How tiny houses and shipping containers just might solve the Dallas homeless crisis

Staff Photographer

The name, the Cottages at Hickory Crossing, sounds like something you might find in Coppell or Frisco, a development of new-build homes in the sprawling reaches of Dallas suburbia.

And it is true that there is something essentially suburban about these houses, arranged as they are in lanes radiating from a central green. But the Cottages at Hickory Crossing are not out in suburbia, and they are certainly not McMansions.

They are, instead, an experimental group of 50 micro-houses for the chronically homeless, and they are located not on a picturesque woodland, but wedged into three acres of open space in central Dallas, where Interstate 30 crosses Interstate 45.

The location is decidedly urban, but there is a logic to the suburban model. "A lot of people we’re serving aren’t well-socialized," says John Greenan, who oversees the project for the nonprofit CitySquare. Apartments with shared hallways and party walls can lead to problems for a population with special needs. A little extra space helps. "We hope it’s going to lessen conflict," he says.

The Cottages at Hickory Crossing, designed by BC Workshop, feature metal-seam roofs and small inset porches, each one equipped with a red Adirondack chair to promote engagement in the housing community.

It is hoped, as well, that the houses will give residents a sense of ownership that will in turn breed responsibility. "Here there’s a chance to learn how to be a good neighbor, and it’s a safe space for them to do that," says Alex Thompson, of CitySquare, who notes that the homeless often have trouble finding apartments even when they have vouchers that will allow them to pay rent.

The pilot project is administered by CitySquare, but with backing from a consortium including the Joint Dallas County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center, Dallas County Jail Mental Health Steering Committee, and UT Southwestern Medical Center.

It began accepting residents in October 2016, and is strategically located directly across Malcolm X Boulevard from CitySquare’s Opportunity Center, where the organization runs a food bank, an employment center, a clinic and a thrift store, and provides other services for the homeless.

That proximity suggests the counterintuitive reality that simply providing housing to the homeless is not an effective solution to the problem of homelessness. This is especially true for the chronically homeless, defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as those who find themselves on the streets four times in a three-year span, or for one full year.

"The idea was to identify and then house the 50 most expensive people who bounce in and out of the system," says Greenan.

The Dallas skyline rises above the Cottages at Hickory Crossing, which are located on the southeast corner of Interstate 35E and Interstate 45 in Dallas.
Permanent supportive housing

The cottages aren’t temporary shelters, but what advocates call permanent supportive housing; homes that are linked with services and that can be occupied for as long as the residents meet minimum requirements. That includes paying rent: 30 percent of whatever income they might have either through work or social insurance programs, with a minimum of $50 per month.

For the money, they get possession of a modern, one-bedroom bungalow of roughly 430 square feet. The units, designed by BC Workshop, have the essential form of a monopoly house, with steeply gabled, metal-seam roofs and small inset porches, each one equipped with a red Adirondack chair to promote engagement in the community. A sense of optimistic harmony is reinforced by the bright color scheme of the units, with the metal gray siding offset by panels in highlighter yellow and fluorescent orange.

"I got a roof over my head, I don’t got to be out in the cold. I’m at home," says Carl Oatman, 59, one of the first to move into the Cottages, after 20-odd years on the streets. He was approached while living under a bridge near the Lew Sterrett Justice Center downtown, and was happy to try something new. "I’m on my own. I go and I come. I couldn’t get no better than this."

The units are ganged together in clusters of six or eight — "micro-neighborhoods" — facing an unpaved path of crushed granite, with each one having a view to the central green space. "There’s nothing more fitting than for this to have a common green," says Brent Brown, who directed the project for BC Workshop. "We know how therapeutic nature can be."

Resident Carl Oatman was formerly homeless for over 20 years.

An early layout had these clusters fully enveloping that open area, but in the final design they make more of an arc, surrounding the green like the outfield walls of a baseball park. The result seems uncomfortably haphazard, even if it’s not, and could do better at providing a sense of enclosure.

Within, the homes are efficient and functional, with ample space for a single individual (couples and families are not accepted). They come furnished with a full kitchen open to the living area, a small bedroom, and a bath with a shower. There is a security pad at the front that alarms against intruders, and also allows for monitoring by CitySquare staff. If a resident doesn’t leave their unit for 24 hours, they will get a visit to make sure they’re OK.

