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Could tiny houses solve a big problem in Denver?

Could tiny houses solve a big problem in Denver?

In his Construction Management classroom, surrounded by his students' papers, Frank Sturgell reads his e-mails. He looks every bit the professor: He's wearing crisply pleated pants, a starched, cream-colored shirt and a slightly dated white preppie cardigan; the ring of hair surrounding his otherwise bald head is perfectly groomed, and his sunburned face is shaved. A few times a week, he teaches at this for-profit, strip-mall college that promises students it's a place where they can succeed. He does not want the college named, because the administration does not know that Sturgell has been homeless since 2009.

Most days he drives around Denver looking for a shower, a free meal and wi-fi, and most nights he sleeps in his car in Walmart parking lots.

He owes $90,000 in student loans for a University of Colorado Denver master's degree in architecture. His higher education has netted him little more than this part-time teaching gig, which doesn't pay enough to cover the cheapest apartment in the city's bloated market.

Years ago, he had a six-figure salary in San Francisco, a house and a condo, but then he lost his job. Before he could sell the condo, a pipe burst, the place molded and its value plummeted. He sold it all and moved to Denver, where he tried to get a license as an architect and Class A contractor. Tangled in Department of Regulatory Agencies rules and regulations, he failed the licensing exam.

He blames DORA. He blames Governor John Hickenlooper. He blames Mayor Michael Hancock. Now he's training himself to be a lawyer so that he can sue them all.

But when he's not itemizing the vast conspiracy against him, he looks forward to the day when he can take a shower, cook a meal and lie down to rest in his own tiny house.

Across the country, the tiny-house movement is exploding. What started as a small-is-better fad in the late '90s has become an almost mainstream movement as middle-class adventurers and homeless advocates alike have come to see utopian possibilities in these small structures.

Businesses such as Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, books and movies such as Dee Williams's The Big Tiny: A Build-It-Myself Memoir and Tiny: A Story About Living Small, and blogs like Tiny r(E)volution have flooded the market with plans, stories and products.

The houses can be anywhere from 50 to 900 square feet and are billed as an affordable, ecologically friendly alternative to America's supersized McMansion culture, which is built on a bedrock of debt.

Most tiny houses have lofts to sleep in, operational kitchens, bathrooms with tubs or showers, and an impressive array of dual-purpose accoutrements: couches that turn into beds, seating that functions as storage, and tables and chairs that fold up into the walls. While more ecologically minded tiny homes use solar energy, composting toilets and greywater systems, others plug directly into the grid and rely on city plumbing.

Tiny houses in rural areas face fewer regulations than those in cities, where zoning codes limit the construction of accessory dwelling units. To skirt the rules, around ten years ago people began constructing tiny houses on top of trailers so that they would fall under the same guidelines as RVs, which often operate under more relaxed rules.

In Denver, the maximum allowed length for an RV is 22 feet, and it can be parked on an "improved surface" on private property. But the city bans anyone from living in an RV, and people who break that rule often encounter the same hassles as do homeless people who sleep in their cars: tickets, harassment, and orders to pack up and move on.

Despite dodging the slings and arrows of a truly outrageous fortune, Frank Sturgell has a glass-half-full attitude, which he took to Denver Homeless Out Loud, an activist organization that emerged from Occupy Denver. DHOL "works with and for people who experience homelessness, to solve the issues that arise from the experience of homelessness," according to its website. "We work to help protect and advocate for dignity, rights and choices for people experiencing homelessness."

In 2012, DHOL embarked on a year-long research project documenting 500 homeless people's experiences with the city's urban-camping ban, enacted two years ago this month. After finishing that report, in April 2013, DHOL shifted its energy toward other projects, including forming a Tiny Homes Committee to encourage construction of the small abodes. Sturgell was thrilled. He saw a future in the tiny-house movement: his own.

Because DHOL operates as a non-hierarchical collective, it doesn't have the organizational resources of many nonprofits. For example, it has no established rules about who is eligible to receive tiny homes or a timeline for building them. Instead, organizers are optimistic that resources will work themselves out. Tiny-house encampments, such as Dignity Village in Portland, are showing the way for Denver, says Therese Howard, a DHOL member.

