Darrell Berkheimer: Nevada City resident details affordable small homes plan

For the past three years, I’ve written several commentaries about the type of affordable housing that’s needed here in “Happy Valley.” That void is one of the major issues creating the growing numbers of homelessness — along with mental health issues, substance abuse and a scarcity of good-paying jobs.

And for the foreseeable future, it looks as if both the affordable housing and homelessness issues will grow into more serious crises with anticipated evictions and foreclosures as a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

But today, I’ve elected to report on perhaps one of the best affordable proposals that I’ve seen — and I’ve read about many housing proposals during the past five years. It’s called Prospector Village, and it’s the result of a dream and hundreds of hours of planning by Nevada City resident Ken Merdinger.

Prospector Village is a proposal for small houses — ranging from 261 square feet for a studio to 746 sq. ft. for a 2-bedroom, 2-bath house. And the prices range from $149,000 for the one studio home to $299,000 for a 3-bedroom home with 847 sq. ft.

But first I feel I need to backtrack on what I consider to be one of the biggest problems that occurs whenever the word housing is mentioned. Most folks seem to immediately think of the words house and family; but the words dwelling and household should be substituted instead.

To repeat a few statistics cited in at least two previous columns, only one out of every five of today’s households — 20% — is a nuclear family consisting of a mom, pop, and one, two or three children. Another 7% of households are single parents with one or more children.

That means that 73% of households consist of couples, either young or old; a single adult, or two or more adults sharing the dwelling. And I’ve been told that multiple-families are squeezing into one- and two-bedroom apartments in the Bay Area where the monthly rents are between $2,500 and $3,000.

When you consider those statistics, doesn’t it make you wonder why developers continue to propose the building of more single-family homes at prices approaching $500,000 and up? Do you think that might be a reason why more and more homes are being rented by two or more single adults, and sometimes multiple families?

Because of those issues, I continue to maintain that the greatest need is for apartments and various other multiplex structures that provide studio units of no more than 300 sq. ft.; one-bedroom units of 300 to 500 sq. ft., and two-bedroom units of no more than 700 sq. ft.

It’s the smaller square footage and higher density that helps to lower the price and rental costs for such units. In this area it’s hard to find rental units for much less than $1,500 monthly — when affordable by today wages would be about $900 to $1,200 per month.

But just as I continue to tout small apartments and multiplexes, Ken Merdinger comes along and reports that his plan would help to provide some of what’s needed with small, stand-alone, stick-built, high-tech cottages. His plan is to build between 200 and 250 small homes in several clusters on approximately 30 acres.

And Ken is wanting to help minimum wage earners get into one of his studio homes with as little as $35,000 to $40,000 annual income. He said he has crunched the numbers and two minimum-wage workers — one full-time and one part-time — could afford to buy one of his small studio homes with only about $5,000 down payment, and a monthly mortgage of about $1,100.

He’s proposing a second studio house at 289 sq. feet for $157,000. The studios could accommodate one to four occupants – one or two in a Murphy bed in the “Great Room,” and another one or two in the loft.

The prices for the one- and two-bedroom houses are listed at $180,500, $229,000 and $283,000. And Merdinger’s projecting the down payments would range from approximately $6,300 to a little over $8,000 – with monthly mortgages between $1,300 and $1,600.

The one-bedroom units could accommodate from two to six occupants — again with the addition of a Murphy bed in the Great Room and use of a loft.

The figures will range somewhat higher, of course, for the three-bedroom, two-bath homes included in his plan.

The best way to see the type of small homes he’s proposing is to visit the Prospector Village website http://www.helpncca.com. It shows the floor plans and financing numbers projected for each house.

That website also explains how Merdinger desires to integrate the small homes into a community atmosphere. And he gives considerable credit for some of the ideas in his plan to his daughter Kelly, a therapist and case worker for a homeless nonprofit in Seattle.

He explained his daughter emphasized that folks in homeless situations have a strong need to be part of a community. And Merdinger noted that discussions with his daughter are partly responsible for his efforts to develop his housing plan — in addition to his desire to return something to the community and society that have provided him with a good life.

So Kelly and Merdinger are two of his six-member team involved in the development of Prospector Village. The others include Rob Wood, a Grass Valley planner; Ryan Litke, an area real estate financing consultant; Michael Taylor, Grass Valley construction advisor, and Enrique Rivera, Nevada County social worker.

Merdinger has engaged them in the founding of his H.E.L.P. organization, which stands for House, Empower and Lift People.

The website notes that Merdinger has been a public school teacher for 24 years, and is the author of a series of children’s book. He also has been an active volunteer for Nevada County Habitat for Humanity and serves as president of Dorsey Meadows Homeowners Association.

Merdinger said he does not expect to receive a lot of profit from the house sales, and that he intends to put the bulk of that money into developing community services such as a community center, garden, dog park and children’s playground.

He noted he does not want to be involved in developing apartments or rental units. He explained he doesn’t like sharing walls or having others living below or above him; and he believes most folks would prefer living in a stand-alone home. But he does expect to butt two houses against storage units in the middle that will serve both houses.

He is seeking both contributors and investors, and hopes to secure funding assistance through grants and low-interest loans. His clusters will operate with a home owners association, which will have income limits for house occupants.

He has been negotiating on the purchase of one of two Grass Valley sites, and is awaiting acceptance of his offer on one of them.

How quickly his plan develops will depend somewhat on how many potential buyers indicate their interest by registering on his website.

I’m wishing much success to Merdinger, because he’s geared his efforts to providing what’s desperately needed by many households, and he’s more interested in filling that need than he is in making a lot of profit.

Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to . He has seven books available through Amazon. His sixth, Essays from The Golden Throne, includes 60 columns published by , plus a dozen western travel and photo essays. Contact him at [email protected]

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