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Are Tiny Homes The Solution To Disaster Relief?

After floods destroyed thousands of houses in West Virginia, local vocational high school students started constructing 500-square-foot replacements.

Last June, flooding of an unprecedented scale struck West Virginia, leaving at least 23 dead and destroying around 5,000 homes. One of the uprooted was Brenda Rivers, a retired nurse who had lived in her home in Sinks Grove, right at the banks of the Greenbriar River, for 18 years. When the water levels began to rise, Rivers piled into her camper van with her dog and cat, and parked in her neighbors’ driveway for a few days. She returned to find six inches of solid mud lining the floor of her house.

At first, Rivers told West Virginia Public Broadcasting, she thought she could just hose it off and move back in. But the whole foundation was destroyed, and the mud had hardened into a sort of concrete that was impossible to remove. Because she couldn’t find a short-term rental that she could afford and that would accept pets, Rivers drove her camper van to her daughter’s house in Alderson and has been living there ever since. But with five homeschooled children running around, she can’t imagine staying. “It’s too chaotic,” she said.

Rivers is one of many West Virginians who struggled to put down new roots after the historic floods. Though the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was on hand to provide cash assistance for repairs or temporary housing, the up to $33,000 in assistance is intended “to get you back on your feet, but we cannot make you whole again,” FEMA deputy director Mike Senycz told West Virginia Metro News.

A new housing relief program launched in West Virginia’s network of vocational schools is giving people like Rivers a more personal–and potentially permanent–place to live. As the chief officer of career technical education (CTE) for the West Virginia Department of Education, Kathy D’Antoni had watched high school students leave school “just lacking basic job-readiness skills, like commitment and preparedness.” Around five years ago, she piloted the Simulated Workplace program in 80 CTE classrooms across the state, with the idea that each class would be run like an actual company that students lead and operate. The program has since expanded to over 500 classrooms.

When the floods hit, D’Antoni tells Co.Exist that she saw an opportunity for the students to put their skills to work assisting the community. Schools participating in the Simulated Workplace program receive around $20,000 each year from the West Virginia Board of Education; instead of funneling that money into supplies for building things like bird cages or dog houses, D’Antoni says, she decided to set the students a larger task: To construct a group of tiny homes for people displaced by the floods.

Twelve classrooms across the state collaborated to design and build 15 unique tiny homes, each no larger than 500 square feet (for contrast, the average American home is around 2,500 square feet). “Instead of setting kids a project that they would then tear up or throw away or never use, we gave them the project of designing these homes,” D’Antoni says. “It’s really leveraging state dollars for a cause.”

The original plan was for the homes to be delivered to the 15 families before Christmas; because local relief agencies needed more time to construct concrete foundations for the home and connect the electricity and sewer systems, the delivery ended up being delayed until mid-January. But the project isn’t stopping at 15 homes. One school in the state’s eastern panhandle now has a contract with Habitat for Humanity and Proctor & Gamble, which will funnel $75,000 into the construction of at least three more homes.

Though the tiny homes are not meant to be permanent replacements for homes lost in the flood, D’Antoni says that “they could be if people want.” A couple of the homes were designed so walls could be removed and built out into a larger structure. That flexibility is the hallmark of a disaster-relief housing program in Texas, called RAPIDO, which delivers the core of a modular home to residents who lost their homes in six weeks. The core then is gradually built out into a full-sized home.

The point of RAPIDO and other prefabricated disaster relief housing (like these low-cost units in Japan) is to prepare for disasters before they hit, and deliver resources quickly, efficiently, and with a degree of permanence. FEMA, which still relies heavily on expensive, temporary trailers in the wake of a disaster, has yet to embrace that model.

For West Virginia, D’Antoni imagines students developing a whole fleet of tiny homes, “that could be stored and rolled out right after a disaster.” Families could then choose to keep the home, or the tiny house could be returned, refurbished, and repurposed when the next disaster strikes.

It’s a promising model for disaster relief, but also, D’Antoni says, for how technical education should work. “It’s a way for kids to contribute to local economic development, but also do good for the community and give back what has been given to them.”

[Photos: via Simulated Workplace]

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