Nick Hess, the
smooth-domed leader of one of the oddest construction crews in
Georgia, gathered buckets of nails, bundles of hammers and his
battery-powered circular saw last Sunday and hiked under
dripping skies to a small grove of hardwoods in a concrete
wilderness within view of Midtown's skyscrapers.
Once at the site, Hess, 32, and a half-dozen colleagues went to
work, laying a simple concrete block foundation and raising modular
walls. These builders, most of them computer geeks, are not skilled
with the Skilsaw, but within two hours they were putting the
roof on the finished structure. A homeless man who'd been sleeping
under plastic tarps was waiting to take possession.
"We do the most affordable housing in the metro area," said Jim
Devlin, a 41-year-old Little Five Points resident in an Aussie hat,
as he pounded nails. "We build it and give it away."
These are the Mad Housers, a band of volunteers who deal
with the problem of homelessness by cutting to the chase: Every
Sunday they build houses.
Very small houses.
The base model is only 6 feet wide by 8 feet long, with a ceiling
that's 10 feet high at the peak. Cost to the Mad Housers: about
$350. Cost to the client: zero.
For someone who's been burrowing in kudzu, sleeping in Hefty bags
or hunkering under a highway bridge, 48 square feet of floor space
makes a world of difference.
It's a weathertight, insulated miniature home, with roll roofing,
a locking front door and a cheery wood stove piping in the
One of their clients is Walt Turman, a 52-year-old auto
mechanic and tree service worker, who has added a room to his hut
plus space for the portable toilet. "This is the way I came up,"
says the former farm boy, surveying his cluttered domain a few miles
away from Sunday's construction site. "I know about cooking on a
wood stove 'cause my mama had to get up every morning and make
breakfast on one."
Granted, what the Mad Housers do is at the margins of the law.
Their huts, which they give away, are generally sited on property
that they don't own. But for Mad Houser Vice President Hess, the
choice between doing the right thing and doing the legal thing is a
no-brainer. "We've been yelled at before and we'll probably get
yelled at again."
Beth McCracken, who is studying to be a social worker at Kennesaw
State University, wrote a paper on the Mad Housers for a
class on grass-roots movements, and was so impressed she launched a
fund-raiser to pay for a new hut. "Technically they try to fly under
the radar," says McCracken, 34. "I think they're awesome. They're
taking on a cause that's overwhelming -- the city can't handle it --
and they're helping out, one person at a time."
According to longtime member Frank Jeffers, 59, the
original Mad Housers, who first cohered in 1987, were politically
provocative. They built huts in "ostentatious places" to raise
awareness of the homeless problem.
But quality control was low. The plywood was thin, the huts
uninsulated, the windows too big. "They leaked heat like a sieve and
they were totally unsecure," says Hess. "It was a good first
Like many of their huts, that group fell apart in the mid-1990s.
The Mad Housers regrouped about two years ago, focusing on shelter,
Today the Mad Housers succeed by thinking inside the box. For
example, consider their unique wood stove design, created by
Jeffers: It is built of four nested galvanized shop buckets, with a
lid and a 2-inch-diameter vent pipe to carry smoke up through the
roof. Perforations at the base control air flow. Cost: about $30.
(Clients receive instruction in using the cheap stove, and its
safety record is good, says volunteer Kurt Haas.)
The low-budget group, composed of activists, software writers and
the formerly homeless, works the same way. The Mad Housers operate
on a minimum of fuel, efficiently turning income into shelter. Their
huts are exactly the length of two sheets of plywood and the width
of one and a half, meaning a minimum of cuts per sheet. Classed as
"emergency shelter," the huts are intended to finesse housing codes
that apply to permanent dwellings.
Sometimes their overhead is so low they bump their noggins. At a
recent "build" they used a plastic bottle filled with water for a
level, and they were forced to flatten the hut site by digging in
the dirt with pointy pieces of wood and their bare hands.
"We need a shovel," says Devlin during a Mad Houser meeting at a
Midtown coffee shop. At the meeting they discuss the upcoming
Sunday's construction activities and ways to capitalize on National
Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, which starts
They also talk about a van. Hess, a computer programmer at
Weather.com, reports that insurance on a "company" van will
cost $1,500, the entire Mad Houser bank account. No van, man.
Their profile is low and their donations are low too. Yet support
comes from a wide range of folks (including an anonymous donor who
communicates only through a Washington lawyer).
Middle school students from Atlanta and Boy Scouts from Lilburn
have helped on Mad Houser projects, with funds donated by the
Georgia Vietnam Veterans Alliance. A Powder Springs
church joined them on a build, and this summer the Furniture
Bank of Metro Atlanta donated warehouse space so they could
do some of their carpentry inside.
But they've yet to be embraced by the mainstream. Folks in
Habitat for Humanity (where starter houses cost $46,000) prefer not
to comment on the guerrilla builders. Hess doesn't even want to
approach the "big box" retailers such as Home Depot for free
plywood. He figures few corporations want to claim charitable
deductions to habitual trespassers.
In the meantime, the slumping economy and promises of a cold
winter keep business brisk. All two dozen of their huts are full,
and there's a waiting list six deep, with requests for huts in
places far from downtown Atlanta. (There are potential clients
camping in woods around Marietta.)
Some supporters are troubled by the group's underground tactics,
but sympathetic to their goals. Phil Greeves of Lilburn says
he'd prefer it if the Mad Housers got permission instead of hiding
their huts, but he acknowledges that in most cases they'd be denied.
Adam, Greeves' son, built a hut two years ago to fulfill the
community service requirement for his Eagle Scout badge. The project
changed their opinions about the homeless. "These were not
unproductive people," says the father. "They were working Monday to
Friday, and on the weekends they'd come out and help with the
On the ethics of madhousing, Bill Bolling, founder of the
Atlanta Community Food Bank, comments, "I would say you ask
forgiveness instead of permission in this case. This is a small
legal question vs. a big social issue."
