Assistant professor Amy Blank Wilson and nonprofit partner Cross Disability Services Inc. (XDS) have been awarded a $50,000 grant from the international Oak Foundation to support the development of a “tiny homes” village for adults with mental illness and other health conditions in Chatham County.
The ongoing project developed through partnerships with multiple agencies and representatives in Chatham County and at UNC. The village, which will include houses measuring about 420-square-feet each, will be located at The Farm at Penny Lane, which is operated by XDS and the UNC Center for Community Mental Health. The location is ideal because it provides residents with access to healthy foods, daily meaningful activities, and a host of services and supports to ensure their well-being, Wilson said.
XDS services worked in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Chatham County and with other community organizations to build the first tiny home at the Chatham County Fair in 2016. Wilson completed an evaluation of the model home last year to elicit feedback from consumers and service providers on how best to tailor the design of the tiny homes and the village where they will be located to meet the needs of people with mental illness. Wilson’s work was funded with $75,000 that she received as a winner of UNC’s C. Felix Harvey Award to Advance Institutional Priorities.
“For the model home, we brought in focus groups and hosted a series of overnight stays for people with serious mental illness so that they could give us feedback, and the result was that we now have a lot of great data that we’re using as we move forward with the design of the homes,” she said.
Although a tiny homes community is not new, the current development is believed to be the first of its kind in the world that is being designed to provide affordable housing as well as access to healthy food and behavioral-health support services to residents with mental illness and other physical health conditions. Because less expensive housing continues to be in short supply across the country, people with serious mental illnesses often face homelessness, which can exacerbate their physical and mental health, Wilson said.
Affordable and safe housing is especially challenging to find for individuals who rely solely on federal income known as Supplemental Social Security to cover rent, food, utilities and other basic needs, she said. According to the Boston-based Technical Assistance Collaborative and the national Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Housing Task Force, the average monthly rent for a basic one-bedroom apartment is $861. That expense is 113 percent of the monthly income of a person with a disability, leaving no additional money for other necessities.
Wilson and community partners are hopeful that the tiny homes project could help to close this gap and serve as a model innovation for increasing the nation’s total amount of affordable housing stock for people with mental illnesses.
“We know these homes are not for everybody, but we also know that they are affordable, and we really think they can be a game changer,” Wilson said.
In addition to providing housing, the tiny homes village also aims to improve residents’ overall quality of life by offering access to a host of other amenities and services, including a community garden, where they can pick freshly grown vegetables, and a wellness center, which will focus on holistic wellness and well-being.
“One of the things we’ve learned is that residents don’t want this village to be viewed as a place where sick people go to live,” Wilson added. “So we’re developing it as a place that offers many pathways out so that people don’t feel isolated, and they don’t feel caught. We’re also focused on what we need to draw people here. Ultimately, this is a planned community just like Briar Chapel and Chatham Park. In addition, the village will expand the continuum of services and options for people with mental illness who are ready to live independently and who want to live independently.”