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Detroit Tiny Homes: Creative Shelters and Abandoned Spaces

Since I am spending some time in Detroit, Michigan for the winter I decided to reach out to my cousin, Charlie Zink, who blogs about his adventures biking around the streets of Detroit and taking photos of the interesting things he finds there.

Charlie comes across quite a few amazing gems on his adventures so I asked if he had ever seen tiny or small houses in the city.

His search for tiny spaces yielded some pretty neat results. I thought I would share two of them with you today.

One appears to be a crudely made shelter and the other a small abandoned building that may have some use in the future. Scroll down to see more.

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Small House in Detroit

Photo by Charlie Zink

I encourage you to check out the rest of Charlie’s Detroit tiny homes below:

Tiny House built by a Homeless Person

Photo by Charlie Zink

On his ride Charlie found this interesting shelter, and as he says, “The small place appears to be built by a homeless person from scrap found in the area. It is tucked in between two abandoned factories on Erskine Street and looks to be well made. I didn’t get too close though.”

When you look closely at the photograph it appears as though the little space might be made out of thick rigid foam to appear like an igloo, but the design is superb. I even admire the splash of embellishment on the gable above the door and the tiny window frame on the front. Makes me wonder if similar spaces could be made as movable homeless shelters in cities where people are struggling, such as Detroit.

Another Small House in Detroit

Photo by Charlie Zink

Not far from this little shelter stands a teeny, graffiti covered, 2 story blockhouse. Apparently it was built a couple of years ago. It is very close to the historic Eastern Market and was recently purchased after being abandoned. I love the design with the incredible windows and have to wonder what purpose of the nearly windowless first floor was. Because of its “factory-chic” aesthetic, the little building doesn’t seem to blend in much with the neighborhood which is one of the things I love about it. Perhaps next year I can find out what the new owners did with the small building.

Charlie tells me there are more places, even historic neighborhoods, with very small spaces. Before the holidays are over I hope to see more. At one time small homes, not McMansions, were the norm. In many cities, these homes may be small enough to go undetected if they are tucked behind larger buildings. Have you ever gone on a tiny house scavenger hunt in your own town?

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More Like This: Tiny Houses | He Built His Tiny Cabin in 12 Days of Construction | THOW

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Laura LaVoie

Contributor and Tiny House Owner at 120SquareFeet.com
Laura M. LaVoie is a professional writer living in the mountains of North Carolina in a 120 Square Foot house with her partner and their hairless cat, Piglet. Laura graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in Anthropology. She has been published in magazines and anthologies on the subjects of mythology and culture. She spent nearly 15 years in the temporary staffing industry before deciding to become a full time writer. Laura works closely with the Zulu Orphan Alliance volunteering her time and the skills she's learned building her own small house to build a shelter for orphans and other vulnerable children living near Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Laura also enjoys simple living, brewing and drinking craft beer, and popular culture.
{ 32 comments… add one }
  • Carolyn B
    November 26, 2012, 8:46 pm

    Loved the two story block shape. Yes, I look for the smaller homes in my town as I also look for ramped entries. I like to peruse the real estate ads and look for one bedroom houses. Not too many of them still around.

    • November 28, 2012, 11:36 am

      Thanks Carolyn! This makes me wanna go out and look for some tiny/small homes. I think I’ll do it today and post the pics. You’re so right.. 1 BR homes are rare these days.

  • Cat
    November 26, 2012, 9:47 pm

    When I lived in South Dakota a friend of mine and I used to drive around the prairie looking for old homes to go exploring in. Those old houses built around the turn of the 1900s were built for warmth and therefore, most of them were pretty small. It was weird going through the ones that still had all the stuff in them; books, clothes, dishes, every thing.

    • November 28, 2012, 11:37 am

      Thanks for sharing Cat! If you have any photos to share we’d all love to see them!

  • Stace
    November 26, 2012, 9:50 pm

    I grew up “down river” in the detroit area…..there is lots to see in the big D! When driving to classes at Wayne State University I’d drive out of my way to find old homes and buildings with character. Most were abandoned (even in the early 2000’s) but at one time were very beautiful. Thanks for the pic’s. They brought back memories!

    • November 28, 2012, 11:38 am

      Hi Stace, thanks for sharing! Glad Laura was able to bring back some Detroit memories for you.

  • November 27, 2012, 5:54 am

    If that small one by the tree was built by a homeless person, he needs a very big pat on the back. You can tell a huge amount of effort has gone into it, the roof line has a degree of design to it and to him, I bet it is his dream home. I just hope it is safe!

