Ground broken for three affordable tiny homes in Chapel Hill

Nathaniel "Pee-Wee" Lee leans on a shovel at the ground-breaking for three "Pee Wee Homes" Sunday at the Episcopal church The Advocate.
Nathaniel "Pee-Wee" Lee leans on a shovel at the ground-breaking for three "Pee Wee Homes" Sunday at the Episcopal church The Advocate. cwarrenhicks@heraldsun.com

Communion bread and construction ground were broken in succession this weekend at Church of the Advocate, an Episcopal church in Chapel Hill.

After leading Sunday services, the church's vicar, Lisa Fischbeck, put down her Bible, picked up a shovel and dug its blade into the clay, marking the ground-breaking ceremony for three new “Pee-Wee Homes.”

The three miniature houses are to be built on the church's 15-acre campus off Homestead Road and are the latest project by the Pee-Wee Homes Collaborative, which aims to reduce homelessness in Orange County.

At roughly 350 square feet, each home will have a permanent foundation, a bedroom, bathroom, a combined kitchen and living room, and at least one porch.

Fischbeck said the Pee-Wee Homes will act as an “outward and visible sign of our commitment to have the church's land be a resource for the community.”

To qualify for a Pee-Wee Home, an applicant must have a housing voucher or a monthly income of $700 to 30 percent of the Orange County area median income, $1,412.50 per month ($16,950 per year).

The Collaborative takes its housing mission and its name from lifelong Chapel Hill resident Nathaniel “Pee-Wee” Lee.

Lee, 71, was a brick mason until he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995. Over his long career, he had built dozens of brick homes in Orange County. But the stroke took his masonry skills away, and without an income, Lee lost his home.

For more than 10 years, Lee said, he slept where he could. He spent countless nights in the woods, two years primarily at a homeless shelter, and for six years, he made his home in an outdoor stairwell that descended into a local business' basement.

On rainy days, he said, a blanket affixed to a railing on those stairs acted as a makeshift roof.

He now lives in a studio apartment.

“How do I like living now?” Lee said. “Much better. I stay alone a lot. I don't have to deal with a whole bunch of people around all the time. Better. A lot better.”

The three Pee-Wee Homes to be built at The Advocate will cost about $150,000. Donations have been key.

Last year, the Chapel Hill Town Council provided $70,000 for project out of the town's Affordable Housing Development Fund. UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School raised $15,000.

Habitat for Humanity will help build the homes using volunteer laborers.

Tenants will pay between $220 and $450 monthly in rent, excluding utilities.

The church bell rang to signal the start of Sunday's ground-breaking ceremony. Parishioners sang in sight of a shady pond as their children swung from live oak branches on swings edging the brown water.

The Episcopalians prayed for “laborers, supplies and funds.”

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks