When the Occupy movement took hold in 2011, a group of activists in Madison, Wis., joined the cause, setting up a camp on East Washington Avenue. The camp quickly attracted many of the city’s homeless residents, and as a result, the activists were inspired to do something to help those without permanent homes.
Today Occupy Madison is an established nonprofit that’s building affordable, sustainable housing for homeless residents in Wisconsin’s capital. This week the group completed construction on the first of its 96-square-foot houses, which are built almost entirely from reclaimed and repurposed materials.
The homes cost just $3,000 to construct, most of it funded by community donations. A revolving crew of volunteers provided the labor, including Betty Ybarra. Previously homeless, she now resides in the home she helped construct. “It’s exciting. I’ve never even owned my own house,” Ybarra told WMTV.
Ninety-six square feet is obviously a scant amount of space, even within the tiny house movement. But the design, created by structural engineer and Occupy Madison volunteer Steve Burns, features a full-size bed, a kitchen that includes a mini-fridge and a microwave, and a bathroom with a compost toilet.
Most of the interior details, including the kitchen counters and cupboards, are made out of repurposed materials, and the lumber involved is all reclaimed, collected from across Madison. “We have what we call ‘Pallet-Palooza,’ ” says O.M. board member Walter Wallbaum. “We take apart old warehouse pallets, then mill them and make them into siding.”
To generate electricity, the nonprofit’s model home uses a donated solar voltaic system. Heat, meanwhile, is supplied by a small propane heater, though Wallbaum says that future iterations of the house will experiment with more sustainable heating methods.
The nonprofit’s ultimate plan is to build enough sustainable tiny houses to create an eco-village, offering permanent shelter to those who otherwise wouldn’t have any. Beyond the homeless population, Occupy Madison sees the structures as alternative housing options for those interested in a more sustainable lifestyle.
The lack of affordable housing for low-income residents in Madison is reaching critical mass. Al-Jazeera reports the college town’s rental vacancy rate is 1.8 percent—four times lower than the national average. Thus, competition for affordably priced apartments is high, a problem for low-wage earners. Last year more than 3,000 people reported that they’d spent at least one night in a shelter.
Madison’s zoning regulations changed slightly in October, allowing for O.M.’s tiny homes to be set up in church parking lots. But the nonprofit will need to find a permanent space for its fledgling eco-village.
Construction is under way on the group’s second house, which is scheduled for completion within the next month. By the end of 2014, O.M. hopes to have 10 more houses completed.
The spirit of the Occupy movement can be seen elsewhere in communities that are struggling with affordable housing options.
In Auburn, Ala., undergraduates at Auburn University are building 500-square-foot homes for low-income residents that sell for $20,000—a figure arrived at because it’s considered the highest realistic mortgage possible for a person living on Social Security.
In the United Kingdom, groups such as Charity Forest YMCA are turning used shipping containers into long-term homes for homeless youths.
Back in Wisconsin, Wallbaum acknowledges that tiny houses may not be the final answer to homelessness, but he says his team is dedicated to doing all that it can to help those in need of shelter, and doing as much of it as they can in an environmentally responsible way.
“It’s 100 percent grass-roots—volunteers,” he says. “There’s no paid staff. It’s a labor of love.”