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Why we should build tiny homes in pocket Treasure Valley neighborhoods

A finished modular apartment unit is moved off the assembly line at Guerdon Enterprises in East Boise, waiting to be transported to a construction site.
A finished modular apartment unit is moved off the assembly line at Guerdon Enterprises in East Boise, waiting to be transported to a construction site. doswald@idahostatesman.com

With the average new Ada County house costing $330,000, three cheers for the 216 units being built this year west of Downtown Boise for those making less than the average local wage. An additional 41 units will shelter the chronically homeless, saving each year almost as much money as initial the cost of construction, according to a Boise State University study.

Yet this success obscures the greater challenge. These dwellings cost about $200,000 apiece. They’re dependent on federal tax credits, which are scarce. What we need are a whole lot of dwellings costing about half that much.

In August, I wrote about the valley’s good fortune in having five modular-housing companies: Guerdon Modular Buildings and Nashua Builders, which build for the hotel and other industries; and Champion Homes, Fleetwood Homes and Kit HomeBuilders West, which specialize in homes.

Nashua sales manager Don Kiehl says today’s demand for modular construction is the greatest he has seen in 37 years. Champion sales manager Pat Faes says his company in Weiser is turning out a strong “three to four floors a day.” Yet Champion could be producing four to six a day, he says.

What if demand could be aggregated around a single model and manufacturers given one order for, say, 30, 50 or 100 units at a time? If not now, then during the next downturn? If we plan ahead, we could have homes ready to occupy on site for under $100,000 each.

The model home could be the size of a mobile home: 12x40 feet, or about 500 square feet. We could cluster these dwellings in pocket neighborhoods. We could stack them as apartments — that’s being done in Europe and elsewhere in the U.S.

Who wants 500 square feet in a tight cluster, you ask? People who can afford no more, of course. That includes displaced mobile-home dwellers, but also millennials, older women and smart urban planners.

Building 500 square feet or more is the inexpensive part. The bigger costs come government-controlled codes, zoning, impact fees and infrastructure. Governments should give a break to small homes in tight clusters. There’s a crying need.

Jerry Brady is a member of Compassionate Boise, which encourages compassion in all aspects of life. jbrady2389@gmail.com. This column appears in the January 18-February 14, 2017, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine. Click here for the e-edition (subscription required).

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