 

But tiny homes are only one of DHOL's many projects. Members create a newspaper by and for homeless people. They are organizing urban rest stops where people can use the restroom and take a shower. They've been advocating for a Colorado homeless bill of rights. Their energies have been divided.

DHOL has lost its focus on tiny houses, Sturgell says: "How about doing something physical for the homeless?"

Working with DHOL, he tried to launch a tiny-house construction company, but found the group allergic to the idea of business planning.

So he saved up for an Individual Development Account from Mile High United Way, and after he put in $1,000, Mile High gave him $4,000 to buy the tools he needed to launch his own business and build a home. He purchased a planer, a nail gun and other assorted gear, but had nowhere to store them but in his car.

He was unable to find a property owner who would allow him to park his tiny house once it was completed. So he shifted his energy toward his lawsuits and left his tools with fellow DHOL member Marcus Hyde, who will now be the recipient of DHOL's first tiny house.

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Piles of splintered barn wood, previously dumpstered two-by-fours, window frames and old murals painted on sheets of wood clutter a corner of Lauri Lynnxe Murphy's 3,500-square-foot art studio, where she is assembling materials for her latest project, her getaway plan, her tiny-home extravaganza. Sporting glasses with thick white frames and unkempt red hair, Murphy sits in a cozy chair, bundled in a cluster of earth-toned knit fabrics and bemoaning Denver's failure to fund artists.

She racked up tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and, after a divorce, had to sell her beloved north City Park home. A former friend defaulted on six months of back rent. Strapped for cash, Murphy cut back and moved into a closet in the back of the shared Five Points studio, where she has no proper kitchen and no shower or bath.

"I've been gentrified out of every neighborhood in Denver," Murphy says. "Five Points is my last stand."

She has been slowly selling off her stuff, but there are still towers of boxes whose contents she cannot recall. As a recovering hoarder, she finds scaling back liberating — so liberating that after months of deliberation, last week she finally announced on Facebook her plan to build a tiny house as an art project. Immediately, she had more than 200 "like"s on her page, and her friends started sharing their plans to build tiny houses, too.

Once Murphy's tiny house is complete, she plans to hit the road, searching for a city that supports its arts community. She wants to live out her values. Her art has focused on environmental concerns, and she feels like a hypocrite working with hard-to-store, large-scale sculptures made of toxic materials. She has started working with snakeskins and wasp nests, through which she explores the concept of home. She rejects the idea that people can be homeless, and instead argues that they are houseless.

We all have a home, she insists. The question is, where do you find it?

Since childhood, Murphy has been an artist with a nomadic spirit. The family legend is that her grandfather was a Hungarian Gypsy. Her aunts, Ella and Rella, traveled from town to town and danced. Her parents were artists, too. There was no other way to be.

Unlike many artists who are driven by the market, Murphy refuses to settle into a single aesthetic, and has taken frequent creative forays into new forms. She has played in punk bands, acted in plays and protested outside the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant that once produced plutonium triggers. At sixteen, her activism earned her a spot on an FBI list, she says.

As a kid, she loved road trips and fantasized about being a truck driver. Now her dream may be coming true: She will start constructing her tiny house in July, then take it on the road from Denver on New Year's Day. Her journey will last at least a year, maybe longer, maybe forever.

Every step of the way, she plans to spark conversation about climate change and the terrifying possibility of human extinction. "I can't just make pretty art for rich people to hang on their walls," she says.

Haunted by the concept of colony collapse, she has worked with bees, though she is allergic to them. She sculpts wax molds and inserts them into hives. When she extracts the combs, her sculptures are complete. Without bees, we have no food — and they are dying, she says. So are the fish. She read somewhere that by 2048, there will be no fish left in the ocean. "Why do we think fish and bees can die and we won't?" she asks. Mass human extinction shadows her work and causes her constant anxiety. "I have major freakouts on a regular basis," Murphy admits.

 

As she travels, she plans to produce work — comic books, photography projects and a documentary about gentrification and large-scale environmental catastrophes — that addresses these ecological concerns. She hopes the art will inspire dialogue. "Being an artist can be really selfish, but artists are concerned about the world," she says. "My first choice would be to hole up in a studio making big sculptures the world doesn't need. It's time I put my money where my mouth is."

