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The Daily
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Experimental Occupy Madison village in Emerson East neighborhood is a go
Valiquette is looking forward to creating a community.
Credit:Joe Tarr

Keith Valiquette's home is about two weeks away from completion. But until Tuesday night, he didn't know where it would be located.

Now he knows: The Madison Common Council approved an experimental tiny-home village proposed by Occupy Madison at 2046-2050 E. Johnson St. in the Emerson East neighborhood, where Sanchez Motors is now located.

Valiquette, an Occupy Madison member, was one of many who urged the council to approve the project. The proposal is to turn the old auto shop into a tiny-house workshop and park up to nine of the homes on the property. Many of the people planning to live there are now homeless.

The approval came despite opposition from several neighbors, who had successfully petitioned the city to require three-fourths of the council to approve the plan. Council members, after listening to about 50 people speak on the matter, voted 18-0 for the project, with two alders absent.

Valiquette told council members he became homeless a few years ago after his son was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and his business failed.

"I found a community with these people who are trying to make a difference," he told the council.

About 10 neighbors spoke against the project, all of them emphasizing that they support housing and services for the homeless. But they said they were concerned that the homes wouldn't be built to the city's building code standards, that the development would lower their property values and that it might be noisy. Many were apologetic in their opposition.

"I'm not a terrible person nor am I a profits-before-people person," Erin Sommerfeld told the council. "I don't hate homeless people." But she said she feared the development might lower her property values. "I've heard from other people that Realtors are discouraging people from looking at my neighborhood."

"I'm not opposed to the people," said neighbor Tim Harvey. "I'm opposed to the development, to be honest with you.... I'd have no problem if you turned this [lot] into a housing development. I didn't sign up to live next to a campground."

Occupy members said they have no intention of creating unsafe housing or lowering property values. "I understand the fear of what people think this is going to do to their property values," said Bruce Wallbaum, an Occupy member. "We're going to invest in this property financially and with volunteers."

He added that there are 30 to 40 community groups that have lent support and 300 people have asked for the group's tiny-house plans. "Nobody wants this project to fail," he said. "Nobody wants the property values to go down."

Wallbaum added that the group has collected about $55,000 in donations in the first quarter this year, much of it locally, but some coming from around the country and overseas. The $610-a-month mortgage payments will also be cheaper than rent at the group's current workshop near Stoughton Road.

Some neighbors did speak in support of the project, pointing out that there are already homeless people living in neighborhood parks and there's a nearby halfway house for paroled prisoners. Said neighbor Joel Gratz: "They're just asking for permission to take care of themselves."

Approval of the project came with numerous conditions (PDF), and even more were added (PDF) Tuesday night by Ald. Larry Palm, whose district includes the project. For instance, the composting toilets (originally planned for each tiny house) won't be allowed to be used on site; residents will instead share bathrooms inside the tiny home workshop. Tent camping and outdoor fires are also forbidden.

The group was also asked to comply with future laws and regulations regarding tiny homes -- an unusual request given that developers typically only build to the standards in place at the time of construction.

Former Ald. Brenda Konkel, an Occupy organizer, told the council that the development has agreed to more conditions than the controversial Edgewater Hotel did with its redevelopment.

"We understand that our project is unique and unusual," she said. But she urged approval, saying "If not this, then what? We've tried just about everything. We tried to go through the official channels to do something that will make Madison proud."

There were rumored to be about four or five alders who were planning to vote against the project, meaning it would likely come down to one vote. But in the end, all those present supported it. During the debate, they acknowledged that many people in the city are struggling and this is an experiment that won't cost taxpayers, but also might help some people.

"It's time we take a leap of faith," said Ald. Lisa Subeck. "There are people in our community who don't have homes and this is an opportunity for them to have homes and be an asset to our community."

Occupy Madison still has other hurdles to overcome. The property's closing is tentatively set for May 25. In order to get a loan for the property, the group had to come up with three years of down payments first, which will be held in escrow while it shows it can consistently make the $610 monthly payments. If the group fails to make the payments, the bank can keep the money in reserve and the property.

Wallbaum says he's confident the group will be able to support itself. "On a real base line level, our overhead is $12 grand a year."

It's unclear when the auto shop will be able to vacate the property and the shop's bathrooms need major renovations.

Valiquette is excited to get to work. He says he's always loved building things, but creating a community has been an even bigger thrill.

"I see this mushrooming," he said after the meeting. "I hope other non-profit organizations, fraternities and other groups take it up. It doesn't have to just be for homeless people."

Occupy Madison is having a fundraiser from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, May 9 at the Brink Lounge.

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