For Good: St. Pete nonprofit builds tiny houses for homeless vets

The tiny house movement is sweeping the country as mini-homes, less than 500-square-feet, capture the public’s imagination. They’re an interesting alternative to soaring housing prices. Now a St. Pete nonprofit is capitalizing on that idea by launching a novel project -- Tiny Homes for Homeless Vets.

Celebrate Outreach, a partnership of St. Petersburg faith-based congregations and individuals, will break ground on the group’s first tiny home for veterans on Veterans Day, Monday, Nov. 12. 

A permanent roof

According to Sabine von Aulock, the Celebrate Outreach Tiny Homes for Homeless Veterans project leader, the goal is to help homeless vets put their lives back together and become self-sufficient, starting with getting them off the street by giving them a permanent roof over their head. 

“Our mission at Celebrate Outreach is to end and prevent homelessness. We do this through direct aid, advocacy and education,” says von Aulock. Hot meals are a big part of that aid.

In collaboration with two downtown St. Petersburg churches -- Trinity Lutheran Church and Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg, Celebrate Outreach serves more than 16,000 hot meals annually to area homeless individuals every Friday evening and Saturday morning. But the nonprofit group wanted to do more and began talking about the possibility of building homes for the homeless.

“We’re interested in concrete solutions and decided to undertake this project,” says von Aulock. “The Tiny Homes project will help one homeless veteran at a time who is committed to transitioning to permanent housing, achieving independence and finding a place in the community.” 

Homelessness among veterans is a serious social issue. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 40,056 veterans are homeless on any given night across the country. Celebrate Outreach reports that in Pinellas County an estimated 329 veterans spend the night in locations not meant for habitation. 

What’s the solution? According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, one of the answers is to build an adequate supply of housing that is affordable to lower income households. 

For Celebrate Outreach, building tiny homes is part of the solution.

“Economically, tiny homes make sense in St. Petersburg where the residential market is on fire,” says von Aulock. “Tiny homes are also suitable for individuals transitioning to permanent housing. The smaller space is easier to maintain and pay the bills.” 

Tiny homes are also simply much more cost-effective to build. Courtney Allen, Managing Partner and Founder of the Alleon Group, is a consultant on the Celebrate Outreach Tiny Homes For Veterans project.

“Our cost is about $100 per square foot for approximately 470-square-feet of living space, which means a  mortgage for the home would be about $40,000 or $50,000, which would be manageable,” says Allen. “Our goal is to turn over the mortgage on the home to a veteran who will become a long-term homeowner.”

Partnering with USF architecture students

Celebrate Outreach is partnering with the University of South Florida School of Architecture & Community Design to design the tiny homes. Josue Robles Caraballo, a member of the USF architecture school research faculty, has been spearheading a student competition to design an affordable, minimal up-keep and energy-efficient tiny home suitable for veterans. 

“We have had about 40 students involved in the project and several local architecture firms guiding them through the process,” says Caraballo. “The goal was to get students to go beyond the classroom to assist nonprofits and see how design can empower those in need. It wasn’t just an assignment, but about making someone’s life better.”

Students were involved in every step of the process, starting at the conceptual schematic stage and then moving to design development and construction documents. The students also met with the city’s Building & Permitting Department and made several presentations to local homeowners associations in the area. 

Reaching out to the community where the tiny homes will be built was an essential first step.

“We wanted to see how the neighborhood leaders and homeowners association felt about this and to make sure the community was receptive,” says Caraballo. “We wanted to help them understand that this was not a mini-home on wheels, but something permanent; an investment in their community,” 

The architecture students came up with 28 different tiny home prototypes. From that group, four finalists were selected, and now one of those is being built, says Caraballo.

Although Celebrate Outreach does not yet have a local veteran identified for its first tiny home, the criteria is set.

“We’re looking for someone who is committed to being a homeowner, who has access to support services and has a reliable source of monthly income,” says von Aulock. They also must be willing to complete a homebuyer counseling program.

Foreclosed property

One of the organization’s biggest challenges so far has been to raise capital for the project. Fundraising efforts are ongoing and several organizations have provided in-kind services. A big break came when the City of St. Petersburg awarded three nonprofit organizations, including Celebrate Outreach, parcels of foreclosed property as part of the city’s new Affordable Housing Lot Disposition Program

According to James Corbett, St. Petersburg director of Codes Compliance Assistance, the new Affordable Housing Lot Disposition Program is set up so vacant lots acquired by the city through foreclosure are awarded to qualified developers at a nominal amount, with no upfront cost, as long as they agree to one important condition -- to construct and sell the property to a qualified buyer whose income meets the city’s affordable housing standards.

In addition, says Corbett, the program gives nonprofits a little leverage. A point system is used to determine who receives the bid for the foreclosed property, with additional points given to nonprofit organizations committed to constructing affordable housing – especially those with experience in construction or partnering with a local business in the construction industry.

Initially, the city was selling foreclosed lots at auction to the highest bidder, says Corbett. The program was successful, but not benefitting the city’s goal of creating affordable housing.

“When we did research on the properties after they sold, we found that in many cases, the person awarded the bid would turn around sell the land again at a profit,” says Corbett. “We also met with nonprofits who were telling us they could not compete with speculators who were bidding up the cost of the lots.”

Celebrate Outreach breaks ground for its new tiny home project at 3516 3rd Ave. S. on Veterans Day, November 12.

“Once that home is completed, we hope to build more, says Allen. “The first home will give us the credibility we need to replicate the concept; to leverage what we’ve done and really make a difference for homeless vets.”

To learn more about how you can get involved, visit the website for Celebrate Outreach.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.