St. Cloud, church settle legal dispute over 'tiny house' for homeless

A tiny house sits on the property of St. John's Episcopal Church
A tiny house sits on the property of St. John's Episcopal Church in St. Cloud. It will soon be replaced by a larger one under an agreement to settle a lawsuit the church filed against the city.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

A church in St. Cloud has settled its lawsuit with the city over a tiny house it used to shelter a homeless person.

St. John's Episcopal Church had planned to house one homeless person at a time in a 132-square-foot house on wheels until they could get on their feet. But the house didn't meet the city's zoning ordinances or the state building code.

The church applied to the city's zoning board and asked for an amendment to its conditional use permit, but was denied. The church sued the city in 2016 under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which gives religious institutions greater rights to use their property free of zoning restrictions.

Under the settlement with the city, St. John's agreed to remove the existing house and replace it with a new one almost three times larger. The 384-foot house will have a foundation, electric heat and will be connected to the church's water and sewer utilities.

Bob Feigh, an attorney with Gray Plant Mooty, represented the church pro bono. Feigh said the federal law was passed in 2000 because a number of churches on the East Coast providing shelter to the homeless were bumping up against local zoning codes.

"The federal legislation says if the church is exercising its religious faith, which providing shelter to homeless individuals is, if it does so on church property, then the zoning authority is greatly diminished," he said.

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City Administrator Matt Staehling said the agreement addresses the city's concerns about the house not meeting state building codes and not being connected to sewer and water.

"Running a garden hose from the church in February out to a small structure is just not a workable solution in Minnesota winters," Staehling said. "Their solution here really I think is a much better solution."

George Ham, a deacon at the church, called the settlement a win-win for both sides. Although the new house is larger, it's still smaller than the typical size the city requires, he said.

"There are some faith communities in town who are standing in the wings watching to see how this all plays out, because they have expressed some interest in wanting to help the homeless community in a similar manner," Ham said.

The small house movement has been growing in popularity as an affordable and simpler housing option. Tiny houses for the homeless have been built in several cities including Dallas, Texas, and Portland, Oregon.

St. John's member Nancy Dyson recently bought a tiny house in Sauk Rapids, and hopes to see more in the area. She said many cities are still trying to figure out the rules for this new type of housing.

"Everybody's kind of looking to each other for answers and trying to figure a way we can make it work," Dyson said. "So having a compromise is the way to go right now. Because the movement's so new, the zoning, all the rules and regulations, aren't in place yet."

St. John's held a groundbreaking on Tuesday for the new house, which will be built by carpentry, plumbing and electrical students from St. Cloud Community and Technical College.

The church has set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to cover the cost of the new house, estimated at $40,000. Feigh acknowledged that the house won't solve the problem of homelessness in St. Cloud.

"The problem is much larger than that," he said. "But it will help those individuals who are touched by it, one at a time. And that is something that the church felt they could accomplish."