Moving forward

Council denies appeal, paving way for Chico’s first tiny home community

Chico Housing Action Team board members and supporters gather in front of a tiny home parked outside the council chambers.

Chico Housing Action Team board members and supporters gather in front of a tiny home parked outside the council chambers.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Chico Housing Action Team’s Simplicity Village got the green light from the Chico City Council, but the proposed tiny home community could face more obstacles.

On Tuesday evening (Sept. 24), the project’s proponents came out in force, with 42 out of 45 speakers urging the council to deny an appeal of the project, which would create 33 tiny homes for about 45 seniors on Notre Dame Boulevard. Most spoke to the heart of the matter: housing homeless seniors. At one point, many of those in the chambers even broke into song.

The council ultimately voted 5-1 to deny the appeal, with Councilwoman Kasey Reynolds the only nay (Councilman Sean Morgan was absent.) Reynolds, a conservative, reminded people that she previously voted in favor of the location for Simplicity Village, but had reservations about whether the city was following the letter of the law.

Frank Solinsky, co-owner of Payless Building Supply, has filed two appeals on the project. First, on Community Development Director of Planning & Housing Brendan Vieg’s decision to allow for such use on the property, which is across the street from the business.

When that appeal was heard by the Planning Commission back in August, its members voted 6-0 to deny it (one commissioner was absent). Then, Solinsky, represented by attorney Rob Berry, appealed that panel’s ruling—bringing the issue before the City Council.

City staff has classified the project as a temporary emergency facility under the Chico Municipal Code, which hinges on the shelter crisis declaration the council made last October. The declaration expires June 30, 2021, unless the council votes to extend it.

During the meeting, Berry argued that such a designation is inappropriate. For a shelter crisis declaration to apply, and standard building codes to be waived by the state, the project must be a public facility or on public land, he told the council, and this project is on private land. The city has argued that there is no such requirement.

“Approving this project … means you are willing to break the law to get the outcome you want,” Berry said.

Councilwoman Ann Schwab said she found the planning director’s decision reasonable and supported by law. Emergency facilities are permitted in that zoning district, the project is temporary and its operational characteristics, given the urgency of the need, provide for public health and safety, she said.

Mayor Randall Stone, who said the decision is “well within our police power authority,” got choked up when he cast his vote in support, mentioning that “some people die every single year out on the streets,” and they are often 55 or older. “This is an important step, and it is within our responsibility and our right as a community, as a council and as community leaders,” he said.

In an unexpected twist during public comment, Anna Meehan, who is performing at an upcoming CHAT benefit, began singing her own rendition of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” in support of Simplicity Village. Many of those sitting in the chambers joined her during the chorus.

Local attorney Richard Harriman also offered his support, calling it “an appropriate exercise of discretion … under these land use and zoning requirements.”

Other proponents included two Camp Fire survivors, who said that they are intimately aware of the dire need for affordable housing post-disaster. “If it was not for a very dear friend that happened to have a temporary facility I could stay in, I would have been out on the streets,” said Ronald White. “[Simplicity Village] would have suited me and many people impacted by Camp Fire.”

A similar community in Marysville has had success since it opened just over three years ago. Originally approved after a shelter crisis declaration, 14 Forward is made up of 20 tiny homes on county-owned land near the Feather River. Participants share community facilities and receive supportive services and case management, as CHAT has planned for Simplicity Village.

Chaya Galicia, Yuba County’s homeless and housing project manager, said 300 people have stayed there so far, and one-third have gone on to find permanent housing. There are plans to expand, and neighboring Sutter County is embarking on a similar development.

That CHAT intends to establish a program in Chico is exciting, Galicia said. “It’s always exciting for housing and shelter to be prioritized and completed,” she added.

This may not be the last time the project faces detractors, however. Berry posted in a public Facebook group later that night that, “fortunately for the appellants and you all who believe in the rule of law, this is not over. The ball is back in our court.”

Irrespective of a potential lawsuit, CHAT co-founder Robert Trausch said the organization plans to move forward and get Simplicity Village operating as soon as possible.

Before the meeting, Trausch told the CN&R that the nonprofit has worked with city staff for the past two years on this project, and the city has “done a heck of a job … ensuring that something like this can go forward legally.”

While CHAT’s volunteers have worked on this project, they also have expanded their Housing Now program, for which they hold the master lease. They now have 120 people living in 36 houses across Chico.

In Trausch’s view, either homelessness will no longer exist come June 2021, or “it’s up to the City Council to extend” the shelter crisis declaration.

“We see this land as a solution for seniors,” he said. “That’s 45 people who won’t be living on the street, who won’t be in crisis. That’s really important to us.”