Walking along the sidewalk, the smell of homemade stew wafts out of a window a few feet away. Cats and their kittens gather under trees and in between the gray, green and brown tiny houses. Freshly adorned Christmas trees twinkle inside warm homes. Ten empty garden beds sit in rows, wet from the mid-November rain. Neighbors walk outside, pushing shopping carts of groceries from Catholic Charities across the street from their neighborhood.
"I love this place because everything here is mine," two-year resident Lisa Warren said. "That's really important for me, to have things that are just mine that no one can take away from me."
Warren, along with her 47 neighbors, once qualified as "chronically homeless," meaning they were frequent users of Dallas emergency rooms, have been through the jail system and have been living on the streets for an extended amount of time.
Now, they reside at The Cottages at Hickory Crossing, a permanent supportive housing community that opened in Dallas in 2016. Residents can live in the homes as long as they adhere to regulations like paying rent, not disrupting other residents' lives and not bringing animals in.
Jamie Zachary, the executive director of Central Dallas Community Development Corporation (CDCDC), said the cottages came under its management in summer of 2022. CitySquare, a nonprofit previously under the leadership of homeless advocate Larry James, ran the community until then.
Zachary said James used to sleep under the Hickory bridge to immerse himself in the homeless community and learn how to best serve them.
When James came up with plans for a tiny home community poised to assist Dallas residents without homes in 2012, the venture caught the city's eyes. Of the $8.4 million spent on The Cottages at Hickory Crossing, Dallas County contributed $1.5 million, and the City of Dallas gave $1 million to get the project up and running. The rest was privately funded.
It took four years after the initial planning stages to give the first residents their keys in October 2016. Nestled in South Dallas where Interstate 30 crosses Interstate 45, the neighborhood houses 50 chronically homeless people who each pay $50 each month for their 430 sq. ft. homes, furnished and full of appliances and natural light.
Zachary said some residents work on the grounds to make money to pay rent, mowing lawns and pulling weeds, while others have jobs outside the community. Most of the tenants use housing vouchers, an assistance program in which the Dallas Housing Authority pays a portion of the rent to CDCDC while the resident pays the rest.
"When it opened, it was rough at first because there wasn't a blueprint to run a community like this," Zachary said. "No one knew what to expect."
He said in the last seven years, nearly 300 people have moved through the cottages.
"Some people have been here for five or six years now," he said. "Some come here, get stabilized, get jobs and move on. Some people just need a stable situation, a little bit of help, resources brought to them instead of having to go out and find resources themselves."
Warren, who said she's been homeless off-and-on since 2008, said the community has been a God-send. It is gated, which she said makes her feel safe. She said while she was staying at Austin Street Center, a shelter, in 2021, she promised God that if he found her a home, she'd give back.
"And look what he did," she said, beaming. "I love my case manager, the nurses who come by, the library and the events we have. Some of us are struggling with the concept of a support system, and through being here, I'm learning to trust."
Zachary said he works on the property as often as possible because being present with the residents is important to remember the mission he's on.
"You want them to feel like they can come and talk to you," he said. "I want to know what they're dealing with."
Zachary said that the community and its social services have improved in the last year. Since the split with CitySquare, Catholic Charities handles property maintenance and case management. CitySquare still runs an on-site community center that offers free medical care, birthday parties, counseling, support groups, life skills classes and resident-requested bible study.
While some sing praises for the cottages, other homeless advocates in Dallas don't feel like the city is getting what it paid for. As CEO of the non-profit Fighting Homelessness, Lisa Marshall catches the cases that fall through the cracks.
Marshall said she met Sam L., a 46-year-old Ugandan man who moved to Dallas in 2005, in 2020 when she was filming a documentary for The Human Impact. He'd been living at the cottages since 2016 when it opened, but he spent most of his day under the Hickory Bridge with a group of friends.
After living in his cottage for nearly a decade, Sam said his air-conditioned tiny home with a cable package is a far cry from the tent he lived in before. He said he loves to bring friends over and watch his favorite NFL team, the New England Patriots, on Sundays. He said his case manager is new, attentive and treats him well, often dropping in for home visits.
"If I need anything, I know I can ask her," he said.
But Marshall said she suspects differently. After seeing him in various states of distresschronically drunk, seizing, in mental crisis and with broken bonesshe fears that Sam isn't getting the case management he needs.
"You can't just put someone in four walls and expect them to get back on their feet," she said. "For whatever reason, the system does not seem to think he needs more case management. He's not getting the proper care he deserves. He should not be just surviving. With all the people who see him every day, he should be thriving."
Zachary said funding for the project comes from vouchers from the City of Dallas. He said he's working on getting fundraising started to pay for repairs, property management and social services, as the company's profit margin is very small. He said each year, four percent of the cottages' revenue pays Catholic Charities for upkeep.
"We don't have investors," he said. "It's just us. If we have to re-do a home, it [costs] $60,000, and as of right now, it would take years to pay that back. So we're really trying to find more funding."
Marshall and Zachary agree that the cost of building the cottages was very expensive, with each cottage costing over $100,000 up front.
"Now, you can build the same kind of structure for $30,000," Zachary said. "It's so much more affordable now to do one of these projects than it was in 2016."
Zachary referenced a $50 million 75-acre tiny home village in Ennis. He said the developers were in Dallas trying to get the project up, but a group of voters colloquially called "not in my backyard" or NIMBYs, those who know there's an affordable housing shortage but oppose urban development "in their backyards," pushed back, and the project was pushed south to Ennis.
"Bureaucracy in Dallas is so slow that you'd be better served putting a project like this in Richardson or Plano, where things get done faster," Zachary said. "People can use vouchers from Dallas to live in those communities."
Marshall said that there's not enough affordable housing in Dallas, period. Residents with low or middle income are struggling to find housing with reasonable rent, and she said that's by design.
"We need 33,000 additional units to house everyone, but there are certain rules around developing properties in Dallas, where minimal parcel sizes are for 5,000 square feet," Marshall said. "Dallas wants everyone to buy an acre and build a huge house with a white picket fence. Dallas needs that acre to have five duplexes on it to house 10 families."
Dallas City Councilman Chad West agreed with Marshall. He said the city is working on a $1 billion bond package that would potentially use $100 million to help bring in new developments, and West is working on his own proposal to decrease lot sizes and change zoning regulations, as 85 percent of the city's land is zoned for single-family homes.
"Affordable housing initiatives don't get voters excited," he explained.
Marshall echoed his sentiment.
"Until we get the political desire to end homelessness, it will not stop," she said. "We'll have teachers and EMTs and school kids sleeping in encampments if we don't change our priorities."
Zachary said Dallas desperately needs more affordable housing, but CDCDC isn't working on any new projects as of November 2023. He said he hopes to get new housing in the works in 2024.
This article was commissioned by Windy City Times to look at housing solutions in other cities, as Chicago confronts its own housing crisis. With tens of thousands of unhoused or doubled-up individuals, and migrants coming in weekly, Chicago needs innovative, new solutions, and simply more affordable housing overall.