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Wheeling resident sees tiny homes as giant opportunity


The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING, W.Va.  — Millennials, the elderly and those in between may soon have the opportunity to own a small, affordable home on Wheeling Island.

Martin Wach of Wheeling has contributed much of his time to the area through the creation of several urban gardens, one of which specifically for the blind. Martin Wach believes this program will provide not only affordable housing, but the opportunity for home ownership.
Martin Wach, owner of a “tiny home” on Wheeling Island, aspires to utilize empty lots in the area to create urban gardens and affordable homes.
(Intelligencer photo by Jessica Broverman)

Wach decided to expand on his gardens in a way that not only protects the produce, but provides housing for those who need it.

“I’m building gardens and the biggest problem I have is theft. I thought, what if I added a tiny house and solve a whole variety of problems,” Wach said.

“Tiny homes” are residences that are less than 500 square feet in area. Wach has obtained several vacant lots to plant urban gardens and provide land for the tiny homes.

Obstacles traditional homeowners face will not be an issue for micro-home owners, according to Wach. He said due to the high cost of insurance for traditional homes in flood zones, residents are abandoning their property and having a tiny home that could simply be rolled away may be what they need.

Thomas Connelly, assistant director of Wheeling’s Economic and Community Development Department, said city council will consider Wach’s plans for the local tiny house movement.

“He can do the tiny homes in Wheeling without changes being necessary, but because it is in a flood zone, that is what’s necessitating changes to the Wheeling code,” Connelly said.

Wheeling City Council’s Rules Committee will meet at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday prior the council’s regular session at noon at Warwood Middle School to discuss how to deal with tiny houses.

“I like the concept of tiny houses in the floodplain. There are a lot of vacant lots that you can’t really build anything on because it’s the floodplain,” Councilman Brian Wilson said. “Wheeling may not be used to the culture of tiny houses, though, so we need to see how the neighbors feel.”

Wilson and Vice Mayor Chad Thalman said they would seek input from Councilman Ken Imer, who represents Wheeling Island, on the matter, but said they see no problem with the concept.

“I think small houses can be a creative solution for development in a flood plain where it otherwise wouldn’t make sense to build new,” Thalman said.

Wach hopes, slowly but surely, to turn Wheeling Island into what he calls an “agrihood.”

“There are over 200 agrihood projects nationwide and they are essentially land that is used for farming, whether it be a residential space, industrial or commercial,” he said.

One of the completed tiny homes on Wheeling Island is on South Broadway Street with a full garden in front of the home. Although the interior of the residence is not yet finished, the garden is fully developed and accessible.

“In the garden we have green peppers, artichokes, herbs — all kinds of great stuff. You can make about $25,000 just using (the garden) as a production site for flowers and plants,” Wach said.

He points out that this is another opportunity for tiny homeowners to save money by having their own grocery store in their yard. He said the tiny house has a mortgage of $409 a month, which includes the lot on which it is situated.

“Kids are coming out of college with debt. Millennials now are looking at $650 (per month) for a one-bedroom apartment on the island and (it is) $409 to have your own yard that is fenced in if you have a dog, a garden to grow all of your food, plus feed half the block and a house that is yours,” Wach said.

Students of Wheeling Jesuit University are also contributing for their senior project.

“This is a good opportunity to put our education to the test,” said engineering major Lauren Buck.

WJU environmental sustainability major Carlos Hernandez will be working alongside Buck in designing pontoons for the homes, which will be inspected and approved by a professional engineer.

WJU engineering director Robert Yahn said this is an ideal senior project for his students.

“This fits in with the Jesuit philosophy — serve the community by being a well-educated person,” he said.

Hernandez and Buck are taking courses in project management to assist them in their work on the tiny homes.

“The class dissects projects into basic pieces. Once we break down, all that goes into planning a big project — and this is a big project. It is more manageable and is produced efficiently,” Yahn said.

Retired and disabled veterans will be hired to do electrical work and install sewer connections in the future homes, Wach said, noting he is proud of the crew he will be putting together for the tiny house creations.

“The Veterans Administration hospital has a program called compensated work training and they will help with a lot of installation work. We are going to teach the veterans to do all of this,” Wach said.

He says the homes will be perfect for millenials, baby boomers, the elderly and the disabled veterans that will be contributing their efforts.

“We can build a cottage for them around their disability. The millenials won’t have to live at home with mom or grandma anymore because they’ll be able to afford a home and have their own urban garden right outside,” he said.

The first tiny home on Wheeling Island is awaiting interior design and the next one will be completed at the end of the year.

Each home may cost anywhere between $35,000 and $50,000, with land included. Although there are only a handful of tiny homes available, Wach said two years from now, he expects to be able to “bang them out one a day.”

“There are a lot of people that would like to live out in the country, but also love living in the city — this is both. They can walk across the bridge to their job at The Health Plan and come back home and for a student it is cheaper than getting a (dorm),” Wach said.

Staff Writer Casey Junkins contributed to this report.

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