Could St. Paul’s east side get a tiny house village?

Published 10:48 am Sunday, September 3, 2017

By Max Nesterak

MPR News/90.1 FM

On a whim last fall, Loren Schirber paid $65,000 for a 3-acre strip of land on St. Paul’s east side that looks like a useless patch of broken-up blacktop and overgrown weeds.

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But he has a vision for the plot: an entire cooperative neighborhood of tiny houses with 52 units, gardens, chickens, a community center and a dog run.

Before construction on the “East Yard Cooperative” can begin, however, Schirber has some big hurdles to overcome.

For starters, the land is bordered by two active rail tracks — locals know it “Railroad Island.” The noise is so great that neighbors across the street are skeptical of Schirber’s project.

“Gosh, I wish ‘em luck but, no. I don’t know how anyone could live there,” said Dick Goulet, who has lived in the neighborhood for 21 years. “Even at night we get used to them trains sometimes they hump and they bang when they take off, I’ll tell you this old house’ll shake.”

The houses Schirber wants to build would likely feel the trains’ impact more. They’re tiny: between 280 and 530 square feet, plus a sleeping loft.

However, they won’t look quite like the more common tiny houses on wheels — building codes require foundations and plumbing.

First, though, Shirber would need to get his land cleaned up. The land used to be a toxic waste dump and a railyard, so there’s mercury, lead and arsenic polluting the ground.

St. Paul City Council member Amy Brendmoen thinks it’d be a good use of public money to pay for cleanup efforts. She thinks the tiny house co-op is an exciting idea. Part of it would fall in her ward.

“I love the idea of a co-op, and something kind of new in an area that has been, you know, had its challenges over time, but is really kind of becoming [an] area of interest for people,” she said.

At a recent public interest meeting, east side residents like Paris Yarbrough raised another concern: gentrification.

“People want to talk about tiny homes. We’re losing affordable units at an alarming rate. So where are these people going to go?” Yarbrough asked. “They’re not going to go in tiny homes because the average east sider can’t live in a tiny home.”

While technically affordable, Yarbrough said a tiny house is impractical for many people in the area who have blended, multigenerational family.

She fears these new, trendy tiny houses will attract outsiders with more money than the rest of the neighborhood.

But would that force out people living there now? Not by itself, says one expert.

“You’d have to have a tidal wave of yuppies to have even a tiny dent in a neighborhood like that,” said University of Minnesota law professor Myron Orfield, who published a study of gentrification in the Twin Cities last year. “There’s almost no chance that it would have any effect.”

East side neighborhoods are becoming poorer, Orfield said, and there doesn’t appear to be much evidence of gentrification there.

He and Brendmoen both said St. Paul’s east-side could use more economic diversity.

Schirber estimates the price of his tiny houses would range from about $130,000 to 170,000.

“Seven hundred fifty dollars to $850 a month, plus co-op fees might be around $190. All told, we’re looking at costs about $1,000 to $1,100 a month,” he said.

Tiny houses aren’t the most affordable housing you can find in a city, but they are well within reach for many first-time homebuyers who want to live more simply, or retirees who want to downsize in a big way.

Added revenue from a village of tiny houses could help improve roads and schools and business. And Schirber said he’d like to see the future co-operative work with organizations to help bring in people who might not otherwise be able to buy a house.

The soonest he thinks construction could finish is spring 2019.

If the plan comes together, Orfield said it could do good for the neighborhood.

“Racial and social integration is a good thing,” he said, “and when you create all poor, all segregated neighborhoods generally it destroys people’s lives and it’s very hard for those neighborhoods to gain ground or be sustainable.”