Mad Houser Peter Richards, a teacher at Paideia School,
sums up the question this way: "In America," he says, "you have two
choices if you're homeless: charity or trespass."
The city hasn't prosecuted any Mad Housers in recent memory, says
Sandra Walker, spokeswoman for Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin,
though the city has asked that some structures be removed. "It's an
unfortunate situation," says Walker. "It's what [the Mad Housers]
feel they have to do, but certainly we have to respect the right of
the property owners, and follow the laws."
The Mad Housers will always remove huts if asked by the property
owner, says Haas. The group tracks ownership by checking plats, and
on at least one occasion disassembled a village when the property
changed hands. It will also take down a hut if a resident causes a
problem for the neighborhood.
Haas says he doesn't know whether the huts pose a liability risk
for landowners, but adds, "In general the sites where there is a
clear property owner, the property owner is tacitly aware they [the
huts] are there."
Many "hutters" stay a short while, saving enough money to get an
apartment or subsidized housing, at which point they turn their huts
over to the next in line. Others stay longer. "This reminds me of
Boy Scouts," says Joe, a Ghanaian expatriate who has
been in his rustic shelter for five years.
If constructing stealth housing is a trend, it's a quiet one. Jim
Reid, a perennial candidate for public office in San
Francisco, has designed a 10-by-10 house to be mass-produced for
that city's homeless, but none is currently in use, perhaps because
of the $12,000 price tag.
A similar movement rose and fell in Chicago, and a group in
Canada called the Peterborough Collective is trying to raise
interest in similar shelters. "It can snowball, even if it's not a
big ball," says Richard Van Slyke, an independent videographer who
has been taping a documentary about the Mad Housers for four
One thing that Van Slyke and others notice about the group is
that it is motivated by a desire to do the right thing, even though
few of the Housers seem to connect that desire with a religious
Salma Abdulrahman, a telecommunications software
programmer, says her urge to volunteer with the group doesn't grow
out of her Muslim faith as much as from her basic character.
"We're all human beings, we're all people, when you come down to
it," says the 24-year-old. "I'd be doing this if I were any
religion. It's just part of my personality."
On a drizzly, mackerel-clouded Sunday at another hut site,
Abdulrahman is demonstrating her philosophy by hauling wheelbarrows
full of firewood from hut to hut, while Jeffers wields a chain
This small village of huts is located on the bones of a ruined
amusement park called Funtown. Turman once visited Funtown as a
child, when school buses brought a pack of teenagers up from his
Heard County high school. Now he lives next to the defunct
merry-go-round, which is reduced to a weed-cracked concrete pad.
Here residents carry their water and heat with wood. They grow
vegetables and make their own charcoal under Joe's guidance. Turman
powers his portable TV with a 12-volt car battery.
"We're just trying to get society back into some kind of
balance," says Jeffers, pausing for some cowboy coffee perking on a
galvanized drum fire. "Some people have got so much more and other
people don't have any heat."
What they provide, says Hess, is hope and dignity, along with a
dry place to sleep. "Once you give people a certain amount of hope,"
he says, "civilization begins there."
Funtown: A Third World village in the middle of the city
The ferris wheel was hauled off long ago. The bumper cars are
gone. Algae grows in the empty swimming pool and the concession
stands tilt in slow-motion collapse.
Funtown, an amusement park that once drew revelers from around
the metro area, is a ruin. But there is new life on Funtown's
In this wild, secluded corner of Southwest Atlanta, hidden among
the scrub mimosa that push up through Funtown's asphalt walkways and
parking lots, is a village of about 12 tiny huts, built by the Mad
Housers over the last 10 years.
While some residents of the village have gone on to less
primitive housing, others find themselves happy with this simple
life: carrying water, cutting wood for their durable homemade
woodstoves, and growing vegetables.
Walking on the nearby streets was scary for Barbara Ann Triplett,
who lived here for a few months, but once inside the village she
felt safe. "Every one of them [the other residents] was there to
protect me," she said.
Another resident from the early days of the village said the
mosquitoes and ants were a problem, not to mention the scary
isolation and the cold weather (this was before the huts were
insulated), "but other than that it was fine," she adds with a
This resident left before the gen-car arrived. The gen-car
Always looking for ways to humanize the environment for the
residents of their huts, the Mad Housers, led by president Frank
Jeffers, figured out a way to turn a junked 1985 Mercury Capri into
light and hot water.
Jeffers, whose group builds emergency shelters for the homeless,
calls it the "co-generation car" -- gen-car for short. Mad Houser
Bill Callison bought it for $200 (it already had 250,000 miles on
it), then the transmission burned out. He had it towed to the site.
Callison and Jeffers began upgrading the Capri, and eventually had
it outfitted with two 90-amp alternators and an array of six
golf-cart batteries in the trunk. Nearby "hutters" connected
themselves to a home-made electrical grid, and, voila, there was
By running the car for a few hours three times a week, the
residents could recharge the battery array enough to run lights and
portable television sets for the seven hutters who were
Jeffers also retro-fitted the car's cooling system, running hot
water from the water pump to a coil of copper tubing in a nearby
50-gallon drum. Water inside the drum was heated through this
primitive heat exchange, while water from the coil was returned to
the car's radiator. Residents had hot water for dishes and
"For less than $10 a week in gasoline we had power and hot water
for about seven people," says Callison.
Unfortunately the gen-car is no more. After five years supplying
the needs of the village, it died last spring. Still, says Callison,
"that was the best $200 I ever spent."-- Bo Emerson