PHOTO COURTESY COUNCIL ON AGING OF WEST FLORIDA

AARP Livable Communities

Council on Aging of West Florida is often contacted by or on behalf of older residents in desperate need of housing and asking for help. In most cases, all the Pensacola, Florida-based agency can do is tell people to get on the region’s waiting lists for senior housing.

AARP Community Challenge

COUNCIL ON AGING OF WEST FLORIDA

Beverly, 66, had been evicted from the vermin-infested mobile home she was renting. “I had been living in a trailer with almost non-existent plumbing,” she shares. “The tiny house is small, but it’s new, it’s clean — and it’s mine! I’m very thankful!”


Learn about other housing-related projects that have been supported by the AARP Community Challenge.

* Check out the photo album to read about a tiny house community in Eugene, Oregon.

In 2022, the agency chose to address the housing problem directly by using its AARP Community Challenge grant for a housing-related demonstration project. “Housing is the biggest need,” explains Emily Echevarria, and it has the potential for the “biggest impact.”

Because the organization’s staff didn’t have experience in the housing space, it reached out to local developers and one put them in touch with Rick Dye, a retired bank president who  volunteers as an affordable housing consultant in the Pensacola community.

“Rick was gung-ho about doing something with tiny houses,” says Echevarria. He connected Council on Aging of West Florida to Randy Jones of Incredible Tiny Homes in Newport, Tennessee. The agency contracted with the company to build two 128-square-foot tiny houses. 

Tiny house rules vary by city and county. In the Pensacola area, tiny houses, which are built on pier foundations or flatbed trailers so they can be moved at a later date, are classified as recreational vehicles so are allowed in mobile home and RV parks.

The homes built by Jones are a model he calls the Incred-I-Box. Measuring 8-feet wide by 16-feet long, the Incred-I-Box home currently lists for $25,000 and has electricity, a hot water heater, plumbing, a full bathroom and a kitchen sink. Heating and air conditioning can be achieved with the addition of a mini-split or window unit. Carpentry students from Pensacola State College built the homes’ stairs and shelving. Volunteers from Pensacola Habitat for Humanity painted the houses.

Two local women experiencing housing emergencies were selected by Council on Aging of West Florida to become the tiny house owners. Beverly (pictured) had been living in a vermin-infested mobile home. The other woman had been living out of her car for 10 months when she was selected to receive a new home. In 2022, the average monthly rental cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Pensacola was $900. Both women pay $350 a month to cover the mobile home lot fee and they pay for their electricity. 

One of the homes was used as a showcase model to introduce the tiny homes concept to the Pensacola community.

PHOTO COURTESY COUNCIL ON AGING OF WEST FLORIDA

An interior view of a tiny house showing the entrance and living-sleeping area


“Tiny homes are a little bit stigmatized around here,” says Echevarria. “People worry that, if tiny homes are allowed, people will just put up any little, ramshackle structure and call it a tiny home. We’re trying to show people that tiny homes are a viable housing option, especially for people who are older or are at risk of homelessness.”

“Any type of residential housing that is not the traditional site-built home must be built to a community’s local building code and be located on an acceptably zoned lot,” adds Dye. “So, when you talk about a tiny home which, for affordability and transportability, often looks like a box, people compare it to a mobile home but it’s not. When built as a modular in a factory, a tiny house is comparable to a traditional site-built home, just smaller.”

Two tiny houses shown on the trailers that serve as the homes’ foundations


Results

The house tours given to local leaders were instrumental to beginning the educational process of gaining community acceptance of tiny homes as an affordable housing option.

In addition, the Council on Aging of West Florida was invited by the new mayor’s transition team to participate in a roundtable discussion about housing. Representatives from the Florida Blue health insurance company traveled to Pensacola from Jacksonville to see the tiny house, after which they invited the agency to submit a proposal for $500,000 in grant funding to lead a similar project. 

PHOTO COURTESY COUNCIL ON AGING OF WEST FLORIDA

The bathroom and kitchen counter in a tiny house under construction


Lessons Learned

Seek Out Expertise: “Have great partners that fill any gaps in your knowledge,” says Echevarria. “Rick Dye knows a lot about the current state of homelessness, housing and zoning ordinances and laws. We have a board member who worked at Habitat for Humanity and is very knowledgeable about what’s happening behind the scenes at various county and city boards.”

Don’t Be Shy: “Talk about the project wherever you go,” advises Echevarria. “I was doing a presentation at Pensacola State College about guardianship education when the facilitator mentioned that the school’s carpentry program always needed projects.”

It Takes a Village: “Delegate as much as you can,” says Echevarria. “Sometimes I thought I could handle things by myself. One day, because we were under a time crunch, our CEO was crawling under the tiny home hooking up the sewage and I was connecting the waterline. When I turned the water on, it spurted from every connector.” Lesson learned? “Collaborate, make partnerships, make friends, tell everyone about the project and see if anyone raises their hand and says, ‘Hey, I can help.’”

A Tiny Tutorial About Tiny Homes

PHOTO COURTESY COUNCIL ON AGING OF WEST FLORIDA

To encourage visits by elected officials and other local leaders, a tiny house was placed in the parking lot of Pensacola City Hall.


Before people can accept new ideas, such as tiny houses, “there has to be a great deal of education,” says Rick Dye, who relies on a specific, visual way to introduce tiny homes to communities.

“The tiny house is tiny, at most a tiny house is 500-square-feet. Most of the politicians or homeowners who come to see a tiny house tour live in homes that are more than 1,000-square-feet,” Dye notes. “In order to help that person understand the context, I try to bring a vehicle that’s been lived in and put it beside the home, so we can say, ‘the woman who will be living in this house had been living in her car in a Walmart parking lot.’”

“If you don’t show a visual comparison, the visitor walks into the tiny house and says, ‘Wow. Nobody can live in something this small.’ They don’t realize that thousands of people in their community are living in spaces that small or smaller.”

Adds Dye: “There is a crisis in the affordable housing stock and rental inventory in every city in America. The problem is especially acute for people who have low wages as well as for older women who did not accumulate enough Social Security credits while they were in the workforce or because they weren’t in the workforce at all.”

“Politicians and people working in the home-building industry need to recognize that we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing in housing and think we are going to be able to create more affordable housing to meet the pent-up demand,” Dye continues. “People’s incomes just haven’t kept up with the cost of construction and the cost of a typical traditional home. A tiny home that is local building code compliant and located on a properly zoned lot is smaller in square footage, and therefore more affordable to more people. This is especially true for seniors who are living on low monthly retirement benefits such as Social Security. Tiny homes are what is needed now.”

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