Before the state's most destructive wildfire tore through Butte County, Calif., detailed plans for a tiny home village for the homeless in the northern California city of Chico were met with a mix of indifference, NIMBY-ism and outright rejection from a previous city council.
But November's Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and incinerated some 14,000 area homes, breathed new life into plans for a community of one-room wooden homes to help house some of Butte County's homeless.
"The fire created a whole new reality, it added an urgency for sure," says Charles Withuhn, a volunteer and board member with the nonprofit Chico Housing Action Team or CHAT. The current city council has given the project the go-ahead.
The retired contractor and small business owner is showing me around the 2.6 acre future site of what will be called Simplicity Village. The tiny home community is planned to house some of Chico's homeless — including some from the Camp Fire. It's across from a lumber yard and just off Highway 99, a local thoroughfare through Chico.
"There are a lot of problems in the world that I can't fix. I can put together a little tiny house," he says.
It's a citizen-led approach that's being funded almost entirely though private and corporate donations of money, materials and labor. The group estimates initial construction will cost roughly $790,000, with about half of that coming from in-kind donations.
"We're a volunteer army," says CHAT organizer and board member Bill Kurnizki. "We fundraise by doing musical programs, putting letters out to people and asking for donations. So the windows, the doors, siding, roofing — all donated."
The tiny home village is not solely for Camp Fire homeless. But CHAT organizers say some of the people made homeless by the blaze will get priority slots. "We want to accommodate Cape Fire victims and maybe one third of the buildings will be set aside for them," Withuhn says.
CHAT organizer Leslie Johnson, a local attorney, notes that many homeless often get some federal subsidies such as Social Security, Supplemental Security Income or disability benefits. Simplicity Village will charge just $200 a month for rent and utilities to cover the village's operational expenses.
"We just have to look for every kind of opportunity to try to help solve this housing situation," Johnson says. "People just can't afford conventional size housing. A lot of people just can't. But a little tiny house, people can afford to rent that."
An ongoing housing crisis
The Camp Fire's historic destruction worsened an already difficult housing crisis in and around the northern city of Chico. Even before the Camp Fire, Butte County already had some 2,000 homeless according to a 2017 survey.
Since the fire, local rents have skyrocketed further, homes are selling well-above asking and there are almost no vacant rental properties available. That reality has exacerbated the housing crunch as some fire refugees start to leave the area and the state altogether.
There are other tiny home plans afoot in other parts of California and in other states. But CHAT hopes Simplicity Village becomes something of a model for other cities in the state grappling with widening inequality and the impacts of climate change.
"This is as much about sustainability and community as it is about tiny," Withuhn says. "We may be entering the final phase of human existence and our ability to adapt and continue to live on the planet will depend on imaginative ways to live a smaller carbon footprint," he believes. "This community will have a fraction of the carbon footprint of the typical urban or suburban setting."
CHAT presented a detailed tiny home village proposal some four years ago. But they were met with foot-dragging from the city council at the time and then outright rejection.
Organizers believe it took the Camp Fire to finally help get the idea off the ground.
In April they hope to break ground on 33 one-room homes. Most of them will include a small bed, kitchenette and bathroom. The village will also have five larger buildings for community meetings, meals, kitchen, laundry, as well as a workshop area and a security guard house.
The group is coordinating with county and state agencies to provide on-site mental health and other support services. The group will screen applicants and those accepted will have to live by a community code of conduct that includes no drug or alcohol use.
CHAT has signed a letter of intent for an 18-year lease in a three-way agreement with the private landowner and the city of Chico. They've hired a civil engineer and are working with city agencies to get water, sewer and electricity permits lined up.
This Chico tiny home village, organizers admit, will be just small piece of a much bigger housing puzzle here. Local media are calling for the city of Chico to do more to accommodate fire evacuees. CHAT is also calling for more mobile home parks, more affordable, subsidized apartments, more tiny home villages and other creative solutions.
Organizer Withuhn says it's not about political ideology. "Politics has nothing to do with this," he says. "This is about human rights, human dignity, having a community. Are we going to be civilized and pull together as a team when there's a crisis? Or is it just: guy with the most toys at the end wins, that's it, who cares?"
