Maggie Grether, Contributing Photographer

After their construction in October, Rosette Street’s “tiny homes” were approved by the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals on March 12. Yet the long-term contribution of “tiny homes” to ending the housing crisis remains uncertain, according to city officials.

The six “tiny homes” in question were installed by a collective of unhoused activists working with Amistad Catholic, a local nonprofit. After the city’s repeated opposition to the construction — which violated local and state zoning codes — the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, or BZA, granted activists a variance, or exception to the zoning code. While the variance granted by the city is indefinite, exemptions to state building codes are set to expire after 180 days. This has led some city officials to view the structures as a temporary solution to homelessness in the city.

“The project in the backyard was not about tiny homes, it’s not about us developing housing,” said homelessness activist Mark Colville, who headed the “tiny homes” project. “What we’re trying to do is to redefine the issue of homelessness, and to recognize that it’s the zoning laws themselves that are the instrument by which people are being denied [emergency shelter].”

Board of Zoning Appeals retroactively grants zoning code variance 

Upon construction, the “tiny homes” — which fall under the technical category of emergency shelters — violated the city’s zoning codes on several fronts, including being built too close to neighboring property lines and suppressing the limit of units that are allowed to be built on a given property. The structures also violated the Connecticut State Building Code, which does not permit residential structures without a kitchen or bathroom.

The BZA approved the application for an exception to city zoning codes on four conditions, which include the following: only two individuals can reside in each structure at a time, both residents must be direct family members, no more than the six structures currently at Rosette Street are allowed to serve as residences and an easement must be in place for structures that extend beyond the property lines of Rosette Street if Amistad House is sold in the future. 

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker told the News that the state granted the activists an exception to the building code. Unlike the city’s exception, which is indefinite, the state’s exception will expire after 180 days.

“The state made clear that they made this 180-day exception because there’s an emergency because of the winter,” Elicker said.

According to Elicker, after 180 days, individuals living in the homes will have had “ample time” to find alternative accommodations. Due to this, Elicker said he believes the state is highly unlikely to extend the extension past 180 days.

Colville noted that one difficulty with the city’s zoning codes is that they do not include a category for emergency shelters, which are necessary, especially during cold winter months.

“People have to make tough decisions in order to survive when [they] are unhoused,” Colville said. 

Laura Brown, the executive director of the city plan department, confirmed that emergency shelters do not currently exist within the zoning ordinance. However, Brown noted that it would be “ostensibly” possible to change the zoning ordinance to include emergency shelters at some point in the future.

According to the New Haven Independent, activists at Amistad are currently working to expand this legislation for emergency housing.

Potential for a long-term future

“In order to make long-term changes, we need systemic change,” Colville said.

According to Colville, the “tiny homes” project is a necessary component of providing emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness.

However, he said that he hopes to expand the project throughout the city, namely by designating a parcel of public land to build “tiny homes” for a larger quantity of people. Colville compared his vision for the emergency shelters to models that have been set up in Providence, Rhode Island, where 45 “tiny homes” were designated by the state to a single plot of land. 

Colville noted that these developments have the potential to de-stigmatize homelessness and offer individuals the “respect” that accompanies private space.

Brown acknowledged that in other cities, tiny homes and emergency shelters have served an important purpose in providing emergency housing. However, she said that installing these emergency shelters would not serve as a singular solution.

“It would need to be one piece of a bigger piece of the puzzle toward addressing the broad scope of availability and affordability,” Brown said.

Elicker said that he is opposed to the idea of placing “tiny homes” on public land, saying that this land ought to remain available for all of the city’s residents. 

Instead, Elicker proposed that the alternative pathway to addressing housing challenges within the city should be building more affordable housing.

“The instant you put a home for someone on public land, it becomes not public land, it becomes land for that person,” Elicker said. “We don’t believe that is an appropriate strategy or an effective strategy to have a significant impact on affordable housing.”

Elicker noted that the city’s housing stock has increased by 1,900 units in the past four years and that there are currently 3,500 units in the pipeline. He also emphasized the city’s focus on improving inspections and landlord accountability through plans to restructure the city’s Livable City Initiative in order to ensure that the existing housing stock remains “safe and clean.”

The fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in New Haven is around $1,334. However, the average rent currently hovers at around $1,600.

Additionally, Elicker shared that the city’s Board of Alders is currently engaging in a proposal that looks to expand the legal ability of property owners to build accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, which can effectively serve as miniature homes. Much like “tiny homes,” these ADUs are relatively small in size but comply with state building codes because they will be equipped with a bathroom and a kitchenette. The proposal likely will be voted on sometime in May, according to Elicker.

Elicker also noted other larger-scale efforts that the city has recently engaged in, including the acquisition of hotels that were converted into non-congregate shelters.

Rosette Village is located in the Hill Neighborhood of New Haven.                                                           

Natasha Khazzam covers housing and homelessness for city desk. She previously covered climate and the environment. Originally from Great Neck, New York, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in history and English.