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Kansas City Council Considers Constructing Tiny Home Village To Serve Houseless Community

060921_cm_HomelessEncampment
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Camp Sixx in Westport started out as a makeshift warming location in February and turned into a large community of houseless people until Kansas City found temporary housing for many in the location.

City Council will take up an ambitious $2 million proposal for a “tiny home village” providing beds and services for up to 200 people experiencing homelessness.

A Kansas City Council committee endorsed a plan Wednesday to create a “tiny home” village that would serve about 200 unhoused people. The measure goes to the full Council for a vote next week.

“The goal is transitional housing to get them where they are safe and to get them where they can get services and to help them to transition to permanent housing,” said Councilman Dan Fowler, who chairs the Special Committee on Housing Policy.

“It is to get the people we are trying to serve into a better position for their lives,” Fowler continued. “It is not luxury living and it’s temporary.”

Short-term solutions for long-term problems

The plight of people experiencing homelessness has challenged Kansas City for years. A January 2020 point-in-time count identified about 1,700 adults and children experiencing homelessness in the Kansas City area, and the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the crisis.

In January 2021, a homeless man died of exposure from the extreme cold, an incident that galvanized advocates for the homeless to pressure City Hall for solutions. The city set up a warming center at Bartle Hall, but tent camps also sprang up on the lawn in front of City Hall and near Westport, calling attention to the problem.

Combating homelessness is now a high priority for city leaders, including Mayor Quinton Lucas.

In April, Kansas City Council directed the city manager to provide hotels and other livable spaces to unhoused persons for 90 days, and the city began housing nearly 400 people in 12 hotels. Although there have been nuisance problems and increased police calls at four Northland hotels, Fowler and other city officials said security has been beefed up in response.

On Wednesday, the housing policy committee considered another plan to continue funding for those hotels through July 7, but postponed a decision for at least a week.

The program is expensive and could end up costing nearly $5 million, paid for with a combination of city funds and federal stimulus dollars. Committee members grilled city officials and the Lotus Hospitality Group, which oversees the hotel program, for more information on where all that money is going.

Councilman Brandon Ellington said that spending so much money for a “temporary solution is ridiculous.”

Several people who have been housed in the hotels praised the program, but City Manager Brian Platt argued it was a quick but temporary answer to a very thorny, complex problem.

“Hotel rooms are not the end solution and the final place where we need to go,” Platt told the committee. “We were put in a position where we needed to get people off the streets and serve them better. We had encampments across the city. We’ve cleared a lot of people off the streets.”

Committee members said they needed much more detail before they could support the additional funding.

060921_cm_HomelessEncampment
Carlos Moreno
Houseless people living in the encampment on the south side of City Hall in Kansas City moved into temporary housing or left the grounds altogether in April.

Tiny houses, big impact

While the hotel plan hit roadblocks, the committee endorsed a contract with the non-profit Merging KC to build about 95 pallet homes and 200 beds.

"What it is, is tiny cabins," says Houston Defoe, president of Merging KC.

Each two-person unit is about 64 square feet, with air-conditioning, windows and locks. The village will offer communal bathrooms, showers, laundry, and hot food.

The campus would provide full wrap-around medical and mental health services, life and work skills training, and 24-hour security, with the goal of transitioning residents to permanent housing. The initial cost is $2 million in city and federal stimulus funding, but the project could be expanded if it's successful.

Similar types of villages have already been deployed in about 50 communities, including in Los Angeles, San Jose and Portland, Ore.

If approved by the full Council, the village could be built very quickly, in about three weeks. Although the village would only last about a year, a location still hasn’t been identified yet. That could prove a challenge: City officials say residents want solutions for the homeless, but not in their own neighborhoods.

The council is discussing a zoning ordinance that would require 30 days notices to surrounding landowners for these types of temporary shelter campuses.

Another approach being considered by Kansas City Council is the $1 Land Bank houses. There are about 100 vacant houses, mostly in the urban core, that the city hopes people will buy for $1 and rehabilitate as permanent housing for those making less than $18,000 per year.

The city is currently seeking proposals from interested buyers. But most of these homes need significant costly repairs, so that route is not a quick one.

Editor's note: The date of the scheduled vote on the tiny home village was updated Thursday after the city council held the ordinance for one week. City officials also clarified the initial cost of the program, which has been updated in the story.

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