    • November 28, 2012, 11:38 am

      Great observation.. I totally agree. And I hope it’s safe too. I wonder what it’s built out of too..

  • alice h
    November 27, 2012, 11:52 am

    My old neighbourhood in Whitehorse, Yukon was chock full of tiny houses, still lots of them there. There’s the famous “log skscrapers” downtown (Link expired: register.yukonhistoricplaces.ca/pls/apex32p/f?p=200:10:0::NO::P10_PLACE_ID,P10_VERSION_NO:3239,7)
    If the link doesn’t work just google log skyscrapers Whitehorse.

  • November 27, 2012, 4:51 pm

    Detroit definitely does have character! I stayed on 8 mile once, in a rehearsal complex, while on tour with a band, and we had a great time- good people, good food, and a fun town.

    • November 28, 2012, 11:40 am

      Thanks for sharing Deek!

    • Karen Batchelor
      November 30, 2012, 2:14 pm

      You’re right, Deek – Detroit is a pretty amazing place, with a lot a character and the best music ever!

  • November 29, 2012, 12:07 am

    Hey guys, if you love old house photos take a look at this site on facebook. The photographer goes into abandoned buildings and takes HDR photos. They are gorgeous.

  • jim sadler
    November 30, 2012, 12:01 pm

    I would like to bless the city officials of Detroit for not molesting the fellow with the foam, tiny home. In an era in which poverty is so common and relief so thin we should be allowing great liberality to all that must build their own shelters.
    Many areas are so narrow minded that they even seek out the poor sleeping under tarps in the brush and scramble their little camp or arrest them for the slightest excuse.
    We have a gimmick called a “trespass warning” that allows a cop to issue a paper that will cause a serious arrest if the person returns. Simply warning them not to use a strip mall with a grocery store or fast food joints often drives them away as 14 months in jail will follow if they return. Worse yet those warnings do not expire and are a permanent notice. The cop needs no cause at all to issue a warning.

    • LLB
      November 30, 2012, 6:35 pm

      This is so sad and so ridiculous. In an economy where so many have lost homes and jobs and so many are working two and three jobs for wages that won’t even pay for food and rent together at the same time, what exactly do we expect people to do? There is this pervasive attitude that people without means simply don’t deserve anything at all, and as long as they’re not in your backyard they can freeze and go hungry somewhere else. One guy on facebook I saw even opined that those who are unemployed or on any kind of government assistance should not be allowed to vote!

      What kind of people are we in this country, anyway?

  • John
    November 30, 2012, 12:08 pm

    Detroit is not a nice place. I lived in the Detroit burbs for years, the areas in these photos will require a dog, a gun and constant fear of crime.

    • November 30, 2012, 12:52 pm

      I think the key to fixing Detroit is to learn why it isn’t a nice place and do something about it. I grew up in the suburbs as well, which is why we’re there for the Holidays. I think there is a place to urban revitalization which may have room for tiny spaces.

  • Karen Batchelor
    November 30, 2012, 1:45 pm

    Glad to hear that you’re spending some time in Detroit – my neck of the woods. I’m a native Detroiter and am planning to build a tiny house next year and hope to do that in the city. Have been getting a lot of inspiration from your blog:)

    And despite the negative press the city gets, it IS a great place, John. I guess if you expect it to be bad, that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Alex, if you’re around on a Friday, plan a visit to the Green Garage in Midtown Detroit (right by Wayne State). Green Garage is a green historic renovation – former Model T showroom, now collaborative workspace. This is where I work. The founders have bought and will be rehabbing an old apt building in the area into micro apartments and maybe a few tiny houses on the grounds.

    Every Friday at noon, there’s a brown bag lunch with lots of networking and a tour of this amazing space. People come from all over the world to visit so I hope you will too while you’re in the area. I’d like to introduce you to the founders – and of course, get to meet you in person.

  • LLB
    November 30, 2012, 6:30 pm

    “I love the design with the incredible windows and have to wonder what purpose of the nearly windowless first floor was.”

    Um, so it didn’t get broken into?

    My husband is from Detroit. He says it is a good place to be from…FAR from.

    • December 1, 2012, 11:02 am

      Its funny – I grew up in the Detroit area and as soon as I had a chance to I moved away. I love where I live now and there is no chance I would ever move back to Michigan. That being said, I have a weird kind of Stockholm Syndrome type relationship with Detroit. I don’t want to go back but I get kind of angry when people say bad things about it.

