Last Saturday afternoon, a handful of Occupy Madison members gathered at the group's recently acquired property on East Johnson Street to begin cleaning the old auto shop, which it plans on turning into a village of tiny homes for the homeless.
Keith Valiquette, who one day plans to live here, was thrilled to finally get his hands dirty at the site.
"It's very inspiring," said Valiquette, as he helped disassemble wood pallets that will be used to build the group's tiny houses. "It's just a matter of making progress. The journey is as much fun for me as the end result."
That's a good thing, because as other members noted: the journey is likely to be long and difficult.
Brenda Konkel, an Occupy board member, said: "The work that needs to be done, I feel like some of us knew what we were getting into more than others."
Even though it owns the property, the group for now is restricted in what it can do. The city has not yet given final approval for the project plan, meaning the members cannot begin altering the building. It can only clean or repair the existing structure, not make any changes. So on Saturday, the group was busy scrubbing walls, washing windows, mowing the lawn and repairing existing bathrooms.
When final approval comes -- which Konkel expects in two to three weeks -- the group can begin working on bigger projects, like moving a circuit breaker, building a new bathroom, erecting a fence and planting garden beds. There have also been some unwelcome surprises. The group discovered toxic mold in the leaking roof. And it discovered there's an oil disposal tank buried on the site that must be removed at a cost of $5,000 to $6,000, Konkel says.
All of the repairs and renovations are likely to cost around $100,000. A new roof and renovated bathrooms will likely be the biggest ticket items.
"We implore you to stress that we need money," joked Allen Barkoff. "I think a lot of people assume that because we now own property, money isn't an issue."
It isn't all gloomy news for the group.
There have been numerous offers of volunteer labor -- from as far away as Australia -- and lots of donated tools and materials. "We've only spent $68 so far," Konkel says. "The only thing we've had to buy are new locks [for the building]."
The offers for volunteer labor will take a little while to utilize. The group has held off on staging large-scale volunteer projects until it organizes the work process and gets a green light from the city.
"Because of the mold and other things that could be hazardous to people, we haven't tried to get volunteers out for a big work party," she said. "When we paint the building, that will be a good day to get volunteers out here."
And while some neighbors opposed the project, the group has gotten at least one housewarming gift: supporters dropped off perennials that can be planted on the property.
Once it can move its tiny house workshop from rented space near Cottage Grove Road, the group will be able to save money. Occupy's mortgage is $550 a month, while rent at the workshop is $750.
The group's first three tiny homes probably won't be allowed on the site until late summer or fall. More extensive work will be done before more homes are allowed on the site. The city gave approval for up to nine of the homes to be parked there.
The group has raised a significant amount of money so far and has around $35,000 still in the bank, says board member Bruce Wallbaum. He notes that although the work seems daunting, it's doable.
"The work we have to do is not that overwhelming," he says, adding. "There's some fund raising challenges ahead."