Nathaniel Lee can’t stop smiling when he talks about the roof over his head.
Lee, 73 – his friends call him “Pee-Wee” – grew up on a farm off Hatch Road, just west of Carrboro, where his grandfather grew fruits and vegetables, tobacco and wheat. He worked as a brick mason after graduating from Orange High School, until a stroke in 1995 left him disabled and unable to pay his bills.
He lost his home, living in the woods, on the street and at the Inter-Faith Council men’s shelter for over a decade. He did odd jobs at Chapel Hill Sportswear – they gave him a blanket, pillow and sleeping bag after finding him behind the building, he said – and panhandled for money. He admits a lot went to “the dope man.”
Then somebody suggested he visit the Community Empowerment Fund.
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Lee credits the nonprofit agency and others with helping him clean up his life and find an affordable studio apartment. He spends his time now listening to music on his radio and getting up early to drink coffee and watch the news. He shares a smile with people he meets on the street, instead of asking for a handout.
“I enjoy life the way it is now,” Lee said. “I thought I enjoyed it when I was out there smoking and drinking, but it wasn’t nothing. It kept me down, kept me broke.”
Lee’s story has inspired a pilot housing project that he and other members of the Pee Wee Homes Collaborative hope will spread across Orange County. They are working with the Episcopal Church of the Advocate to build three Pee Wee houses this year on the church’s 15-acre campus off Homestead Road.
The $150,000 pilot project is relying on volunteer labor and donations of cash and materials, including $15,000 from UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and a $70,000 grant from Chapel Hill’s Affordable Housing Development Fund.
They are seeking building permits now and hope to be finished this summer, organizers said.
Each 300- to 320-square-foot home will have a bedroom, permanent foundation, two porches, a bathroom, and a combined kitchen and living room space. They must meet N.C. Department of Insurance requirements and at least one also will meet Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, said Sarah Howell, lead architect at Szostak Design and a collaborative board member.
Single people who earn 30 percent or less of the area median income – $14,850 a year – will pay $200 to $300 a month in rent. Part of each payment will be deposited into savings for the resident, said Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, the church’s vicar. Another part will pay a management company to maintain the houses, and the rest will go back into the Pee Wee Homes mission. Residents will have support and be connected with local resources.
The group’s organizers were “just trying to make a tangible step in the right direction,” Howell said.
“It’s been a joy to work on, because people have been very giving of their time and their resources, and it’s such a great cause,” she said.
The Advocate’s congregation was excited to have another way to serve the community, Fischbeck said. The county’s response also was encouraging, she said, and they plan to ask for $25,000 in affordable housing bond money.
Howell noted the flexible floorplan can reflect neighborhood character, connect to urban services or rural wells and septic systems, and be elevated in floodprone areas. The Pee Wee Homes model can be applied, depending on local rules, to as little as a half-acre of public or private land, Fischbeck said.
“We’re not in any way suggesting that this is the answer to homelessness or the answer to the affordable housing crisis in our community, but we are saying this is one piece of the puzzle,” Fischbeck said.
Maggie West, CEF co-director and a collaborative member, asked Lee if he’d like to live in a Pee Wee house, he said. It would be nice to gaze out over the pond or sit on the banks with his fishing rod, he said. He thinks it’s a miracle that his story inspired folks to help others.
“You’ve got people who’ve got low income, people on fixed income, older people, homeless people, people that’s handicapped, they need a place to go. Most of them want to get off the street. That’s what I’d like to see, somewhere they can go and call their own,” Lee said.