  • Frank
    December 1, 2012, 9:14 am

    LLB, I am from Detroit also and that was the exact same thing I thought too.

    I was born and sentenced to 25yrs of surviving there before I made my escape.

    Your husband is SOOOOOoooo right, its like a few other places… a great place to stay away from.

  • Chrystal
    December 21, 2012, 1:23 pm

    I live in MI and I am constantly looking around to spot tiny houses. I just love them. One of these days I shall have one, even if I only use it for a writing (work from home) office and retreat. Enjoy your time here in MI.

  • Rhonda Ledesma
    December 23, 2012, 5:34 pm

    I used to live in Detroit a long time ago (even attended Wayne State University). It would be really nice to see a Tiny Home community built in Detroit. It isn’t just rent or a mortgage where savings are needed but energy. Detroit can get very cold and having a huge house can leave you with electric and gas bills that cost more than to own or rent a home. Also, less material things, more positive interaction with your neighbors and a better view of the neighborhood might help deter crime. I love the makeshift Igloo home. I think whoever built it should be given a job or start his/her own house building business.

  • Heather
    February 25, 2014, 8:58 pm

    Hello. I’m looking to buy a shipping container to convert into an energy efficient habitat in Detroit. I have children and they’re on board too as long as we’ll finally have a home of our own. I’m hoping more people will want to do it too. The problem is, I don’t know how to find out where I could buy a parcel that is zoned for such a structure and would allow us to live in it. Any information is appreciated. Thank you.

    • BrownLuster
      March 6, 2015, 3:00 am

      I live in Detroit & have lived here all my life (40+ yrs). I too planned on purchasing two containers & building a home (640-650 sq. ft) & have been trying to find a section on the Eastside of Detroit that would allow for a small container home. Problem is purchasing land & zoning. Currently if there is vacant land or lot, you have to purchase the existing parcel next to it then apply to purchase the lot from the City of Detroit or Wayne County through thier adjacent lot program & even then U cannot build a parcel or garage on the vacant lot. You could park a THOW on it though but I would put a privacy fence around it just to be safe. Lol.

      I think the best area to build a tiny home would be in the exact area as the two story house in this piece. It’s right by Eastern Market and an Elementary School is just down the street as well. I just wonder if the city would allow you to purchase the land and if so, would the City of Detroit Planning & Development Dept. permit the build, especially when it comes to plumbing, sewerage & electrical. Too, I have noticed that no matter how small a house is in Detroit, all the houses have basements & that may also be yet another road block to building if the city requires that your tiny/small dwelling/Parcel has a basement. I absolutely DO NOT want a basement…no stairs for me or my knees! Lol…but I’m still on the hunt for a decent parcel of land near the Detroit River, Jefferson Ave, Eastern Market or Belle Isle.

      How did your search for land fare? I would love to know!! (^_^)

    • March 6, 2015, 4:05 pm

      I just read this article and thought it was an interesting intative for GM. I’m gonna try to find out how they acquired land to build the tiny container house…this gives me hope now!!

  • Rina
    January 20, 2015, 11:16 am

    I live in West Mi near the lake front and I have a friend/neighbor down the road from me who’s house is about 400 sq ft I’d say. It looks like a little shed. And its on a foundation/ has an address and everything so this gives my boyfriend and I hope that our city won’t be such sticklers when we build our tiny house. Although, we plan to build on a trailer just because we prefer to travel place to place, but if we ever decide to build on a foundation we’re quite hopeful they’ll be nice to us 😀 love the website! Been reading every article on it for like the past 6 days.

    • BrownLuster
      March 6, 2015, 3:52 pm

      Hi Rina!
      So glad to hear that your friend/neighbor built a tiny home on a foundation/slab! Where in West MI are they located? Is it rural? Did your friend/neighbor build thier tiny home as an extension to a parcel/house that they owned or did they purchase the land specifically to build their tiny home? I have so many questions!! Lol. I just want to get details of a success story in the tiny/small house movement! I would love to live in my own custom built tiny/small home without municpal code enforcers lurking around it & trying to shut it down.

  • Jerry reed
    September 5, 2016, 9:42 am

    i want a tiny Home

  • Ryan
    February 21, 2017, 12:16 pm

    I did some research, last year somebody bought the eastern market house and restored it 🙂

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