Tiny Homes Take Shape in EcoVillage

On a grassy lot on the corner of Pear Ave and West 58th Street in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood, the beginnings of the first tiny homes in EcoVillage, the green community of about 1,000 residents, are sprouting. With their Japan-inspired heating and cooling systems, argon-insulated windows and oh-so-green foundations, the new homes are ultra-efficient, but at 620 square feet, it's no wonder the $125,000 to $150,000 price tag has locals balking in comment threads.

“It’s really just preference,” says Adam Davenport, project and operations manager for the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization (DSCDO), which is a partner in the Citizens Tiny House Experiment along with Citizens Bank. Project coordinators aim to introduce the miniature abodes to the neighborhood this summer. “I mean, what’s pushing you to buy a new house built five years ago? How about a townhouse? Or a duplex? In the end, it’s preference for location.”

In the past two or so years, tiny home communities have been functioning as everything from a solution for those experiencing homelessness to eco-friendly abodes for McMansion-eschewing minimalists. With the project in EcoVillage, the trend has come to Cleveland.

<span class="content-image-text">Keith Sutton of Sutton Development Group (left) with business partner Dave Territo (right) and Adam Davenport, head of EcoVillage Development (center)</span>Keith Sutton of Sutton Development Group (left) with business partner Dave Territo (right) and Adam Davenport, head of EcoVillage Development (center)

Unlike the stars of HGTV and home and gardening shows, the two EcoVillage spots are rightfully different from their predecessors. Following a trend of real estate developers such as those in Pittsburgh or Los Angeles, builders are adapting the houses-on-wheels concept glitzed by TV media by replacing trailer mounts for wire mesh and concrete footings. That permanence, including fully plumbed connections to municipal utilities, is one of the reasons the price tag for the EcoVillage homes is so much higher than the wheeled varieties. They're also large compared to other tiny homes, which can cost $70,000 for a unit that's less than 200 square feet.

Yet as constructions nears its June wrap-up date, the question of a seedling Cleveland Tiny House community will loom amid its naysayers: What again is the draw of a 620-square-foot home that costs the same as a 1,800-square-foot bungalow in West Park?

“The only thing differing in this equation,” Davenport purports, “is neighborhood assets. If you value the Shoreway, then this is the place for you.”

Fledgling Concept; Established Neighborhood

Once a destination for Italian, Romanian and Irish immigrants the early 1900s, Detroit Shoreway has maintained a reputation as a transforming community with a strong real estate market. Since the 1990s when the EcoVillage and the popular Gordon Square Arts District took shape, a new generation took an interest in the emerging neighborhood. After the calamitous housing recession, the Shoreway underwent what the Plain Dealer deemed in 2014 a “rental renaissance.” Home prices shot up as much as 80 percent in a one-year period, a spark that would nudge Keller Williams to name the Shoreway the number one Cleveland neighborhood for real estate development.

Such fertile ground is what attracted Keith Sutton, head of Sutton Development Group, the firm overseeing the tiny house construction, to focus on the Shoreway’s green neighborhood. Sutton, a 50-year-old housing guru with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of all things real estate, was brought in by Davenport and crew to build two homes on the vacant lot on West 58th Street. Sutton was so sure about the project's success that he and his 34-year business partner Dave Territo initially wanted to increase the EcoVillage home count to three.

“They thought it would be too dense,” Sutton says with a defying chuckle. “And we don’t agree with that. We’re not pioneering there, but at the same time, there’s plenty of room for solidifying the neighborhood, so to speak.”

Though this is Sutton's first foray into tiny housing, he and Territo are well versed in neighborhood renovation. Twenty-four years ago, Sutton was the real-estate visionary that saw opportunity in the then-distraught Tremont neighborhood. He started building townhomes on fallow parcels in a place that hadn’t seen a new foundation in some fifty years. Since 1996, Sutton has constructed more than 300 homes; many priced at $170,000 and up on what was once considered less than desirable property.

