Tiny house village inside old Kmart could shelter 200 people

A group of Twin Cities housing advocates, architects and other professionals designed tiny homes for an "Indoor Village" as an alternative to tent encampments.

A group of housing advocates is proposing a tiny house village for nearly 200 people experiencing homelessness as a safer alternative to tent encampments.

The plans put the entire community indoors — in a warehouse or empty big box store like the shuttered Kmart in Minneapolis — to provide a low-cost, climate controlled environment during Minnesota’s hot summers and freezing winters. They’re calling the concept “indoor villages.”

The city of Minneapolis has seen dozens of homeless encampments pop-up amid the COVID-19 pandemic and unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. Nearly 300 people are living in two large encampments in Powderhorn Park, which have become increasingly volatile in recent weeks and will be uninhabitable when temperatures drop below zero this winter.

Adam Fairbanks, who runs the social services consultancy Ei-Consultants and is a citizen of the White Earth Nation, brought together architects, outreach workers and others with expertise to come up with a plan to quickly move hundreds of people into shelter.

They originally thought about putting the tiny house village on a parking lot and visited the Kmart to see how it might work. But they doubted it’d be feasible to pull off before winter.

“There are a lot of challenges with doing it outdoors, especially with such a short time frame” said Craig Wilson, a landscape architect and urban planner who runs a sustainability consulting firm. “There are issues like stormwater, snow removal, waterproofing and insulation and how to have electricity and plumbing.”

They stood there in the parking lot, and then turned their attention to the Kmart itself.

“We were able to tour the site, and it just seemed like a really well-suited place,” Wilson said. “We walked in on a very hot day and it was well air conditioned, all the lights work, and there were security cameras everywhere.”

The concept for the “indoor village” based at the shuttered Minneapolis Kmart includes 196 units with communal dining, showers, bathrooms and laundry.

Fairbanks helped the Red Lake Nation and the city of Minneapolis set up a temporary shelter — called a ”navigation center” — in 2018 for some 175 people who had been living at the Franklin-Hiawatha encampment.

“This concept takes a similar model,” Fairbanks said. Service providers would be on site to provide medical care, mental health and chemical dependency treatment assessments, while case managers would refer people to more permanent housing.

Fairbanks estimates the upfront costs for the tiny homes and the space will be about $1.6 million with on-going monthly costs around $325,000 to pay for shelter staff, security, janitors, meals, laundry and utilities. Most of the operational costs could be funded through state housing support dollars, which are available to people with disabilities and those experiencing long-term homelessness.

If they’re able to stick to their budget, it will be less expensive than leasing hotel rooms. Hennepin County is spending about $3 million per month housing nearly 600 homeless people in hotels — most of whom are seniors or have compromised immune systems — in an effort to limit the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in the shelter system. It is currently considering buying hotels with federal coronavirus relief funding as a long-term investment in addressing homelessness,

The encampments have also become costly for the Minneapolis Park Board, which estimates it’s spending nearly $70,000 per month in staff hours, as well as renting and maintaining portable toilets, trash cans and handwashing stations.

Though not as safe as hotel rooms in terms of COVID-19, the tiny house concept does allow for more physical distancing between residents than traditional shelter where people sleep on cots or bunk beds in a large room with dozens of others.

There aren’t other models for building a tiny home village entirely indoors, at least that the planning group is aware of. It could likely be the first of its kind in the country, not a surprise for Minnesota, which has long been an indoor trailblazer.

Minnesota built the first shopping mall, the nation’s largest indoor theme park and the world’s longest skyway system, connecting 80 blocks in downtown Minneapolis.

Wilson, whose expertise is in sustainability, said putting the village inside brings a lot of efficiencies.

More than 400 tents form two encampments in Powderhorn Park in south Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Outdoor tiny house villages are not, counterintuitively, an efficient use of space in comparison with even small hotels or apartment buildings, which can fit far more units on the same sized lot. By bringing the tiny homes inside, they would be able to place the structures closer together and allow for more units — they can fit 196 single units in the Kmart site.

Heating and cooling the Kmart is also far less costly than nearly 200 individual structures, and communal bathrooms and showers are efficient.

Wilson recruited an architectural firm to help design the 8-by-12 structures, which they estimate will cost about $5,000 to build, although they are still in early stages of development.

While the tiny homes come with a sizable upfront cost, they’re designed to be disassembled and moved so they could be used for several years or more. They’re less expensive because they won’t be weatherized or insulated, but those features could be added later for outdoor installation.

In order to succeed as an alternative to tent encampments, Fairbanks said the indoor village would need to eliminate the barriers that stop people from staying in traditional shelters.

“To house people that are unsheltered, it has to be low-barrier,” Fairbanks said.

The navigation center that was created in response to the 2018 Franklin-Hiawatha encampment took the same approach. People weren’t turned away for being intoxicated or punished for using drugs or alcohol, although they technically were not permitted on the premises.

Unlike at other shelters, which often separate people by gender, the navigation center allowed people to stay with their partners and family members. Pets were also allowed, and people were given ample storage so they could keep all of their belongings.

Needing low-barrier housing also doesn’t mean people can’t move into long-term housing quickly. In 2018-19, about 150 people moved into permanent housing from both the encampment and the navigation center through a partnership between the Red Lake Nation and the social service non-profit Avivo, which provides people with ongoing support.

Adam Fairbanks, a social services consultant, explains the concept of an “indoor village” at a Minneapolis neighborhood meeting about a new homeless encampment in Brackett Park. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

But the navigation center wasn’t without its challenges. The sheer number of people — nearly all of whom were dealing with complex physical or mental illnesses — at times overwhelmed  shelter staff. Drug use was difficult to manage, with two people dying from overdoses during the five months it was open.

Nor was it always comfortable for the residents. People had to go outside in the dead of winter to service trailers that housed bathrooms and eating areas. Residents also didn’t have much privacy, with just curtains to set up between cots. And residents complained that fights and thefts were a daily occurrence.

Fairbanks took those lessons with him in planning the indoor village. Communal bathrooms, showers and meals will all be accessible inside a well-lit, climate controlled environment, while people will also have their own secure space to sleep and store their belongings.

“In this space, you have your own private space, and you could leave for the day and you know that it was safe,” Fairbanks said.

The group pushing for the indoor village doesn’t have any agreement with the city of Minneapolis, which owns the Kmart. The city bought the site in March after spending two decades trying to take it over and demolish it in order to reconnect Nicollet Ave. The city plans to tear it down in the next year or two.

City Council President Lisa Bender, whose district includes the Kmart, is ambivalent about the idea. She said she is not opposed to it, noting the steps the council had taken in recent years to allow new forms of housing including revising the zoning code to allow tiny homes.

But she also questioned having so many people living in one low-barrier shelter.

“The shelter operator for the navigation center had a lot of lessons learned from serving a population of that size in one location.” Bender said. She also pointed to the county as the responsible agency. “Hennepin County is the lead agency on designing and maintaining shelter . . . so I would start with questions about how manageable (they think) that would be to serve people well.”

The council is also scheduled to vote Friday to lease the Kmart to the U.S. Postal Service, which would use it temporarily to replace two post offices along Lake Street damaged in the unrest following the death of Floyd.

The tiny house village could be installed in another warehouse or empty big box store, but Fairbanks said the Kmart is the best option given its proximity to social service agencies that work with people in encampments in south Minneapolis. Finding another site that could be set up quickly could also be a challenge.

There are currently no other ideas on how to bring hundreds of people living in parks across the city into shelter or housing before winter.