Youth Spirit Artworks plans to construct 25 tiny houses for homeless youth, at the current Ohmega Salvage site. Rendering: Dan Edleson/University of San Francisco

Plans appear to be underway for a “tiny house village” for homeless youth at the current Ohmega Salvage site in West Berkeley.

As Berkeleyside reported in November, Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA), a South Berkeley nonprofit arts job-training program, has been working for almost two years to design and build a collection of 25 tiny houses for the homeless and low-income young people they serve. The structures, part of a larger YSA campaign to build 100 homes in Berkeley, will be built by volunteers, along with homeless and “unstably housed” youth who are getting trained in construction.

Supporters of the project, a collaboration between YSA and a number of community organizations and schools, hope the unique approach will demonstrate how to quickly and inexpensively get supportive housing up and running amid a growing homelessness crisis.

When YSA revealed the tiny house prototype in the fall, the organization said it was in negotiations to rent a West Berkeley lot for the village. In early February, Councilwoman Kate Harrison, speaking to a large group of constituents at a community meeting on homelessness, said a tiny home village would be coming to the Ohmega Salvage site.

An April document compiled by YSA shows a “preliminary site plan” for 2403 and 2407 San Pablo Ave., where Ohmega is currently located, with the tiny homes in rows. Previous plans acquired by Berkeleyside included communal spaces such as a kitchen, bath house, garden and laundry site.

“Once in a safe environment, the village residents will be provided with training programs focused on the job and life skills they’ll need to transition them into long term housing stability,” the document says.

Ohmega, currently split between two lots on either side of San Pablo Avenue, has announced plans to consolidate all its goods on the west side of the street, and start renting out the eastern salvage yard. Owner Katherine Davis told Berkeleyside that, after 45 years, the Ohmega Salvage business is down nearly 50%, due to rising costs of operating an independent business and supporting staff in an expensive city.

In a Facebook post in early February, Davis wrote, “Stay tuned for the proposed nonprofit project that will be a needed addition to our Berkeley CA community.”

Despite the documentation of the tiny house plan for the eastern part of Ohmega Salvage, both Davis and Sally Hindman, the director of YSA, have declined to confirm it. Last week, Davis said she is “not committed” to a project at the site, though Harrison had talked about the tiny house plan at the public meeting, and Councilman Ben Bartlett, who has been working with YSA on the project, confirmed the plan as well.

“We’re still really crossing our T’s and dotting our I’s, and getting permissions from the city,” explained Hindman.

She said YSA will engage local residents in a thorough community process, seeking input from the neighbors of the site they’ll propose, once the process is further along.

After a mid-April meeting with city staff, Hindman said she was enthusiastic about the support for the tiny house village.

“One of the things we really came away with is Berkeley once again is choosing to be a leader in this national housing crisis by delivering model youth housing —  safe, supportive, housing for our community’s youth,” she said.

Mary Stackiewicz, a YSA participant, and contractor Tre Brown work on a tiny house prototype. Photo: Onixi Vanderson
Mary Stackiewicz, a YSA participant, and contractor Tre Brown work on a tiny house prototype. Photo: Onixi Vanderson

YSA currently estimates the project will cost $1.2-$1.4 million, including planning expenses like the environmental review, renovations at the site and construction of the 25 tiny homes, and the first year of operations, according to the April document. YSA is aiming to get the first 12 homes built and occupied by September and to staff the site with two resident managers and social workers.

The nonprofit plans to raise the funds on its own, a significant undertaking for the small organization, but a number of individuals and groups have lined up to donate already, Hindman said.

Many other nonprofits, religious organizations and schools are collaborating with YSA on the project as well. A regional Habitat for Humanity director is working with a local faith representative to organize the religious community to volunteer to build some of the homes, Hindman said. Charles Kahn and Buddy Williams of Berkeley-based Studio KDA were involved with the master planning, and the designs for the 8-by-10-foot structures are currently being refined by students at the University of San Francisco with assistance from environmental sustainability classes at UC Berkeley. Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action (BOCA) will focus on the project this year, along with support from other organizations, including Berkeley Youth Alternatives, Berkeley City College, LifeLong Medical Center and more, YSA said.

Seventy local clergy have also signed a letter in support of the project, said Hindman, a Quaker active in the local interfaith community.

“There are many negative things that many of us are going to bed feeling terrible about,” Hindman said. “Here’s some hope we want to offer in the community this year.”

Hindman and her collaborators will come to the Berkeley City Council meeting on April 24, asking for exemptions from the typical spate of fees and regulations for the project. They plan to hold a “prayer vigil” outside Old City Hall as the meeting begins, she said.

