Betty Ybarra has been living out of a tent since she became homeless last May.
But she and her partner will soon have a house all to themselves. With the help of Occupy Madison, the two have been building their own "tiny house" at a workshop off Stoughton and Cottage Grove roads.
It has just 98 square feet of space and is built on wheels -- most would call it a trailer or a camper. But for Ybarra, it will be a place to call home, wherever it is parked. Like any new homeowner, Ybarra has been contemplating the details, like what color to paint it.
"I'd like it green. That's my favorite color," she says, adding, "I think I will have more privacy" than camping out.
Occupy Madison started working on the house in June. Steve Burns, a Madison College math professor, designed a model by looking at other tiny houses. The first one has taken a little while to build.
"It's sort of like we're building a factory to make houses," Burns says. "So the first house takes a little longer.... Then we can produce at a faster rate."
The houses are being built largely with discarded pallets. Says Burns: "One of the issues is that no two pallets are alike, it seems, so we get a lot of strange [sizes]."
Each mini-house will have room for a bed, a small kitchen and a compost toilet. The UW-Madison is pitching in by installing a solar panel to power three LED lights and a charger for the first house. Calvin Cherry, a UW electrical engineering grad student, says the unit costs a little less than $500 and provides enough electricity for about eight hours a day.
The UW is pitching in for research purposes, to monitor how much energy the home uses, Cherry says. The UW has installed solar units in other types of buildings --standard residential homes and offices -- and will be able to compare them.
"We're installing data collection in there," Cherry says. "We're going to monitor how much energy we're getting, how much the battery is discharging and charging. We don't know 100% whether this system will be perfect.
"If we find out this works well, we can contact distributors and get donations."
Bruce Wallbaum, an Occupy member, estimates that each house will cost about $4,000 to build, including overhead costs from maintaining the workshop space. The money has come from fundraisers and donations. Homeless folks can pay for their house through sweat equity. Wallbaum hopes that once the group refines the building process, it can build a house every month.
You can check out Ybarra's new house for yourself on Tuesday, July 30, from 5 to 7 p.m. during a fundraiser at the workshop, 4235 B Argosy Court.
Listen to interviews with Occupy Madison members about their tiny-house factory.
Occupy's long-term goal is to create an eco-village to park the mini-houses, build things and grow food. But the city's zoning currently doesn't allow such a development. For now, the group plans on parking the mini-houses around the city. This will require them to be moved every 48 hours, yet another hassle.
"When somebody comes after work or whatever they're doing with their day, they don't have to move their home," Ybarra says. "We're going to have that constant struggle -- where are we going to move it, is it okay to park it here?"
Some churches have expressed interest in letting the homes park on their property, but that will require a change in city ordinance. Other things need to be worked out, like how the homes will be heated in the winter and how to power cooking equipment.
But for now, Wallbaum says, it's thrilling to see results after years of working on the issue. "If you walk through the door [of the workshop], you see it's real," he says. "There's a house sitting here."