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Teens have big ideas for local tiny houses

LINCOLN RESIDENT MARY Simons recently led a group of journalism students on a nationwide tour of tiny home villages, a source of affordable housing that they hope Addison County communities will embrace. Here is one of four tiny house models that have been placed in downtown Middlebury businesses as part of a scavenger hunt aimed at getting people to a Jan. 29 screening of videos from the students’ tiny homes tour.

MIDDLEBURY — Mary Simons is a journalism educator, but she wants her young charges to do more than simply write a narrative.
She wants them to become players in bringing their stories to a good conclusion. And this year, that happy ending would lead to more affordable housing in Addison County.
Simons, a Lincoln resident, runs a journalism program called “Conversations from the Open Road” aimed at Vermont high school and college students. Participants seize onto an issue and then travel to a part of the country that is enacting what Simons described as “inspiring solutions” to that conundrum.
Conversations from the Open Road is in its sixth year. Past participants studied such causes as criminal justice reform in Burlington and New York City; environmental concerns in New Orleans, where the bayous are sinking into Gulf Coast waters; and the ways people are sharing public lands in the state of Utah.
This past August, a group of Simons’ students adopted affordable housing as its cause. It was an article in the March 13, 2019, edition of the Addison Independent that gave Simons the impetus to research the tiny homes phenomena and its potential application in Vermont. She met with other local tiny homes advocates, including Ingrid Pixley of the group Homes First, to gain a better understanding of the issue.
And rather than explore it through a computer screen, Simons and her students traveled the country to get a firsthand look at a housing solution that is gaining momentum nationally: Tiny home villages. They typically involve a series of homes, all less than 500 square feet, that are organized around a common space. These small abodes can prove very energy-efficient and inexpensive, thus making homeownership possible to low-income couples or small families in need of affordable housing.
“We’re not thinking that this is the ‘magic bullet’ solution for the housing crisis; this is just one thing the town can get behind,” Simons said.
Simons and her students’ 15-day, whirlwind tour included stops at tiny house villages in Ithaca and Syracuse, N.Y.; Detroit, Mich.; Milwaukee and Madison, Wis.; and Eugene and Portland, Ore.
They enjoyed an action-packed trip that opened their eyes wider to the need for affordable housing on a national scale, and how tiny homes can be part of the mix to fill that void.
“I live in a small town in Vermont were I never see very much poverty or homelessness,” Abijah Palmer-Guest, a Bellows Falls Union High School junior who participated in the trip, said through an email. “So seeing so many people in need along the trip really taught me that even though I don’t see homelessness in my everyday life, it is still a huge problem. The sad part to me was that once you become homeless it is very hard to get back on your feet, no one who is coming from the street is going to be able to pay housing rates, even if they have a steady job. To them it’s easier to live on the streets.
“But throughout the trip we visited many tiny house villages, glimmers of hope I like to think,” she continued. “These tiny house villages have done the impossible; they have housed people that the state has been trying to house for years, and inside these tiny house villages were working communities, people who felt like they had a purpose and a life worth living.”
Palmer-Guest and her colleagues continue to process what they saw on the road and will give Addison County residents a taste of their tiny homes expedition on Jan. 29, through a series of video shorts that will be screened at Middlebury’s Marquis Theater beginning at 6 p.m. In the meantime, they are teasing the upcoming screening and encouraging more activism on tiny houses through a nifty scavenger hunt.
One of Simons’ Lincoln pals, Mary Beth Stilwell, is an excellent architect who made four cardboard models of tiny homes, portrayed during each of the seasons. The students have placed a model in each of four separate downtown Middlebury locations. Each tiny home model is paired with a box containing clues about tiny homes and the Jan. 29 film screenings. Those choosing to take part in the scavenger hunt should make their first stop the Ilsley Library, to pick up a game card that will lead them to the four tiny home model locations.

STUDENT INVOLVEMENT
The Homes First group will provide speakers on the tiny homes topic at the Jan. 29 film screenings. Meanwhile, Simons, Pixley and other tiny homes boosters are looking for individuals, businesses, landowners and schools who could fuel the construction of tiny house villages in the county. Organizers have found support from Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center educators Ben Wyatt and Jake Burnham, who are involved with architecture and building trades courses. Pixley said career center students could begin building some tiny homes in the near future, as a way of getting hands-on experience in construction.
Organizers have also contacted Middlebury College officials about lending their students’ expertise.
One of the big challenges, however, remains finding local land on which to place the tiny homes. But Simons is optimistic that enough planning and fundraising will make a local tiny homes village a reality in the near future.
“We can all give something to this effort, community-wide,” Simons said. “We’re trying to mobilize everybody to figure out how we can make this happen. It’s probably a year or two out. We have to fundraise. But that’s what we learned across the country. That’s how these all start. No one took government funding; they all did grassroots funding, which is super inspiring.”
Finnian Rooney, a Hazen Union High School junior, was another member of last summer’s tiny homes odyssey. She, too, believes the group’s efforts can pay dividends for people looking for affordable lodging.
“Based upon my experiences this summer, I am a strong proponent of tiny home cooperative communities,” she said in an email. “Working together, building trust and replacing walls of cynicism with optimism are all things I have seen these tiny home communities achieve. If we put our nose to the grindstone I don’t see Vermonters having any trouble coming together and really doing something special.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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