Tensions rise over Duluth’s first tiny house

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Simply Tiny Development is a Colorado-based company that builds tiny houses and camper vans. 

A small team came together experiencing the challenges that we’re facing as a society, as a generation, especially with housing,” said CEO Sean Dixon, Ph.D. “After I got out of college, we really kind of took a stance and figured out what we wanted to do. We figured we could have a decent impact, and we started tackling sustainability, housing or sustainable housing. We kind of just looked around and said, ‘Okay, how can we actually start making a difference?’ And we looked at some tiny homes and sort of progressed from there.”

The company is now working on building tiny homes in Duluth.

“Duluth provided a number of options for us, especially with all the policies and things like the Housing Trust Fund that we’ve used to fund some of this really allowed us to come in here and try to bring a new solution to Duluth,” explained Dixon.

Duluth’s Housing Trust Fund provides assistance for qualified housing infill and restoration projects.

“The city provides the funds, we do the loan underwriting and the administration and draw requests for people like Simply Tiny,” explained Jake Morgan from the Duluth Housing Authority. “They pre-applied through the city, and their free application was approved. Then the full application comes to us, and then we do basically all the administration up until the end of the project where the money is paid back to the city.”

The city changed the zoning code in 2020 to allow tiny homes.

“It’s a nice way to get a little more housing density in some of the neighborhoods around here without building houses that are one foot apart or something like that,” said Morgan.

Tiny homes will also provide use to lots that are currently empty.

“Duluth has a lot of those small 25 foot wide lots that can’t really accommodate a traditional house,” said Morgan. “So these are little tiny homes that kind of fit perfectly on those little lots”

Construction on the first tiny home in Duluth has made progress, with the walls finished and roof recently installed. Simply Tiny Development plans on building four more tiny homes.

“The first one is a traditional stick frame with the local pier foundations, and the following ones are actually going to be tiny homes with garages underneath to tackle the parking and then an additional dwelling unit in the back that can act as a rental,” said Dixon.

Simply Tiny Development hosted a community outreach event on Thursday at Lincoln Park Community Center.

“We just wanted to hold a community forum. Everybody can come out, talk to us, air any concerns and be able to kind of hear about the changes that are possibly coming to the community and how it’s going to impact them right away,” said Dixon.

Community members raised several concerns during the tense meeting. Hillside resident Avery Cassar lives next door to one of the lots.

“We worked very hard for a long time to get this house, and the housing market’s really insane right now in Duluth,” said Cassar. “There’s a lot of displacement that’s happening as a result of a lot of predatory lending tactics and market practices, and I am just really concerned about what kind of other investments it will invite.”

One of Cassar’s concerns is the location of the tiny homes.

“I’d rather see the trees that are currently there just exist. It’s a tax forfeited lot, and they’re talking about doing this infill housing lot program,” said Cassar. “In my community, we already have the highest housing density in the city. There are lots of other tax forfeited, lots in other communities that are more resilient that might not be impacted so greatly.”

The homes will cost an estimated $200 thousand each, concerning community members who want affordable housing.

“Conceptually, I love the idea of tiny homes. I think they could be an affordable solution,” emphasized Cassar. “But for me, the big concern is looking at the house on Sixth Avenue, it’s going to be five times higher at a base cost than the other homes per square foot, and it’s five times smaller. My biggest concern is accessibility for people who live in my community.”

Although some members of the community are concerned at the price of this tiny home, the company says that sustainability is the focus.

“We’re using low VOC paints, low impact hill copiers with foundation and then hemp insulation instead of traditional fiberglass,” explained Dixon.

At the community outreach event, the discussion of sustainability versus affordability became tense. 

“They are obviously not from Duluth and are presenting a lot of ‘we know what’s best for the community’ and I think it just represents a big savior mentality, and it feels kind of like colonizing,” said Cassar.

“We’re a pretty small business right now just looking to make changes in the community, especially with housing,” said Dixon. “Our passion is in sustainability, and we just tried to look for new ways that we could actually enact that change the real estate.”

The estimated completion date for the first tiny home is this fall. The construction of the next four will likely start around that time. 

More information on the Housing Trust Fund and how to apply can be found at this link.