If a developer submitted a proposal to the city of Madison and said "I can't afford to meet minimum building code standards so I'm not going to," how would we want the leaders of our city to respond?
Over the past few months we have seen many articles about the tiny house project organized by Occupy Madison, about the proponents' hopes for the village, about the extreme need for homeless services in Madison and assumptions that neighbors who oppose the project just don't want it "in their backyard."
I'm a neighbor of the tiny house project proposed for the Emerson East neighborhood. I oppose the project not because of who might be living there, but because of the conditions in which they will be living.
I do not think that tiny houses are a viable housing solution because they fail to meet the most basic needs of their residents. Tiny houses do not allow their residents to cook or bathe, and while the proposed site plan calls for one shower and eventually a kitchenette, these improvements depend on uncertain funding. Tiny houses feature compost toilets that use solar-powered electric fans to circulate air from within the sewage tank to the air outside, and most neighbors are understandably averse to living downwind of nine of them. Tiny houses are on wheels so they can be parked on the street and moved often, but also to avoid compliance with the minimum building-code standards that govern every other dwelling in the city of Madison.
Before we decide to endorse housing that is exempt from building codes, we should consider that code enforcement is often the last line of defense for low-income tenants in substandard apartments. Why should we give this project exemption from the law that we would never give a landlord? The idea that a wooden camper with no kitchen or plumbing is good enough for the homeless is hardly a compassionate one. Wouldn't the funds to purchase a dilapidated auto shop be better spent on a building with refrigerators and toilets? Why divert limited resources from solutions that make sense?
I have lived in the Emerson East neighborhood for seven years. It's a great neighborhood with convenient amenities, good schools and laid-back residents. It is home to a well-maintained apartment building run by Goodwill Industries that houses adults with disabilities in a supported living environment. The Stein Apartments are a great example of how a nonprofit organization can provide successful community housing that is an asset to the neighborhood.
I would have no objection if Occupy Madison wanted to build or buy a code-compliant apartment building to house the homeless in my neighborhood. I object to this project because it is designed to skirt the building standards that apply to every other property in the city.
Occupy Madison isn't sure when it will get enough funding to build a kitchen or a shower, and its organizers can't tell us how many tiny houses will eventually be parked on the streets of the neighborhood. Proponents have shown the neighborhood a few site plans and asked us to trust that it will all work out, but designing their proposal around loopholes in the law is not behavior that inspires trust.
Those who oppose this project are only asking that Emerson East have the same basic protections that every other neighborhood in the city enjoys. Do we really ask too much of our neighbors when we hold them to the same standards as ourselves?
I hope that the residents of Madison will join me in asking the Common Council to stand up for adequate housing that meets building code throughout the city. This project doesn't just damage our neighborhood -- it damages yours.
Morgan Aten is a resident of the Emerson East neighborhood. "Citizen" is an opinion series that presents the views of the author. If you would like to reply, please comment or consider submitting an op-ed in response.