Creating community

Local group’s tiny house village project hinges on proposed Chico shelter crisis designation

Chico Housing Action Team’s Bob Trausch shows the potential future site of Simplicity Village.

Chico Housing Action Team’s Bob Trausch shows the potential future site of Simplicity Village.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Every November, the Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT) organizes perhaps the biggest potluck in Chico—about 80 folks from 19 homes are invited to bring turkey, gravy, cranberries, string beans and other festive foods to share with one another.

They’re certainly not a traditional family breaking bread during Thanksgiving, but the attendees share at least two things in common: a story to tell about their lives, lived at least in part without a home; and gratitude toward this new, loving community, which many thought they may never find.

Bob Trausch, one of CHAT’s co-founders, said this safe, welcoming community that has been created within the nonprofit’s Housing Now permanent housing program is also what its latest proposed project—a tiny home development called Simplicity Village—is all about (see “Tiny houses, big potential,” cover story, Dec. 14, 2017).

Specifically, it would provide shelter for 30 to 40 seniors, 55 and older. The basic layout would include tiny homes along with shared community gardens, a kitchen, washers and dryers, showers and bathrooms.

Therein lies the challenge: The tiny homes, which do not include individual kitchens and bathrooms, do not meet current building code standards. In order for Simplicity Village to move forward, then, the city of Chico must act.

If the City Council declares a shelter crisis, this would relax state building code requirements and help provide temporary—or “bridge”—housing for homeless people, whose health and safety are threatened because of a lack of available shelter.

The 2017 homeless census reported there were 747 people living unsheltered in Butte County—meaning on the streets and in parks. In Chico, 433 were living without a roof. As of April, there was a 2 percent vacancy rate for homes and apartments in Chico.

“No matter where you are politically, the community of Chico knows there’s a housing crisis. How we address that is important,” Trausch said. “[CHAT is] just part of the solution.”

Trausch and his wife, Leslie Johnson, have envisioned a tiny home village for Chico for the past five years. They have researched and visited similar projects as far away as Olympia, Wash., and as close to home as 14Forward in Marysville.

The idea is that residents would pay a small amount for rent each month and no drugs or alcohol would be allowed (residents will go through background checks and must be sober prior to admission). CHAT plans to have three paid staff on-site 24/7, Trausch said, along with volunteers, and offer activities and services such as yoga, skills-based classes and counseling. CHAT intends to partner with Butte County, whose supervisors passed a resolution in October toward supporting homeless housing efforts.

“We’re bridging people from homelessness ultimately to permanent housing, [and] doing the same thing with emotional, psychological and physical support,” Trausch said. “Our hope is to move people on to something better.”

Their vision, supported by more than 30 active volunteers, doesn’t seem so far off now.

In Chico, the city attorney is drafting a shelter crisis declaration for council members to consider at a future meeting, when they’ll also discuss potential associated funding from the state.

As part of that declaration, the council wants to make interagency collaboration a requirement. Based on analysis by the City Attorney’s Office, whether it is Simplicity Village or a similar project, the city would have to review detailed plans before giving the green light.

There are additional benefits. If the city declares a crisis, it would open up $4.9 million in one-time state funding through the Homelessness Emergency Aid Program (with a minimum of 5 percent of funds set aside for homeless youth), established with the passage of Senate Bill 850 last month.

Individual nonprofits, like CHAT, then could apply for the funding, which would come through the Butte Countywide Homeless Continuum of Care. The catch is that the funds can be disbursed only within jurisdictions of Butte County that have declared a shelter crisis.

For months, CHAT struggled to find a location for Simplicity Village. This year, they reached out to property owner Ted Ball and have signed an intent to lease 2.6 acres off of Notre Dame Boulevard, just past Morrow Lane (neighboring the former site of a rogue homeless camp shut down by the city last year).

Speaking with the CN&R by phone earlier this week, City Councilman Andrew Coolidge said his intent in bringing up the shelter crisis declaration issue in May wasn’t to allow for tent cities to pop up across Chico, but to help Simplicity Village move forward.

“CHAT has proven themselves with very good oversight in terms of the homes they’re putting people into, so I trust the organization,” he said. It’s his desire to hear more about CHAT’s financial plan and make sure there is neighborhood buy-in, wherever the development ends up.

CHAT’s advocacy has been spearheaded recently by volunteer Charles Withuhn, who said he’s confident that the organization can raise enough money for Simplicity Village through private donations. He’s frustrated at what he sees as a lack of urgency in making the project happen.

“I want to be a part of a community that’s civilized, that can pull together in a crisis and inclusively provide for people who are challenged,” he said. “Until we have enough low-income housing, this is what we need to be doing.”