“I would not have for the life of me stepped foot south of Jefferson Avenue,” says Sutton of an area once fraught with crime. Now it has taken shape as a vibrant arts district, which is something for which Sutton takes partial credit.

Following a decreasing market for the “suburban, cookie cutter homes” Sutton was known for in the late 1980s, the Tiny House Experiment, he says, is a kind of merging of two markets: buyers who want the “full amenities of a regular home but not a big house to maintain.” Looking over floor plans for the little homes, they evoke a two-story condo with a loft and a kitchenette shrunken down for the sake of size – a tiny size, that is.

It’s a sort of niche Sutton acknowledges with no guilt or reserves. A tiny house community in EcoVillage in the future? Absolutely, he thinks. In fact, if the two initial homes are sold this summer, Sutton has plans to continue his latest proclivity for downsized real estate. As with Tremont, where Sutton just sold three homes on Starkweather Avenue, the long-time developer has high hopes, despite those who shun the concept of a miniature homes.

“Perhaps what we’re creating here is a portion of what people want,” Sutton says. “I wouldn’t say that a tiny house is what everybody wants. But is there a contingency of people who will want to buy? Yep. We think so.”

Euclid Beach's Tiny Home Pioneer

Off a small gravel pathway in the Euclid Beach Mobile Home Park a dozen miles east of the EcoVillage sits a tiny house nestled among the resident RVs and motor homes. At a mere 124 square feet and the color of a post-gum chewing Violet Beauregard of Willie Wonka fame, owner Tim Nevits’ Tumbleweed home looks, on first impression, like something out of a fairy tale. Driving by? Slow down or you might miss it.

<span class="content-image-text">Tim Nevits’ Tumbleweed home</span>Tim Nevits’ Tumbleweed homeNevits, the four-year owner of the house and occasional playwright, is no stranger to the tiny house craze. He often plays ambassador to the local Tiny House MeetUp and offers tours to groups that come to ogle his Spartan kitchenette and peak up curiously at his loft bed.

“Most of the time they want to see the bathroom,” Nevits says. “That’s always the question.” What most potential tiny houses converts don’t ask about, Nevits says, is how difficult it can be to not just live in a tiny house, but to keep it in place.

Though a Tumbleweed home like Nevits’ appears anodyne to the average homebuyer, municipalities take a different standpoint. For example, Ohio Building Code, Section 304, states that one’s house should have at least one room bigger than “120 square feet of gross floor area,” others no less than 70. For Nevits’, that means the whole shebang, his entire living space. On ten separate occasions Nevits has had to battle to keep his home where it stands. Other tiny-home owning friends of his have been lathered with fines. So far, he’s reigned victorious in the battles. “If somebody wants to pick a fight with me,” he says, “I’m sure they still could.”

Another tiny home prospector, Carl Baldesare, of Keep It Local and Small Spaces CLE, is exploring tiny homes on wheels, which the city may classify as RVs. Building codes are also why Sutton has been cautious with his tiny homes, ensuring every inch, from windows to insulation, is code compliant. Thus far, the team received one complaint from the Cleveland Zoning Board. “They don’t like the ladder,” Sutton says of the loft access, like he doesn’t believe it himself.

In line with Davenport’s optimism, Sutton and crew will have plans and nearby lots ready to continue more tiny house construction. Territo’s even thinking about building one in his yard in Tremont. He says his mother might want one.

As for Nevits, who continues to live a relatively quiet life save for occasional appearances at MeetUps, the 39-year-old says that he’s content enough not to move for a while. He nonetheless dreams of relocating to a tiny house commune in San Diego or San Francisco, one populated with tiny house owners like himself, and be part of a like-minded community. As for the EcoVillage spots, Nevits admits that he's anxious to take a peak.

“When I see them, I know I’m going to drool over them,” he says. “It’s tempting. If I had the money—who knows? I might jump at it myself.”

Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea

About the Author: Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a regular contributor to FreshWater Cleveland. He’s written for the Pacific Standard, OZY, and Cleveland Magazine, and was a correspondent in Mexico in 2018. He lives in Ohio City. More of his work can be found on his personal website.