"We're saying we'd rather be part of a community," he says, "that's pulling together to solve a problem."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
California's most devastating wildfire, the Camp Fire, killed 85 people and torched 14,000 homes. The destruction exacerbated what was already a housing crisis in and around the city of Chico. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, the fire has now helped breathe new life into one small effort to help the homeless.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Like so many here in and around the town of Paradise, Cynthia Davis was wiped out by November's urban firestorm. Her uninsured, rented mobile home in the small community of Magalia burned to dust.
CYNTHIA DAVIS: The best place we ever had for two and a half years, almost three. And I lost everything, including what my dad gave me.
WESTERVELT: Her voice chokes and then trails off.
DAVIS: Every time I talk about it, it just hurts. Yeah, it hurts so bad.
WESTERVELT: Davis walks with a limp and wheezes with a hacking cough.
(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)
WESTERVELT: The 54-year-old's health problems were worsened by living some two months in a cold tent trailer on the edge of the Chico fairgrounds shelter the Red Cross is working to close down. Today, more than 50 ragged RVs are still parked here at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds. Davis worries she and her son and husband will be among the last fire refugees to leave this dirt parking lot.
DAVIS: I just want to go home. I just want to be at home, that I could sit down and relax and not be sick. I'm at my last straw right now.
WESTERVELT: I'm sorry.
But where is home? Davis is in line for a FEMA trailer, but that's only temporary, meant to be used for 12 to 18 months. After that, she's not sure what she'll do. Davis doesn't want to end up homeless, worsening a homeless problem here that was already bad before the Camp Fire.
CHARLES WITHUHN: More or less, where that fence is down to where that big tree is, big open area.
WESTERVELT: Charles Withuhn walks through a flat, grassy field on the south side of Chico. Tall, lanky, with an Abe Lincoln-style beard, Withuhn is giving me a tour of the nearly three-acre future site of a new tiny home park for some of Chico's homeless called Simplicity Village.
WITHUHN: There are a lot of problems in the world that I can't fix. I can put together a little tiny house.
WESTERVELT: The retired sign maker and contractor is an organizer with the Chico Housing Action Team, or CHAT. The nonprofit floated the tiny home village idea some four years ago, but they were met with NIMBYism, indifference and foot-dragging by the city council at the time. It took the Camp Fire to finally help get the idea moving.
They'll soon break ground on 33 tiny one-room homes as well as five communal meal and gathering places, a workshop and a shower building. The group has signed a long-term lease for the land. They're working with the city to get water, sewer and electricity lined up. It's all being done with private and corporate donations of money, materials and labor. It's a citizens-led make-it-happen approach, says CHAT organizer Bill Kurnizki.
BILL KURNIZKI: We're a volunteer army, Eric. We fundraise by doing musical programs, putting letters out to people and asking for donations, all donations. So the windows, doors, siding, roofing - all donated.
WITHUHN: The tiny home village will not be solely for Camp Fire homeless. But CHAT volunteer Leslie Johnson says about a third of the new units will be set aside for older people made homeless by the wildfire. Johnson, a local attorney, notes that many homeless often get some federal subsidies, Social Security or disability. Simplicity Village will charge just $200 a month to cover all rent and utilities.
LESLIE JOHNSON: People just can't afford conventional-sized housing. Lot of people just can't, you know? But a little tiny house, they can afford to rent that. We just have to look for every kind of opportunity to try to help solve this housing situation.
WESTERVELT: It's not just Silicon Valley and San Francisco where the housing market is cutthroat. Here in rural Butte County since the fire, rents have skyrocketed. Further, homes are selling well above asking. And there are almost no vacant rental properties available.
This Chico tiny home village, organizers admit, is just one small piece of a much bigger housing puzzle here. The group is also calling for more mobile home parks, more subsidized apartments, more tiny home villages and other creative solutions that Charles Withuhn says is not about political ideology.
WITHUHN: Politics has nothing to do with this. This is about human rights, human dignity, having a community. Are we going to be civilized and pull together as a team when there's a crisis? Or is it just guy with the most toys at the end wins - that's it? Who cares?
WESTERVELT: We're saying we'd rather be part of a community, Withuhn says, that's pulling together to solve a problem.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Eric Westervelt, reporting on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.