At this point, Murphy is not sure whom she's making art for. Historically, art has often been about documenting the past for future generations, but with human extinction on the table, is she creating work for people who don't yet exist and may never exist, or for the present generation, or for some group of aliens that discover the ruins of our civilization, or for whatever creatures climb out of the primordial soup of the future?

Murphy believes little gestures count, and so she is designing her tiny house as an experiment in sustainability. She plans to build a living wall filled with microgreens and herbs watered by greywater from the sink. She will build a composting toilet and make humanure — a term she loathes that describes the process of making fertilizer from feces. She will produce her own fuel through a biodiesel refinery attached to the side of the truck. She will generate her own electricity through solar and maybe wind power. She will concoct her own soaps, shampoos and toothpaste.

Does she know how to do any of this? Not yet, but she is eager to learn. "I don't want a retirement account that invests in big oil. I know I should have one, but if shit's hitting the fan in fifteen years, I'm better off using my money to build a water generator," she says. "I don't think our future is about retirement accounts. I think it's about food."

We are entering a post-job economy, she says, and everywhere she goes, artists are talking about establishing housing together. "I think things are sorting themselves out and more people will be banding together as a community," she explains. "Some will grow food, others will raise chickens, others will do other things."

The tiny house will be an upgrade, in size, from the closet she has been living in. Having a kitchen and a full bathroom will feel like a luxury. But she will miss Denver. "I wonder if there will be any artists left here in ten years," she says. "Denver was always attractive because it was cheap. Now I have friends in Brooklyn who are paying less than rent costs in Denver, and Denver can't compete with the cultural opportunities of New York. The reason this town is booming is because of the arts."

Murphy is troubled by the way developers study artists to determine which neighborhoods to flip. "Every choice in my life has been driven by gentrification and being displaced," she says. "I lived and worked in over thirty places in Denver." And all that packing and moving impacted her ability to run the business side of her art practice.

When she last left Five Points, it was to attend grad school in 2010. "When I left, there were older black people, crackheads, gang members and lots of salt-of-the-earth, working-class people," she recalls. "I came back to a changed community."

While Murphy does not consider herself homeless, she has thought a lot about the concept of homelessness since she started living in her studio closet. Having made two-hour trips to take a shower, she empathizes with people trying to find a job when simple chores take so much time.

Recently, she's had three friends give up their homes and start couch-surfing. "Homelessness with friends," Murphy calls it.

"We can build the Clyfford Still Museum for a dead white guy who has nothing to do with here, but we can't support our artists," she says. "We created our own demise, in a way. If you want all this great culture, you have to start taking it seriously." So she's gotten serious about her next project, about dealing with economic and environmental issues through her art.

"This is a calling," she says. "It's a thing I feel I need to do. I'm at a point that I don't know what else to do and nothing feels like enough. I have to be the change I want to see. I have to completely live it."

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The sun burns Marcus Hyde's ruddy skin, and sweat drips from his thick beard. He wipes his brow with a dirty, faded yellow hat that reads "Dutch Country," a nod to the rural Mennonite communities that inspire his mission to live a simple life.

 

As he hammers, his fingers bleed and sweat under electrical tape and gauze. This morning, he pulled the trigger on the nail gun at the wrong time and shot himself right through the skin. It hurt, but he can't afford to stop working. He and his DHOL crew only have a few hours each Saturday to devote to constructing the tiny home he plans to share with his fiancée.

Hyde fills his calendar with prayer and service to the poor. On any given day, he might be cooking a turkey for homeless women, praying silently with his housemates, ranting about Anabaptist theology over drinks and cigarettes, or gently objecting to the violence perpetrated against the homeless by police and city bureaucrats, enemies he does his best to love. He quotes Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, whom he affectionately calls by her first name, as though they were old friends: "I really only love God as much as the person I love the least."

Hyde was born in Germany, the son of a Lutheran theologian. German was his first language, and he cried when his mother forced him to learn English. "Once in America, I soon forgot my German, and me and my brothers were more focused on the fact that we were moving to Colorado, where Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman was from," he recalls. "We were disappointed at the lack of real cowboys and horses when we got here."

