Lehigh County and Allentown consider pitch to build tiny homes to combat homelessness

Written by on April 16, 2021

Lehigh County and Allentown consider pitch to build tiny homes to combat homelessness 

By Megan Frank

April 16, 2021

Photo| Tumbleweed Tiny House Company via NPR

Tiny homes are all the rage among the boho set, but in Allentown, some community members want to build them as temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness. 

Listen to the story.

Proponents say they’ll give people a pathway to the long-term shelter but critics argue the micro-shelters aren’t a viable solution for the city’s homeless population.

On a warm March morning, a crowd of about 40 people gathered in front of Allentown City Hall for a unique demonstration. 

A crew of four men stood up prefabricated walls and bolted them together to create a 64-square-foot metal pallet home that could be used to house unsheltered citizens. 

“It took 12 minutes to put this thing together. Imagine how many we could do in a day. Look at the mattress, have a seat,” says Tommy Rodriguez, founder and president of Operation Address the Homeless (OATH) of Lehigh Valley, a group that provides showers, clothing and food to the Lehigh Valley’s unsheltered.

And now they want to build a tiny homes community called “Hope Village.” 

I think it’s long overdue, to be able to provide a solution for the unsheltered community in the whole Lehigh Valley,” Rodriguez says. 

Each tiny home costs about $6,000, including materials and labor. The initial plan is to build 25 units to house 60 people. The site would include a communal bathroom, laundry facilities and a dining hall for a total cost of about $700,000, Rodriguez says. The group is looking at three potential locations in Allentown.

City Councilwoman Ce-Ce Gerlach supports the project. It’s an issue that she connects to personally.

 “I had just graduated from Cedar Crest College. I was volunteering on the Obama campaign. And the campaign had allowed me to stay in a room above their office. When that campaign ended, I slept in my car,” Gerlach says.

Four months into living in her car, a co-worker gave her a place to stay. 

 “That allowed me just to get my mind back. I was able to save up money and rent a room. If it wasn’t for getting shelter, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” Gerlach says. 

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, most people without shelter are single adults and the biggest obstacle for many of them is finding affordable housing.

Still others need social services and community support. 

Jennifer Miklus, vice president of OATH, says Hope Village will offer addiction counseling, job hunting help and healthcare.

“We want to make sure that people who don’t have access to something like a job can come to Hope Village and get the skills and training that they need so that maybe they can get off of government assistance,” Miklus says.

OATH wants to partner with the county on those programs and has pitched the idea to local leaders.

But some have reservations. 

Lehigh County Commissioner Geoff Brace has been working with Allentown’s Homelessness Commission on other options.

“Their strategy lays out preventing homelessness through rental assistance and expanding housing options through rapid re-housing,” Brace says.  

That includes rent vouchers and working with landlords to avoid evictions. Lehigh County recently received $23 million dollars from the federal government for that. 

Brace says there are hundreds of people looking for help right now.

“There’s 305 in Allentown requesting housing assistance. And of the 305, 195 are families with children. We have to ask, what’s the best use of public dollars?” Brace says.

And that speaks to a national debate on the issue: Is the best tactic prevention or transitional housing like tiny homes?

Back inside the tiny pallet home at City Hall, Allentown City Council President Julio Guridy tries out the mattress. 

“Hey, I can sleep here, I think it’s excellent,” Guridy says. 

And Guridy’s opinion matters. Hope Village needs the city council’s approval and financial support to become a reality. 

“Even if it is temporary, it can save lives. This is not the final solution. Obviously, we need services like permanent housing for those that are unsheltered,” Guridy says. 

Allentown and Lehigh County each set aside $100,000 for homelessness this year. That’s money Hope Village organizers want for their project. Private donors will help cover the rest. 

The City Council hasn’t scheduled a vote yet, but OATH is looking for an answer soon in hopes of getting Hope Village built-in time for Thanksgiving. 

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