Occupy Madison, Inc.
There's growing support for this carefully designed program.
In the abstract, who could argue against such a great idea?
Move motivated, responsible people off Madison's frozen streets and into eco-friendly "tiny houses," through an all-volunteer, privately funded effort. In the process, these formerly roofless people develop construction and maintenance skills, putting in hundreds of hours each to build 99-square-foot homes. They're also involved in decision-making and integrated into a supportive community, as they work their way through the membership and housing application processes.
It's a new and exciting way to address homelessness. No wonder Madison's tiny houses have attracted national and international media attention, from the New York Times and NBC to the U.K.'s Daily Mail and Al Jazeera America.
But what about when it's not abstract -- when a "village" of tiny houses is proposed near your home?
That's the question my neighborhood, Emerson East on Madison's near-northeast side, has been debating for the last few months.
In December 2013, Occupy Madison submitted an offer for the Sanchez Motors site, at the corner of North Third and East Johnson streets. Last month, they submitted a rezoning application to the city.
Occupy Madison's plan has three major components: a workshop, where tiny houses would be built (the building currently there); a small retail space, where items made by volunteers would be sold, to benefit the organization; and an "eco-village" (behind the workshop, as you look from East Johnson), where up to nine tiny houses would reside.
Raised-bed gardens along East Johnson and an artistically painted fence surrounding the village would beautify the property and welcome neighborly interactions, while providing privacy and security to tiny house residents. As the architect describes it, this "Tiny Homes and Gardens" would be a vast improvement over the dilapidated building, broken-down cars and mountain of tires currently there.
I'm an ardent supporter who lives two blocks away. And while I'm far from the only favorably inclined homeowner nearby, the proposal isn't without its critics. Given its unusual nature, it would be truly remarkable if the proposal had been greeted with universal acclaim by its potential neighbors.
But the big story -- and most hopeful for our city, in my opinion -- has been the shift over the four public meetings that I've attended. As people learn more about the proposal and come to know Occupy Madison -- especially the future tiny house residents -- concerns based on stereotypes about homeless people are easing.
In short, the process is working. There's growing support for this carefully designed program to get people off the street and into well-built, well-insulated houses, the need for which is obvious this brutal winter.
I really hope that Occupy Madison's tiny houses move in down the street. It wouldn't be the first time that "a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens" (to quote Margaret Mead) shifted public opinion and helped make our society more just and compassionate.
In fact, the most recent public meeting ended with someone thanking Occupy Madison for all their volunteer work to create a new model to address homelessness. She said it was especially important, given the increasing number of homeless people in our community and the failure of government at various levels to mount an adequate response.
And the room broke into applause.
Diane Farsetta is a member of the Emerson East Neighborhood Association. "Citizen" is an opinion series that presents the views of the author. If you would like to reply, please comment or consider submitting an op-ed in response.