The center pews at Cumberland Church in Albany were full Tuesday night.
Armed with glasses of iced tea as fans chased away the heat of the day overhead, the group working to save the 126-year-old church sat, nodding along as the Creating Housing Coalition prepared to preach to the choir.
The two groups came together Tuesday — one to present an idea, the other to offer support — as part of the housing coalition’s effort to build momentum in its quest to construct a village of tiny houses for the homeless.
The coalition started more than a year ago with a “bunch of church ladies,” according to President Stacey Bartholomew. Since then, it’s grown to include community activists as well.
Coalition member Carol Davies was the first to take to the altar Tuesday telling the story of a homeless man in Albany who experienced a medical emergency last month. Emergency operators were not able to locate the man based on the initial 911 call. A second 911 call made by another individual at the homeless camp garnered emergency services, but due to the man’s location, water rescue was brought in to reach him.
“You can imagine the cost involved in that,” Davies said. “If we had a more systematic way of dealing with these issues connected to homelessness, we would save the community money.”
The coalition’s solution to these issues? Housing.
Phase I, as the group is calling it, consists of gaining community support, fundraising, and creating community and business partnerships. Phase II, which is estimated to begin at the end of next year, includes the actual construction of the homes and completion of the village.
“Success of the model depends on our partnerships,” said coalition member Daniel Easdale.
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The model the group has in mind is similar to the villages created by SquareOne, a Eugene-based nonprofit organization the coalition has already partnered with. Opportunity Village in Eugene was built with $100,000 in cash donations as well as in-kind donations. The organization is also currently constructing a village in Lane County's Cottage Grove. That 13-home village is expected to cost $1.2 million at its completion.
In Albany, the group hopes to build 20 to 25 tiny homes on at least an acre of land. No land has been secured yet, but the coalition will be meeting with Greater Albany Public Schools and a local church in the coming month regarding land that may be available.
Any location the coalition chooses, Bartholomew said, must be near public transportation, grocery stores and other services to make sure the village remains sustainable.
“We want to make sure this is replicable,” she said, adding that if the village worked in Albany, a similar project could take place in Lebanon, Sweet Home and the Oregon coast.
While Phase II is more than a year away, the questions raised by the Cumberland Church group revolved mainly around the logistics of housing the homeless.
According to Bartholomew, the first residents of the village would be vetted by the coalition. Once the community was established, residents would take over the vetting duties and decide on new residents. The matter of rent also garnered questions, with coalition members noting that rent would be far below the current market rate but paid just the same. Because the tiny houses would already be paid for, rent would go toward utilities and the maintenance of the village.
Bartholomew said too many families were considered rent burdened — having to spend more than 30% of their income on rent — and that many people receiving Social Security monthly could not afford the cost of an apartment.
“I’ve worked with people in shelters and mental health facilities, and their No. 1 concern is housing,” Bartholomew said.
Easdale, who once managed a homeless shelter, said his motivation behind joining the group was knowing the difference housing made to those living below the poverty line.
“I would watch families come in and within a few days, you could see the stress melt off their face,” he said. “Once they had shelter they looked toward handling everything else.”