On a vacant lot in one of Davenport’s poorest neighborhoods in the west central part of the city, Rusty Boruff sees opportunity waiting.
There he envisions a tiny home community for members of a program that aims to help recovering addicts, the homeless and victims of domestic abuse and sex trafficking. Land has been bought, startup money has been set aside and floorplans have been donated.
By next spring, Boruff hopes construction will begin on the first one, the organization’s prototype.
“Really where we’re at now is we know the concept is really good and it works nationwide, but how do we make that concept a reality here?” Boruff, founder and director of Christian faith-based organization One Eighty, said during a recent interview with the Quad-City Times. “And our goal is really within the next few months (to) start getting the property that it’s going to be sitting on ready.”
Tiny homes – spaces often less than 500 square feet sometimes fitted to towable trailers – have emerged as a living alternative for those looking to embrace a minimalist lifestyle. And in recent years, they’ve also become one solution some are using to chip away at homelessness and poverty.
One Eighty offers housing and skill-building through its 14-month stability housing program. The tiny house community Boruff is thinking of would be built by those program participants and occupied by graduates, which he says means giving folks new skills and a path toward stable and independent living.
“It’s really a win-win,” Boruff said. “A. You clean up the neighborhood, which is fantastic, and utilize some of these lots that have been empty and abandoned that no one’s taking care of. B. We’re teaching our residents skills and trades to make them more employable. And C. We’re providing housing.”
One Eighty is modeling its proposed tiny home village community after one in Kansas City, Missouri, called Veterans Community Project, a non-profit that connects homeless former military service members with housing, support services and on-site clinical services.
Over the years, Veterans Community Project has caught the attention of lawmakers, advocates and the national media. The organization currently has 17 tiny homes with a plan to increase to 49 by November, said Bryan Meyer, a co-founder and CEO of Veterans Community Project.
The chief challenge the organization faced with its startup, he said, was raising dollars to fund the organization’s main mission to get housing and services for veterans with zero red tape. Recently the model has caught the interest of leaders in other parts of the country calling for Veterans Community Project to expand there.
“We’re actually almost receiving applications from the cities,” Meyer said.
Donations have also come in the form of labor and materials from area businesses, Meyer said, which keeps the cost between $18,000 and $20,000 per tiny house.
Of Veterans Community Project, Boruff said the organization does a “really good job of creating a community out of it.” That’s something he wants to emulate in Davenport.
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“We don’t want to be in the tiny home business just to be in the tiny home business,” Boruff said. “I mean we have a purpose behind it and that’s providing affordable and accountable housing to graduates of our program.”
One Eighty began nearly 10 years ago as a jail intervention program based out of a $500 mobile home in Milan. In its earlier days, Boruff remembers shoveling horse manure to pay the electric bill.
Now, its main office is housed in what was once St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, a staple of the near West End built in 1881 that now serves as a community center. And it has since grown into an organization with an operating budget of around $900,000 per year, Boruff said.
Over recent years, Boruff estimates millions of dollars have been invested in the neighborhood through a myriad of services offered by his organization, including affordable housing programs, home rehabilitation, youth athletic programs, food pantries and neighborhood cleanups.
“We’re passionate about this neighborhood. Good people here,” Boruff said, adding: “There’s no question that it was worth every penny. It’s a really good return on your investment when you look at all the lives that’ve been changed and families that’ve been impacted.”
Tiny homes have been on Boruff’s mind for a while now. But many area communities still have restrictions within their zoning codes that would prevent tiny home communities from taking root in the inner city limits. Zoning codes with the other Quad-Cities – Bettendorf, Moline, Rock Island and East Moline – all contain minimum square footage for single-family homes.
Boruff says he found that out by trying to get his project started on the Illinois side of the river years ago. The common refrain, he said, was that the zoning codes stood in the way of doing it.
But Davenport made major revisions to its zoning code in January that Boruff thinks will make his tiny home concept possible. Changes included the elimination of lot sizes and square-footage requirements for single-family homes. Also green-lit was the ability to have accessory structures – such as carriage houses on the same lots as single-family homes.
Matt Flynn, Davenport’s senior planning manager, said generally some ideas for building tiny home communities have come and gone over the years. He said changes to the code certainly open the door for more smaller, non-traditional housing to take root in Davenport. But for some tiny home dreamers, changes might be needed.
“I think in general we support a wide variety of housing types in the community. And I wouldn’t exclude tiny homes from that,” Flynn said. “But I’m just suggesting that there may be, if we get some true bona fide interest and traction, we may need to do some code adjustments like we’ve been going through.”
Under the city’s current laws, homes still need to be fitted to concrete slabs and hooked up to main utilities, including electricity, sewer and water. That rules out, for now, some of the off-grid models that are on wheels, rely on solar power and have composting toilets with no water connection.
Boruff said the tiny home One Eighty is trying to build next year would follow existing city code. He called that “the biggest hurdle.”
“Now that the zoning is fixed it should be a clear path for these to happen,” Boruff said. “Doesn’t mean something won’t come up. That’s the nature of doing something new.”
Regardless, Boruff says after having conversations with city leaders that there is support for the concept generally. And he plans to move forward with his next community project in the months to come.
“I’m confident the city will continue to work with us to make sure that this can happen,” he said.