Sometimes he would stay with his grandmother in Indiana, where he "detasseled corn by day and ate Jell-O salads by night." At fifteen, he took off hitchhiking and was picked up by Mennonite farmers. He was inspired by the beauty and simplicity of their faith, he remembers, and particularly by their commitment to pacifism.

For the past four years, Hyde has lived at the Catholic Worker House in Five Points, a beat-up, seven-bedroom house where four "workers," as they describe themselves, host well over a dozen "guests" at any given time. The guests are largely couples, often with children, who have lost their homes and want to keep their families intact. The house serves as a community-based alternative to the overcrowded shelters where "you're shoved into a room where 300 people are crammed together dealing with the trauma of homelessness," Hyde explains. The Catholic Worker runs on Christian-anarchist principles, and decisions are made by loose consensus. The organization's annual budget is smaller than the annual salary of many employees at traditional nonprofits. When things break, the workers can't afford to replace them. Still, they manage to house and feed people in an environment that feels like a home, not a bedbug-infested shelter.

But living with over a dozen people is not a universal solution to the housing crisis. "Collective living is not for everybody, and we need more types of options," Hyde says.

That's where DHOL's plan to build tiny houses comes in. The structures will provide a private, environmentally conscious alternative to overcrowded shelters and restore dignity by giving people another choice for housing — that is, once DHOL members figure out how to fund their initiative and find land where people can build and live.

DHOL has been working on Hyde's tiny home, in the back yard of his fiancée's collective house in the Cole neighborhood, since October. The group says it has great relationships with the neighbors and the house's landlord. But the slow pace of construction is frustrating to Hyde. At this rate, it would take centuries to build tiny homes for the thousands of homeless people in Denver.

DHOL can't do it alone. But help is hard to find.

Last year, the organization forged a relationship with developer Bill Prather, who thought he might be able to convince the city that tiny houses were a possible solution for the homeless population. The developer struck up a conversation with Bennie Milliner, executive director of Denver's Road Home, the organization implementing the city's ten-year plan to end homelessness. Milliner, who was already familiar with various forms of micro-housing, urged Prather to design a home for under $10,000. Prather and a team of University of Colorado Denver architecture students attempted to rise to the occasion, but their cheapest designs still cost $12,000, Milliner says.

Given that reality, Prather shifted his energy to a project in Utah and wished the activists luck in building something cheaper.

Milliner says the $12,000 price tag did not scare him off. He points out that it costs $40,000 or more to care for each homeless person who lives on the streets and accesses public services. "To house people, we know we can get that cost down to $15,000. It makes economic sense, and [housing] is a step up in the provision of services."

 

Despite his enthusiasm for the tiny-house strategy, Milliner says the city is two to three years away from implementing a pilot program, and that zoning regulations would need to be modified to make it work.

As for DHOL's tiny-home project, Milliner says, "They came to that as an initiative or something they were going to pursue well after we did. They're a fairly independent group."

While Denver's Road Home plods toward a distant pilot program, DHOL continues to build alliances across the city to implement its tiny-house strategy. Members are planning to fund their project with cash donations and donated labor — largely from faith-based communities.

As the outreach coordinator for the First Mennonite Church of Denver, Hyde is committed to building consensus, first with his congregation and then across the city as a whole, to support the tiny-house initiative. His idea is that faith-based communities can pledge money, land and labor to construct the tiny homes, as DHOL reaches out to neighborhood associations, residents and businesses to get their buy-in.

Hyde recognizes the challenge of getting neighbors to see eye to eye (see story, page 14), particularly when they have competing interests. Tensions exist between old and new property owners, renters and businesses. Many parts of town have multiple neighborhood associations representing the same area, and those community organizations are not famous for getting along. And though he wants to work with churches in constructing tiny homes, Hyde is also wary of them pushing their values on the homeless. "Religion should not be an obligation to get housing," he says. "How do you authentically incorporate someone into a community without pushing religion on them?"

Still, most churches have financial resources, extra land and eager congregations looking to volunteer, which makes the risk worth it. All they have to do is harness that energy.

Says Hyde, "I think we should have a bunch of tiny barn-raisings."

Marcus Hyde at work on his tiny house.
Jim J. Narcy

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