The city of Madison has to do more, now, to house people who are homeless, Madison City Council members said Tuesday as they unanimously approved a plan to construct a village of “tiny houses” on Madison’s east side.
Southwest-side Ald. Lisa Subeck said she had gotten teary-eyed listening to proponents of the Occupy Madison project because she had seen the dilemma of homeless people up close while working in the local homeless shelter and transitional housing systems.
“I frequently got folks who had no place to go. Our shelters were full,” Subeck said. “I remember a call from someone who was sleeping in a car with her baby on an incredibly stormy night and trying to come up with a place for her to go and not being able to do it.”
A cluster of nine 99-square-foot tiny houses on wheels around an auto body shop converted to workshop, bath house and lounge won’t put a roof over the head of every homeless person in Madison, Subeck acknowledged.
“But it’s a step in the right direction.”
The city’s Plan Commission found last week that the innovative proposal met the standards for a planned development, but attached a series of detailed conditions on the construction of the village and its operation.
A series of neighbors of the site at East Johnson and North Third streets spoke Tuesday in opposition to the development, saying that allowing habitation of such substandard housing is not good for homeless people or the neighborhood. Neighbors directly across the street from the Occupy Madison site filed petitions requiring the City Council to pass the development proposal with a three-quarters majority.
Subeck said she understood the trepidation and fear of residents confronted with housing that looks far different from anything they’d seen in the city before.
“But it scares me to think we can accept people sleeping on the steps outside, sleeping in doorways, sleeping in vehicles,” she said.
Ald. Larry Palm, in whose district the village will be located, waxed poetic, quoting from the poem engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty that welcomed millions of immigrants to the United States:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses — you may know this — yearning to breathe free,” Palm read to his colleagues. “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
“We’re talking about America and the vision of what we should be,” Palm said of the deliberation on the tiny houses plan. “We should be open to exploring new ideas.”
Palm said he, like the residents of the Emerson East neighborhood opposed to the project, had been skeptical at the start, but that over months of review and revision of the plan, he had become convinced of Occupy’s Madison commitment to successfully steward the community.
“Experimental is only experimental until it’s proven successful,” he said, pointing out that the Plan Commission would retain jurisdiction over the site.
Palm plans to introduce plans for additional housing for the homeless, and, unlike the privately funded tiny house village, “it’s going to cost money” Palm said.
East-side Ald. David Ahrens said that the City Council should support the upstart nonprofit Occupy Madison in its efforts to house the homeless because the city has not done so.
“We’ve ultimately failed in our duty," he said. “The economy failed so many people, the housing market has failed. The federal government has yet to do anything meaningful on this."
The tiny houses can’t be the solution for the 1,000 or more people living on the street each night, and the city cannot house those people on its own, he said. “It has to be done collectively.”
Morgan Aten, who organized the petition drive that forced the project to win a three-quarters majority approval, said Monday that neighbors had already looked at their options if the City Council okayed the plan.
They include asking the state to review the plan to see if it conforms to state law, and the possibility of going to court to seek an injunction to prevent development of the village, Aten said.
“I think there was an assumption that this is a working class neighborhood that won’t have the financial means to fight this,” she said.