Founding Board Members at the site of the homes at the Advocate - seated at the front is namesake Nathaniel "Pee Wee" Lee.
In 2017, a small group of affordable housing advocates with ties to community-based organizations like the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, Inter-Faith Council for Social Services (IFC), and Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) decided to pursue a unique solution to the housing crisis in our local community. The idea, to build small homes for folks experiencing homelessness to live independently in community, was inspired by the lived experience of Nathaniel “Pee Wee” Lee and others like him who had worked and lived in this town for over half a century without access to affordable housing. Recognizing that local faith communities own a significant amount of land, the group began reaching out to church leaders and quickly found allies at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate. Pee Wee Homes was born from this idea, and the first two homes were built in 2018 in the Northside neighborhood of Chapel Hill. Three more homes were built on the 15-acre campus of the Advocate in 2020. Today Pee Wee Homes, named for founding board member Pee Wee Lee, oversees seven residences in three separate locations in Chapel Hill, and three more homes are forthcoming on public land in Carrboro.
The Scope of the Issue
At any given moment in each of the last 10 years an average of 130 people were experiencing homelessness in Orange County, with 25 percent experiencing chronic homelessness. They are served by organizations like Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, Community Empowerment Fund, Interfaith Council for Social Services, Compass Center, Empowerment Inc., and many others, but the need outpaces the services available. Affordable housing is in very short supply in Orange County, where the average monthly rent for a studio is over $800 – the equivalent of a monthly disability check. The situation is dire, and the need is great. Pee Wee Homes aims to break the cycle of homelessness. Eligible participants have experienced homelessness, live at 30 percent of the area median income and below, are underpaid, underemployed, or are seniors living on fixed income.
Pee Wee Homes resident, Program Intern, Maggie Simonds, and volunteers after installing a screen door as part of a project funded by Healthier, Greener, Kinder Foundation.
The Model: Independent Living with Community Support
Units built by Pee Wee Homes average 300 square feet (roughly the size of two parking spots), are one-bedrooms or studios, and can serve an individual or couple. The current rent model is income-based at no more than 30 percent of resident monthly income to allow for additional living expenses. Selected occupants for the first two builds completed a community application process as well as hybrid referral process through the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, who already has a coordinated entry program for individuals experiencing homelessness. Additional referrals have come from community partners and other affordable housing providers.
Pictured below: Executive Director, Erika Walker, with current Board Members, David Lyles and Heather Nash, and community collaborator Quinton Harper of ActivateIFC!
A common misconception that exists regarding homelessness is that once an individual is no longer homeless, the problem is solved. But often that is only the beginning of the process to stabilize and move from surviving to thriving. For many, housing instability has exacerbated mental, emotional, and physical health issues. For their growing resident community, Pee Wee Homes aims to provide more linkages to existing community services and community cultural exchange to recognize the whole humanity of each person who joins and to facilitate residents’ active membership in the greater community. They have recently hired an Assistant Director of Resident Support to oversee this work and create key partnerships with other organizations doing good work in community-based solutions. As the cost of living continues to rise, with a lack of affordable health care, and in particular mental health care, those relationships will be ever more important to help residents achieve financial stability, privacy and independence, and to combat isolation. The organization has begun to build stronger relationships and create community spaces, build connections, and link to other community resources with its partners. The organization also helps to save 10 percent of every on-time rent payment in escrow for each resident, giving them equity and a cushion for more financial resilience.
Challenges to Growth
Unsurprising to anyone who has seen the explosive growth in Orange County and particularly Chapel Hill in recent years, the main obstacle for Pee Wee Homes is finding sites for new homes. The Church of the Advocate site (pictured left) is a great example they hope to replicate, as churches often have significant resources including land and buildings that are underutilized. An intern from Duke Divinity School is working with Board Chair and former vicar at the Advocate, Lisa Fischbeck, to reach out to faith communities and encourage them to use their resources to better serve the community through affordable housing. The organization has also created a strong partnership with the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro to explore the use of public land for this type of creative housing. Pee Wee Homes hopes to continue to scale the model to more of the community in Orange County and to provide technical assistance to those wishing to replicate the model elsewhere.
Resident Success Stories
One current resident, who had been homeless since he was a teenager, worked multiple jobs and achieved sobriety but still found himself living in a shelter. He found stability after moving into a Pee Wee Home, finding a single job with consistent income and benefits, and helping others along the way. Today he serves on the Board of Pee Wee Homes, contributing to the governance of the organization with the critical perspective of lived experience.
Another resident, who owns her own cleaning business and was living with her daughter in Greensboro, had to drive every day to her clients in North Chatham and South Orange because she couldn't afford housing in the Triangle. Now she is living in the newest Pee Wee Home in Chapel Hill with a much more manageable commute and a higher quality of life.
Executive Director Erika Walker acknowledges that the work is ambitious and slower than she would like, with lots of obstacles in the way. However, she says, “My hope is that one day, either Pee Wee Homes or other organizations doing similar work will expand across the Triangle and the state.”
Staff from Town of Chapel Hill Housing and Community Development pose near native plants they installed at Mitchell Lane homes funded by a grant from New Hope Audubon Society.
Mission: To create dignified, affordable, tiny homes in caring community for and with people transitioning out of homelessness.
Primary service area (county): Orange
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