ATLANTIC CITY — Tiny houses may provide a big answer to the problem of blight and homelessness in Atlantic City, according to one pastor who has built one tiny home and has plans for at least five more here.
Seeds of Hope Community Development Corp. has Planning Board approval to build five tiny homes on two vacant lots on C. Morris Cain Place, behind the Police Athletic League on North New York Avenue, said the Rev. Alexander Clarence Smith.
Smith, the pastor at Community Harvesters Church at 201 N. New York Ave., which started Seeds of Hope, said four homes could be built on a larger lot, and one on an undersized lot now owned by the group.
“We are getting rid of vacant lots, eliminating urban blight and putting properties back on the city tax rolls, while helping people in need,” said Smith on a recent tour of the lots.
According to city officials, there were more than 500 blighted or vacant properties in the city in 2016.
Tiny houses are generally described as a home that is 400 square feet or less. They have captivated the nation’s imagination on TV shows like FYI’s “Tiny House Nation.” Attempts to get other tiny home communities going in South Jersey have been unsuccessful so far, but continue. The campground of Egg Harbor River Resort in Egg Harbor Township is trying to start one there.
A bill that would allow municipalities to lease vacant municipal land for tiny homes appears promising for cities. A4822/S3408 would also direct the state Department of Community Affairs to give regulatory guidance on acceptable tiny home construction and use.
“This is the least expensive option for people who can’t afford housing,” said La Shonine Gandy-Smith, Smith’s wife. Gandy-Smith, who has a doctorate in education in organizational leadership, is also involved in the project.
Seeds of Hope wants to build the five units soon, but is still seeking funding, the pastor said, adding he hopes to keep costs down to a maximum of $30,000 per unit with the help of donated labor. Plans call for another 12 tiny homes to go up on other lots the group owns.
City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz said the group is working with the Atlantic County Institute of Technology to provide some of the construction labor.
“They are going to hopefully get some funding from the DCA (state Department of Community Affairs) and we’re going to reach out to CRDA (the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority) for some gap funding,” said Shabazz. “I hope putting all those different sources together they come up with the financing needed.”
ACIT Superintendent Phil Guenther said the school is working with an architect who is designing the homes, and the school will help with construction.
“We’ve built many homes over the years with Habitat for Humanity,” Guenther said. But this will be the first time students help build tiny homes.
It’s a demonstration project, Shabazz said, and “once they get it up and people see it, I think people will fall in love with the concept. People have to see it.”
Back in 2016, the church built its first tiny home of 384 square feet, which it rents out. It replaced a Hurricane Sandy damaged home on a lot behind the church.
Seeds of Hope bought the damaged three-story home that was on the lot, and tore it down after it was hit by a vehicle and no longer salvageable. Then it got a $50,000 Sandy recovery grant to rebuild.
It was clear the group would need to be creative in rebuilding for so little, Smith said. So he got the help of Ted Gooding, then the CEO at Ocean Inc. Community Action Partnership.
“He did a tiny house in Ocean County,” said Smith, who grew up in the city and is also an Atlantic City fireman. “He said, ‘Yeah, we can build a tiny house for $50,000.’”
The home has a kitchen with eating area, bathroom, and two bedrooms, said Smith. First the group rented it for a year to a single man, and now a young married couple without children lives in it. They pay rent based on what they can afford, he said.
“I was in there when it first opened, and I was very, very impressed,” said Shabazz. “It’s not a large space but an adequate space for one or two people.”
He said he was impressed with the layout, the fact it met all city codes and could be comfortable.
“That’s why I became such an avid supporter, after I actually walked through one,” Shabazz said.
“The city auctions off undersized lots,” said Smith. “They said nothing can be done with them. I said, ‘I beg to differ.’”
It has, however, required hiring an attorney to help get variances, Smith said. He hopes that someday the city will change its zoning to allow for tiny homes on undersized lots without the need for variances.