Longform

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.

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris