berkeley’s Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless, recognized this problem 10 years ago when she founded YSA.

“We had been focused on the street kids at that time, but those were mostly middle class Caucasian runaways,” she said.

After reading a report commissioned by the City of Berkeley, Hindman realized that there was a “hidden homeless” youth contingent who came from African-American, Latino, LGBTQ and other marginalized communities. While most of these youth were not living on the streets, they did not have secure housing and “were in the school to prison pipeline,” Hindman said. “They were unstably housed, couch surfing youth who had very few resources. They were living on grandma’s couch, or in foster care, or in temporary shelters.”

So Hindman created YSA to serve 150 homeless youths per year, about 50 per semester. About half of the participants are 16-17, and half are 18-25. About a fifth are LGBTQ or in transition, and most are youth of color. Each participant comes in three afternoons per week, and progresses through five levels to become job-ready. Youths start as “aspirants,” learning “soft-skills” to help them succeed in the workplace, and proceed through four levels of apprenticeship, each with an increased level of responsibility and leadership. Each student receives a stipend for their work, which often helps support their whole family, Hindman said.

YSA offers job training in five areas, and the youth are essentially asked to help run the operations of the organization, so they learn nonprofit management skills as well.

Mary Stackiewicz and Tre Brown working on the first tiny house. Photo: Onixi Vanderson
Mary Stackiewicz and Tre Brown working on the first tiny house. Photo: Onixi Vanderson

Building tiny houses

The idea for the tiny houses came from the youth themselves, according to Hindman.

“This came out of their experience of being in shelters for up to two years, and not being placed in housing,” she said. “It’s understandable that these youth have a lot of passion around housing, because it’s so fundamental to all their other goals, such as going to school and working on career goals.”

Over the past seven months, working a few hours a week, six youth worked to design and build  the first prototype of a tiny house, under the direction of a licensed contractor. The first house is six feet by 10 feet with a sleeping loft, but future tiny houses are will be eight feet by 10 feet. There is no plumbing in this tiny house, but there are solar panels for basic lighting. The space has insulation and three windows, and is placed on cinder blocks in case it has to be moved to another location. Bathroom facilities are available at the YSA next door.

Mary Stackiewicz and Reggie Gentry, two of the youth who helped design and build this house, show off the 60-square-foot house with unbridled enthusiasm. “I like how spacious the closet space is,” Reggie said, pointing to an alcove under the loft. “And there is room for a desk here!” Mary adds, pointing to the opposite wall. Actually, the space is so tight that it hasn’t been determined exactly where the desk will fit: the contractor may design a desk that can be folded down when not in use. There is a ladder, painted teal, leading up to the sleeping loft. “We all voted on the colors,” Mary said.

Mary, 24, has been living in transitional housing with a series of different roommates for the past few months, and must find another place to live by February. Reggie, 23, has been sleeping on an aunt’s couch. To both of these youths, this exceedingly tiny house offers “a room of one’s own” — and feels palatial.

This first house cost $22,000 to construct, but Hindman  hopes that future houses can be built for about $12,000 each. Much of the cost of the first house involved design time, which included contractor Tre Brown. “We are hoping to use Tre as a consultant for future tiny houses, and use substantial volunteer labor,” Hindman said. YSA is partnering with eight local congregations who will be helping with volunteer labor and/or funding as part of an “Adopt A Tiny House” initiative.

YSA could have purchased prefab tiny houses or sheds for much less money, Hindman said, but “we are not going after the most cost-efficient way to do this.” The tiny houses are being used as a job training opportunity for the youth, who had to learn design, carpentry, painting and other skills in order to complete the project. “We had to make all the decisions by consensus, so that slows things down,” Reggie said.

Learning construction skills at YSA. Photo: Onixi Vanderson
Learning construction skills at YSA. Photo: Onixi Vanderson

“Prayer, persistence and action”

Now that the group has successfully completed one tiny house, the challenge is to get the permits that will allow youths to start living in the two tiny house villages. When Hindman went to the City of Berkeley to inquire about getting permits for a such a village, “they looked at me as though I was from Mars,” she said. “Nobody had asked them these questions before.”

Once Hindman explained her plan, the zoning staff “got a copy of the Emergency Shelter Ordinance and used it as guidance, giving me very good advice for the permits, what I need to do for zoning, etc.” she said.  Hindman is also in negotiations to lease a West Berkeley lot that is already fenced, zoned residential/commercial, and in “a fairly commercial area,” she said. “There are not a lot of nearby houses. We feel like it’s an optimal site that will be fantastic for Berkeley.”

Getting all the permits may not be easy, Neumann admitted. “There are those who will say ‘not in my district,’ and there is the NIMBY factor,” he said. “People will complain, there will be all sorts of issues. But it can all be overcome.” He added that “unless Berkeley is pushed, it won’t happen as fast as it needs to.”

Hindman also said she is hopeful that the group can jump through all the necessary hoops. “We work to improve every neighborhood we are in,” she said. “Our youth creates murals, mosaics and community revitalization projects. West Berkeley will really benefit from our presence, and Council member Davilla is excited about having us there.”

Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilwoman Kate Harrison attended a YSA event on Oct. 28 to celebrate the completion of the first tiny house, along with a representative for Councilman Ben Bartlett. Arreguín expressed his support of the YSA tiny house plan at that time.

“After I left the zoning office, I felt this project is totally doable,” Hindman said. “The city is supportive. We are going to do it step by step with prayer, persistence and action.”

“We live in the age of Trump, when a lot of people feel there’s a lot that we can’t do,” Hindman said. “I want to show people what we can do. I have faith.”

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Freelancer Daphne White began her reporting career in Atlanta and then worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, for more than a decade. She covered Congress, education and teachers’ unions, and then...