Exterior view of El Centro "tiny home."
Article Features by Lisa Yarbrough

Tiny homes in El Centro provide housing for former foster youth attending the local college

Lisa Yarbrough works at KP Public Affairs and is managing editor of Western City magazine; she can be reached at editor@westerncity.com.

Aging out of the foster care system is difficult under normal circumstances and during a pandemic it is even harder. When foster youth reach age 21 they often find themselves without a strong support network or a place to live. According to the National Foster Youth Institute, 25 percent of former foster youth experience homelessness within four years of leaving the foster care system.

The city of El Centro has doubled down on its commitment to end homelessness and through a partnership with the Imperial Valley College (IVC) and the Imperial Valley College Foundation the city developed “Lotus Living Rise Above, Resilient Community.” This project provides permanent housing for 26 college students who are former foster youth experiencing homelessness. The college estimates that there are 210 self-identified homeless students and this project will prioritize housing students who have aged out of the foster care system.

“Lotus Living Rise Above, Resilient Community is a project that prioritizes housing our most vulnerable young adults, former foster youth,” said Imperial Valley College President Dr. Martha Garcia. “We are extremely grateful to the city of El Centro for believing in our dream to provide a safe living community to our most vulnerable students. The project is a reflection of hope and care. Collectively, we are enhancing the probability of success for these students and in turn they will contribute to social and economic development, which benefits us all.”

Construction on the 26 tiny homes wrapped up at the end of February and students will be moving in soon. The 170-square-foot single-occupancy homes include a kitchen, bathroom, desk, closet, patio, washer, and dryer. Students pay approximately $200 per month for rent and are required to complete 10 hours of  community service per month to help maintain the premises. 

“The IVC Housing program has given me something I never thought possible, a chance to continue with my education without worry,” said Magaly Scaia. “As a former foster youth and a single mother, I cannot express how grateful I am to Imperial Valley College and their team because they have not only ensured my academic success, but created a sense of community and safety for myself and my son. I hope to continue my education and be his role model as he grows up. I feel I am a true example of anything is possible through education, no matter your circumstance. I cannot wait to see the paths and realities the tiny homes will create for other students like me.”

Interior view of a tiny home in El Centro.

El Centro was one of the first recipients of funding under Homekey, a statewide program designed to house those experiencing homelessness. The city received a $2.6 million Homekey grant for this project as well as $458,000 in Imperial County Homeless Emergency Aid Program funds, and $524,000 for two years of operation costs from Enterprise. 

Initially designed as 13 tiny duplexes, the plan was changed to 26 free-standing tiny homes in order to expedite the permitting process. Municipal capital projects typically take years to develop, however, the city’s emergency declaration due to the coronavirus pandemic allowed the city to easily pivot and expedite the procurement process. The project’s success is due in large part to coordination among city departments, including community services, public works/engineering, legal, and the city manager’s office, as well as with external stakeholders.

There were several site improvements that were needed, including installation of water and sewer and connecting to other utilities such as electrical and communication. Facility upgrades also included a parking lot, walkways, lighting, fencing, landscaping, bioswales, and a dual open space/retention basin area. The Imperial Irrigation District, Spectrum/Time Warner Cable, and AT&T were among some of the entities that expedited their work to help ensure the project came online quickly.

View of tiny homes in El Centro.

The quick completion of the tiny homes project is a true testament of collaboration,” said El Centro Mayor and Cal Cities President Cheryl Viegas Walker. “I am grateful that the city was part of this project, recognizing the lifetime benefits for IVC students who can now focus on their education in a stable and secure environment. The positive outcomes that will result from this project will be seen in the community for many years.”

The tiny homes are located on a city-owned 1-acre parcel of land that is near the college, making it easy for students to ride their bike or to take public transportation to their classes. The IVC Foundation is providing long-term maintenance and operation of the project site as well as offsite case management and wraparound services for the students who will be residing at the facility.

“El Centro and the Imperial Valley as a whole are resilient, and together we can overcome community obstacles such as poverty and educational attainment. The relationships forged during this time will not be forgotten and we will continue to work together for the betterment of Imperial Valley,” said El Centro Community Service Director Adriana Nava.