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Madison nonprofit wants expansion of tiny houses to help homeless

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MADISON (WKOW) -- A Madison non-profit group's concern for the pandemic's impact on the homeless population prompts a proposed increase in tiny houses in the city by five-fold.

"We knew something else needed to be done," says Occupy Madison's Brenda Konkel.

With fear over the risk of the transmission of the coronavirus in homeless shelters, more people have resorted to living outside.  Since May, the city has sanctioned the use of certain park space for tent encampments.  But there was a suspicious death at one encampment in a park last month. And some city leaders will soon propose an end to the city-allowed, tent camping in parks.

Occupy Madison has operated a village of tiny houses on North Third Street for six years.  There are five homes in the complex.  Prior to moving into one of the homes and helping with its renovation, Larry Orr, 77, was largely living in a tent.  "I'm housing challenged," Orr says.  "Happy to be here," he says.

Konkel says her non-profit group is poised to purchase the property of the now-closed Wiggy's Tavern on Aberg Avenue.  Wiggy's was formerly operated by the late Dave Wiganowsky, a former Dane County Supervisor.  Occupy Madison's plan is to put twenty-five even smaller tiny houses - conestoga huts - in the property's parking lot.  Konkel says these huts are being used in Walla Walla, Washington and other locations in the Pacific Northwest, are less expensive to manufacture, and can be built in a day or two.  She says the former tavern building would be transformed into a village center with bathrooms, showers, and with the commercial kitchen being retained.  The existing tiny house village also has a community center with those amenities.

Konkel says a conestoga hut can be built in about two days.

"I hope we can get people in by Christmas," Konkel says.

Modifying the former commercial property into a tiny house village will require zoning changes and city council approval.  Konkel says the neighborhood's buy-in will also be sought.  She says the experience of the existing tiny house village should help persuade stakeholders of the concept's contribution to helping Madison address housing insecurity.  "It's been a pretty successful model for us," she says.  "No police calls."

Konkel and others concede the conestoga huts are just one step in trying to help the growing displacement in the city linked to COVID-19.  And she says the use of the huts on the property would be temporary.  Occupy Madison would need to go through more city channels and gain more approvals for a village on the order of North Third Street to be created.  

Orr says a tiny house village may not suit some of the people living in tents, even winter weather just weeks away.  "Some people will prefer to stay home in the tents, or no fixed roofs over their heads," Orr says.  "Others will be really glad to get shelter."

Konkel says moving into a tiny house village entails a commitment to the community.  "Everyone...has to cooperate and participate in the community," she says.  "You have to help build your tiny house."

Konkel says it's appropriate the new village is envisioned for Wiganowsky's former business location, as he was one of the supervisors who supported an extension of time for displaced people to live in tents at the county's Token Creek Park several years ago.

The city council is expected to take up the tiny house village proposal later this month.