‘The Lodge’

That staff is based in a 3,000-square-foot administrative building and community center, "The Lodge," that fronts Malcolm X Boulevard, and houses a dining area, lounge space, a health office, and meeting rooms. Architecturally, it is the most ambitious of the structures, a horizontal mass with a raked roofline and a wedge cut out down the center for entry. It is sharp-looking, but far from extravagant, really just a wood-framed shed with a broad canopy. The floor is concrete, and the plank ceilings are unfinished.

It is not quite as simple as it looks, though. The interior accommodates the unusual demands of residents with personal difficulties. There are offices for both property management (where residents make rental payments and address maintenance issues) and case management (where they see counselors for a variety of issues), and these are segregated, so residents don’t have to worry that conflict in one will necessarily bleed over into the other. Entry to rooms where addiction therapy meetings take place are placed discreetly, to avoid stigmatizing residents.

"The Lodge" administrative building and community center at The Cottages at Hickory Crossing.

It is, altogether, an admirable project, and judged on its own terms it is hard to argue that it has been anything less than a success. The retention rate for residents — or "neighbors," in the parlance of the program — stands at around 80 percent, which is impressive given the population.

Similar projects, in fact, can be found across the country; the website Curbed recently highlighted 10 such developments, including Hickory Cottages.

The problem is that they are expensive, and their expense means they are not replicable on anywhere near the scale that would be required to put a serious dent in the homeless problem.

The budget for the Hickory Cottages was on the order of $10 million, a figure that included not only land acquisition and construction but operating expenses for the project and its services over three years.

The interior of a two-room unit at The Cottages at Hickory Crossing

CitySquare was able to meet that cost, and indeed has the funds to sustain the project indefinitely. The better part of that funding came from private philanthropy, led by the W. W. Caruth Jr. Foundation ($3.65 million) and the James and Elizabeth Sowell Foundation ($2 million). The city and county kicked in a combined $2.5 million, with the balance coming from other donors.

But at roughly $90,000 per unit, it is going to be hard-pressed to build more places like the Cottages at Hickory Crossing, and especially if the city can’t be a little more cooperative when it comes to zoning.

Kafka-esque parking requirements

For instance, the project might have been expanded if not for the city’s Kafka-esque parking requirements, which demanded each unit be allotted a parking space (and many for the Lodge), nevermind that residents are unlikely to own anything more powerful than the bicycles that many keep on their porches.

"From a regulatory standpoint, this is no different from the Gables in Uptown," said Brown, referring to the high-end residential tower on McKinney Avenue.

Despite these obstacles, two new experimental structures fabricated from recycled shipping containers have been added to the Hickory Crossing lot. One of the 40-foot-long containers has two studio units, the other has a single one-bedroom apartment.

They are the brainchild of (and were paid for by) the architect and philanthropist John Mullen, a large man — he stands 6-foot-6 — who knows a great deal about small containers. Mullen began building with shipping containers long before they were fashionable; he first used them in a boat-house for his rowing club on Bachman Lake, in the late 1970s.

It was at the same time, in 1978, that he went in with a friend who had an idea for a store that would sell shelving units and other household organization materials. Before long, the Container Store was a national sensation.

A pair of new experimental structures fabricated from recycled shipping containers are being finished out at The Cottages at Hickory Crossing. One of the 40-foot-long containers (left) houses two studio units, and the other has a single, one-bedroom apartment.

The containers at Hickory Crossing are of his own simple design. "I’m not trying to hide the fact that they’re containers," he says. "We’re kind of celebrating that." Their chief attribute is their affordability: He hopes they will be replicable for only $40,000 per unit, less than half the cost of the cottages.

But that supposes that there is a will even for that degree of spending beyond his own pocketbook, and also that we are willing to store humans — even troubled humans — like so much cargo.

Wildflowers bloom at The Cottages at Hickory Crossing.

A few containers will not solve the problem. According to the most recent homeless census, released last month, the homeless population in Dallas and Collin counties is 4,140, a rise of nearly 10 percent over 2017. But even that count is rough and potentially low, because tracking the homeless is exceedingly difficult.

"People don’t go from one day living in a home to living on the street the next. It’s a progression," says Greenan.

According to CitySquare founder Larry James, the cost of a real solution to the homeless crisis would be in the neighborhood of $100 million. But what it would require first and foremost is a functional plan to tackle the problem, and even that is something Dallas lacks.

Instead, the city has a pilot project that offers some useful lessons for the future. That’s progress. But not nearly enough.

Mark Lamster is the architecture critic of The Dallas Morning News and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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