‘The stuff of the gospel’: Church hopes 3 tiny houses set an example for others

At the end of their morning service Sunday, members of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate left their sanctuary so they and the visiting bishop could bless and dedicate three small houses they are helping to build for the homeless.

They didn’t have to go far.

The three houses, each with no more than 320 square feet of inside living space, are being built on the church’s campus, less than 50 yards from its historic Carpenter Gothic chapel. They are expected to be finished this winter when the first residents will be able to move in.

The houses are called Pee Wee Homes, named for a long-time Orange County brick mason who became homeless after suffering a stroke that left him unable to work. It’s a joint effort among the church, the town, students at UNC-Chapel Hill, Habitat for Humanity and a local group called the Community Empowerment Fund, which works to alleviate homelessness and poverty.

Beyond providing homes to three people, the project is meant to serve as a model for other churches and landowners. A group of graduate students at UNC is documenting each step of the process, including financing, zoning, permits and lease arrangements with tenants.

“The hope is other churches will be inspired to find a way to do this,” said Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, the vicar at Church of the Advocate.

Fischbeck says the project was started by members of the Community Empowerment Fund who came up with the idea that churches could help satisfy the need for affordable housing by building tiny houses on their property. She said someone from the group approached her about it three years ago and that the church’s board was receptive.

The church’s congregation had purchased 15 acres off Homestead Road in 2011 and moved an old Episcopal chapel from Germanton, a small community north of Winston-Salem, that had not had a congregation of its own in more than 30 years. The restored chapel has a cornerstone with two dates — 1891, the year it was built, and 2012, the year it was trucked in pieces to Chapel Hill.

The 185-member congregation bought more land than it needed in hopes that the property could be an asset to the community, and Pee Wee Homes seemed like a natural fit, Fischbeck said. The property includes a single-story brick house dating from the 1970s that the church uses for offices and meeting space, as well as an old farm pond, which is stocked with bass, bream and catfish.

“We hope folks who live here will like to fish,” Fischbeck said.

The residents will pay rent that doesn’t exceed 30 percent of their income. The goal is to find tenants with a monthly income of $750 to $1,000, Fischbeck said, probably older single people who rely on Social Security or disability payments. Ten percent of the rent will go into a resident’s equity account, and another 10 percent will pay for a manager to help maintain the homes.

The size of the homes is not meant to signal that they’re temporary, Fischbeck said. Each has a small bedroom, a living/kitchen area, a bathroom with shower, a small washer and dryer and a closet. Each also has a covered front porch, and two have small back porches that look out on a large oak tree with a rope swing and the pond. One is designed to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations.

The Rt. Rev. Samuel Sewall Rodman III, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, uses an aspergillum dipped in holy water to bless one of three Pee Wee Homes being built on the campus of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill on Sunday. Richard Stradling rstradling@newsobserver.com

Architect Sarah Howell designed the homes, drawing on her experience working to help create efficient, affordable houses in New Orleans for people who had lost theirs to Hurricane Katrina.

“I kind of had an idea of what works for one person,” said Howell, who recently moved to Asheville but still serves on the board of the Pee Wee Homes Collaborative. “Two hundred fifty square feet is a perfectly lovely apartment for one person in New York. It’s arguably luxurious.”

Red doors

The houses have lots of windows and high ceilings under peaked roofs that help them feel larger than they are, Howell said. There are lofts that can be used for sleeping or storage. Outside, the houses echo the chapel, with the same pitch to their roofs and the same board and batten walls, though made of HardiPlank siding instead of wood.

And like the chapel, the homes will have red doors, Howell said. She said Pee Wee Homes board members decided to go with red doors on all their homes, including a duplex they finished in the Northside neighborhood this spring.

“I think that’s going to be a little something that ties them all together, that identifies them as a Pee Wee Home,” she said.

The three houses are expected to cost a total of $160,000 to build, including the utilities and site work. The town of Chapel Hill’s Affordable Housing Development Fund kicked in $70,000, while students from UNC’s Kenan Flagler School of Business raised more than $35,000. Other donations include $10,000 from the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.

Volunteer labor from Habitat for Humanity and others has helped keep costs down. Last week, a group of eight employees of the town’s housing and community office joined the Habitat volunteers.

“We thought it was a great opportunity for us to get out of the office and actually do the work we talk about,” said executive director Loryn Clark.

The Pee Wee Homes board has not chosen tenants for the three homes yet. Besides the size and income requirements, there will be other factors to consider, including that the church is about a half mile from the nearest bus stop. The three houses are close to each other and will be part of the church community, Fischbeck said, so they might not work for someone wishing to live alone in the woods.

“You will be around other people,” she said. “Especially on Sundays.”

This Sunday was especially busy, with the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, the Rt. Rev. Samuel Sewall Rodman III, helping the church celebrate its 15th anniversary and bless the homes. These three tiny houses are “the stuff of the gospel,” Rodman said during his sermon. “This is what we are called to do and to be.”

Afterward, Rodman used an aspergillum dipped in holy water to make the sign of the cross on each house.

“Bless those who come to live in these homes, that they may find here an affordable, safe, beautiful and welcoming dwelling,” he said. “And grant, we pray, that others be inspired by this witness, to share what they have been given, to respect the dignity of every human being, and to make known your expansive and all encompassing love.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling
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