Young people would live in the tiny home village along with two resident managers. Rendering: Dan Edleson/University of San Francisco
Young people would live in the tiny home village along with two resident managers. Rendering: Dan Edleson/University of San Francisco

The draft council item, which could be edited before it appears on the final agenda, is sponsored by Bartlett and recommends the council waive building, zoning, planning, inspection and dumping fees, as well as parking and open space requirements for the project. It also recommends the city provide recycling and waste management services at the site. The location is not named in the document.

“We’re going to create 25 new units of housing and a wonderful art community,” Hindman said. “We’re going to give all this to the community, so we’re asking the city to pitch in with their part that’s just some fee waivers.” If the item passes, YSA will attempt to raise $1.25 million in the next 18 months, she said.

The item — currently slated for the consent calendar, a package of items voted on in one swoop — would also release the builders from wage requirements, since the project is being constructed by volunteers and youth apprentices.

Bartlett said he hopes the City Council will support the item, so the project is “more easily viable.”

The cost of the fees and expenses that might be waived is not estimated in the agenda document. Bartlett said the group is exploring whether previous decisions by the council to take an “emergency” approach to providing shelter during the ongoing homelessness crisis could be invoked in this case to expedite the tiny-house process and lighten the requirements and fees.

“Our hope is we can really kind of guide it through” to completion, Bartlett said. “When YSA developed this project, we were excited about it. It involves not only a space for youth to live, but an opportunity for youth to work.”

Hindman said she’s learned the tiny houses, which will be on wheels, could be subject to by-right approval, meaning the project wouldn’t need to go through the typical permitting process. A Berkeley spokesman said the city could not yet confirm the type of permit the project would require, however.

Youth Spirit Artworks is planning to rent the eastern Ohmega Salvage yard at 2403 and 2407 San Pablo Ave., pictured, for its tiny home village. Ohmega has begun consolidating its wares at its other site across the street. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Bartlett, along with Councilwomen Harrison and Sophie Hahn, sponsored an item in October directing city staff to develop a homeless youth policy, including new funds, service coordination and workforce partnerships.

“In addition to housing homeless and unstably housed couch surfing youth, this project will also empower underserved young adults with job skills through engagement in construction efforts, community outreach and organizing, and project management,” the draft tiny-house item says.

YSA was created in 2007 in response to the challenges homeless and at-risk youth, ages 16-25, face when seeking employment. Participants sell artwork they make at the program at local businesses and on Etsy, and receive 50% of the proceeds. The nonprofit also offers an accredited financial literacy class and partners with local organizations to make murals and other public art. Street Spirit, the newspaper sold by homeless people around the East Bay, and co-founded by Hindman, is also one of YSA’s projects.

As the plans for the tiny-house village develop, YSA is preparing to debut another project much sooner. On April 21, the organization will open a new gallery and shop behind the program’s site at 1740 Alcatraz Ave.

Activist and artist Mildred Howard will speak at the grand opening, and “We’ll be talking about gentrification and displacement, selling merchandise and talking about the tiny house village,” Hindman said. Howard is the subject of a new documentary on the Lorin District, where YSA is located, which will be screened today, April 16 at a Berkeleyside-sponsored event.

Youth Spirit Artworks unveiled a prototype of the tiny houses in November. Photo: courtesy YSA

In November, Berkeleyside checked out the tiny-house prototype at YSA and met some of the young people who built it under the guidance of contractor Tre Brown. The house had solar panels, three windows, a sleeping loft and insulation, though no plumbing. The young builders, Mary Stackiewicz, 24, and Reggie Gentry, 22, had been living in transitional housing and on an aunt’s couch, respectively, and they were enthusiastic about their creation.

Tiny houses have been lauded by many, including local developer Patrick Kennedy, as an inexpensive, quick way to help alleviate the homeless and affordable housing crises. Kennedy’s Panoramic Interests has designed modular, stackable tiny units he hopes to build in Berkeley and elsewhere.

Hindman said the idea to build a tiny home village came from the young YSA participants, many of whom have bounced around shelters or waited patiently to get picked off a housing waitlist, and who dream of having a private place of their own. She acknowledged it would be cheaper to buy pre-fab tiny houses, but wanted to give the youth the chance to learn carpentry skills and teamwork.

About half the people selected to live in the tiny homes will be YSA youth currently living on the streets or at a shelter such as YEAH on University Avenue, said Hindman, and the other half will be YSA participants who are living in unstable conditions.

Ed. note: This story originally said Charles Kahn and Buddy Williams drew the designs for the tiny houses. They instead were involved with the master plan.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...