A tiny-house prototype in Baltimore
A tiny-house prototype in Baltimore Courtesy of Civic Works

A Baltimore nonprofit is pinning a lot of hopes on a small footprint.

Among the first things you notice when driving eastward into Baltimore are the blocks of decrepit row houses. The city claims that only 16,000 row houses in Baltimore are vacant. Skeptics say the real number is closer to 46,000, or 16 percent of the city’s housing stock.

Baltimore certainly isn’t the only city experiencing a housing crisis: The U.S. as a whole can’t seem to keep up with the growing numbers of very low-income households. In response, a handful of cities, from Nashville to Dallas, Detroit, and Seattle, have launched programs to build tiny houses for folks priced out of their homes.

One nonprofit is positioning tiny houses as one immediate intervention against Baltimore’s housing crisis. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Baltimore has piloted one, too, but with a twist. The city’s empty homes reflect Baltimore’s long struggle with segregation and corruption, and the housing agency’s scourge of scandals. That’s why a local nonprofit, Civic Works, wants to build units for low-wage workers without waiting for government support—and do so while working with youth seeking job training, a knowledge of sustainable building practices and design, and a path to their GED. The organization sees tiny houses as a viable solution that will support residents now.

Any firm or person in the Baltimore area can design their own tiny house and work with the Civic Works team to ensure it stays affordable and meets code. Civic Works also utilizes the federal YouthBuild program and receives funding to provide teaching, a classroom, and hands-on training for 17- to 24-year-old workers who want to earn their GED by learning the construction trade. Even if they don’t ultimately decide to work in construction, they receive important job skills such as teamwork and time management.

Civic Works isn’t marketing these houses as a direct solution to the vacant row houses that might be torn down in the near future, says Dana Stein, executive director at Civic Works, but as an affordable, eco-friendly option maximizing a budget and repurposing the empty lots that would be left behind. “If there’s a small lot on a street that once included a row house before it was torn down, that would be perfect,” Stein says.

Stein credits Greg Cantori, CEO of Maryland Nonprofts, with the idea for Civic Works’ YouthBuild workforce training program as well as using tiny houses to increase the amount of affordable housing within the city. Cantori purchased his own tiny home a few years ago, and encouraged Civic Works to try and build at least one tiny house prototype as a model for sustainable living for low-wage workers.

To help would-be buyers afford these homes, Cantori says that most banks that issue RV loans will use a Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) loan for tiny homes, an easier financing option for many who might not qualify for more traditional bank loans.

Davin Hong, the designer of the tiny house model for Civic Works and architect at the Living Design Lab in Baltimore, eventually plans to keep the houses between $50,000 and $60,000, a price within reach of many lower-income households. By using materials like pine tongue-and-groove panels inside, spray foam as insulation, and cedar siding on the exterior, he says the houses would be self-sufficient during extreme weather. During the winter, for instance, a small propane tank could heat the space.

A tiny-house construction in progress (Courtesy of Civic Works)

As of now, Civic Works has one prototype tiny house they’re using for demonstration purposes at events. Once the program is fully in production, Hong says Civic Works can build up to six houses per year. Depending on interest, Hong believes they’ll have the first six completed within the year.

“By building our prototype tiny house, we’ve prompted leaders to really examine what it would mean for tiny houses to become an acceptable housing type in the city,” Hong says.

But even if Baltimore’s homeless or low-income residents lived in tiny houses, and if tiny house construction was a continuing source of employment for young Baltimore workers, they’d be hard-pressed to find suitable areas to set up a residence or enough support from the housing authority to create new spaces.

“It's not a design issue—it's a political issue,” says Frederick Scharmen, assistant professor of Architecture and Planning at Morgan State University. Though Scharmen is hopeful for the Civic Works program and the job opportunities it creates for those that need training and a GED, he’s weary of the city’s ability to support affordable, sustainable housing. Scharmen points to the city’s recent decision to divest its public housing to private developers.

“There’s also been interest from providers of transitional housing for the homeless that are in the process now of acquiring sites for housing,” says Stein. “Though, there is a zoning issue right now. Tiny houses cannot be lived in as a matter of right. Homeless housing groups would be seeking a waiver on that issue from the city so that they can build a tiny house village for the homeless.” These non-profits would also need to find bigger areas of open land where a dozen or so tiny houses could be built.

Individual buyers who don’t need assistance would still have to ask the city for permission to be an accessory dwelling unit, which could only be built on land that already has a single-family home on it. For tiny houses to be permitted on land without another home, their total size would need to be larger than 400 square feet.

“Tiny housing involves site costs and accessibility,” says Scharmen. “If you could clear a whole block and create an entirely new urban design with a tiny house, that’d be a best-case scenario. But as of now, the city is made up of blocks built for row houses. I’m not so sure that tiny homes with side yards along the same street, essentially following the row house model, would be the best solution.” In essence, the city’s streets and public spaces need to be rethought for an abundance of tiny houses to work—and that requires a cooperative government.

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