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N.O. East residents resist a plan to build tiny homes

27th November 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

Haiyan Khan and associates want to build a community of tiny homes in Plum Orchard in New Orleans East for people without housing. A native Pakistani, Khan is a Central City resident with a computer engineering degree and an MBA from Northwestern in Illinois. He and his colleagues at nonprofit Santosha see the village as a place for residents to get on their feet financially, while being served spiritually.

Santosha’s tenants would be pre-screened and might include those who lost jobs recently, students with large loans, musicians and artists. Homeless people from the streets could live there too. The group has acquired and begun clearing an overgrown acre at 7538 Warfield Street, blocks off Chef Menteur Highway, for its project. Construction might start late next year.

Khan teaches a class called “Street Wellness” downtown on Fridays at the Harry Tompson Center, a daytime-only shelter on Gravier Street. Vicki Judice, executive director of the Harry Tompson Center, is on Santosha’s board.

At sites around the city, Khan and associates have built four tiny dwellings, and three of them have housed people. When the first unit was finished several years ago, requests for more poured in. Khan said tiny-home villages exist in many parts of the nation, and points to Community First in Austin, Texas, and Opportunity Village in Oregon as models for Santosha, which in Sanskrit means “full contentment.”

As planned, Santosha Village would contain 20 to 25 cabins on ten-by-six-feet rollers, set in greenery, with shared cooking facilities, a vegetable garden, a showering station, a gathering area, a sacred space, a workshop and offices. Residents would pay $60 a month to live in their own dwelling. Under the group’s “pathways to home ownership” program, tenants could build a small house for $150 a month.

But this fall in New Orleans East, sentiment tilted against the project, Khan said. Public meetings were held on September 28 at Livingston Collegiate Academy on Dwyer Road and on November 4 at Life in the Word Church on Chef Menteur Highway.

After the group’s September meeting, New Orleans District E council member James Gray got an interim zoning area approved by the City Council in October, so “it now looks as if we’ll have to go before the council for permits,” Khan said. That creates new hurdles for Santosha’s planning.

On October 26, the City Council passed Motion M17-559, instructing the City Planning Commission to hold a public hearing to amend the Comprehensive Zoning Act to create a Residential District Preser-vation Interim Zoning District. “This new interim zoning district prevents a homeless shelter, masquerading as a hostel, from locating near a residential district,” a statement from Gray’s office said then.

Khan said the village has never pretended to be a hostel, but that the shared cooking, showering and laundry facilities of hostels are relevant to Santosha’s plans.

“This interim zoning district, designed to protect neighborhoods from a myriad of problems, among other items establishes hostels as a ‘conditional use’ in commercial districts adjacent to residential areas,” Gray’s statement also said. “The effect of Motion M17-599 is that all appropriate agencies of city government are not to accept any applications for permits or licenses that are in conflict with the intent and provisions of the proposed Interim Zoning District.”

Gray said in October, “A person’s home is a sanctuary—a place where you raise your kids, invest your money in the property for your family’s future, spend your leisure time; a place where you feel safe. We want to do everything we can to preserve those sanctuaries, as well as those investments.”

At the early-November meeting at Life in the Word Church, Demitri Scott—known as Sister D—said neighbors interrupted Khan’s presentation and didn’t give him a chance to describe the project. They complained that homeless people would live in their midst soon. But from what she understands, Santosha’s residents wouldn’t all be homeless and each of them would have been screened first. And she said, “Not every homeless person is living under a bridge. If you have three families living in a one-family home, that means somebody’s homeless.”

As a mother who was homeless in the 1990s, mostly living in her car with her children, Sister D longed for serenity and security then. “In a shelter, you have to pick up and leave in the morning and come back in the evening,” she said. “At these tiny houses, your belongings remain in your house and you have some privacy.”

As a do-it-yourself, fixer-up type of woman, Sister D is all for the concept of tiny houses. “And I would have benefited from the sense of community at Santosha if we could have lived in a place like that back in the 1990s,” she said.

Sister D said the negativity of the project’s neighbors surprised her. “Santosha’s property is located in what most people would consider a ghetto,” she said. “It’s not an upscale neighborhood. They got a massage parlor closed, but prostitutes are walking that stretch of Chef Menteur, and many of the lots are blighted and overgrown.”

Her church wants to build a battered women’s residence nearby. “But now we wonder what kind of reception that idea will receive from neighbors,” she said.

Khan expects Santosha’s applicants to include those living with family members in overcrowded homes and people short of money. In a screening process, the village would look for individuals who want to better themselves and the community. Applicants would attend a two-day retreat before a decision by the Village Steering Committee, and newcomers would stay at Santosha for a 30-day trial before their moves were finalized.

As for Santosha’s programs, its wellness offerings would include yoga, meditation, journal-keeping, guidance from local churches and conventional medical services, Khan said. A micro-business program would help individuals create income-producing activities that can expand. One such venture might be selling preserves made from the garden’s fruits and vegetables.

Planned security measures include a monitored entrance, a fence around the property, security cameras, no outside loitering and a guest policy. “We’d be occupying a previously blighted property, and we feel that our sanctuary and its amenities would improve the neighborhood and crime in the area would decline,” Khan said.

He and Santosha’s board want to make a go of their New Orleans East property, but if resistance from neighbors grows, they’ll consider other parts of the city.

Most tiny homes are mobile, and in Louisiana they’re classified as recreational vehicles. They can be moved before a hurricane strikes. In New Orleans, where residents live in half shotguns and sheds behind houses and have endured post-Katrina trailers, tiny houses could be a solution for some people. Plenty of vacant lots exist. And the surrounding land is shrinking, raising concerns about land use.

Around town, these micro-houses are for sale and rent from various realtors now. In New Orleans East, homes of about 400 square feet are on sale at a newly opened site off the lake in Pontchartrain Landing Marina and RV Park on the Navigational Canal.

This article originally published in the November 27, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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