Topher Thomas’ new business, Coram Houses, addresses the affordable housing crisis by building tiny homes in people’s backyards
By Brandee Gruener | Photography by John Michael Simpson
One of the smallest tiny homes in Durham sits atop a hill in Topher Thomas’ backyard. At just 120 square feet, the wood-clad abode rests against two trees with a small balcony sandwiched between, giving every impression of a treehouse. Thomas installed a loft bed to provide a bit more space for the couple who lives there. The tenants have filled every inch available with furniture and storage.
This tiny residence in the West End neighborhood was Thomas’ first foray into providing affordable housing in Durham. The theology and science teacher at Trinity School of Durham and Chapel Hill initially started to build the accessory dwelling unit as a way to make money on the side for his family of four. Thomas undertook the project in March 2021 while schools were closed and found it to be “a blast” and “very meditative” for his busy brain.
Then a neighbor came to him for help. Her landlord had decided to sell the property where she lived. With rental rates on the rise, she had nowhere to go.
“This is what this [kind of endeavor] could be for,” Thomas thought. He launched Coram Houses with the goal of expanding affordable housing in Durham by building tiny homes.
The city has estimated that 27,000 low-income households are cost-burdened, or paying more than 30% of their income on housing. And the problem is likely to grow as long as rents do. Rent.com recently reported that a one-bedroom apartment in Durham rents for an average of $1,447, an 11% increase from a year prior. In theory, a single person would need a salary of $57,880 to afford a one-bedroom.
Tiny homes are less expensive to build than a traditional home, providing an opportunity for more affordable housing. But Thomas wanted to take the concept even further by helping his community build wealth. He was inspired when a grandparent of one of his students offered to front the money for his own backyard project, with an agreement to split the rent until the investment was repaid. Thomas began to think about how to link investors with other families who would like to own a tiny home. Coram Houses would build the homes, working with educational programs in construction – such as Hope Renovations in Carrboro or classes at Durham Technical Community College – where possible, and take a small percentage to keep the business going. The homeowners would gain the opportunity to collect rent without spending anything. Coram Houses would be “a community organization committed to breaking cycles of racial and economic injustice through creative and affordable housing.”
“Everybody is coming out ahead because of their participation,” Thomas said.
“That to me is really important, that not one group is winning out more than another.
“There’s people who can write checks. There’s people who need housing. There’s people like me who need the extra income,” Thomas added. “If we can just connect those pieces, then we could have a cool ecosystem.”
Meeting the demand for affordable housing is not easy, so Thomas has started to explore working with banks to fund more projects for homeowners who don’t have the capital to invest. He also is open to consulting with investors with the means to build an affordable home on their own property.
“The model has had to shift, because finding people to write big checks and enough of them at scale for the problem has proven to be not sustainable,” Thomas said.
Meanwhile, Thomas completed a second tiny home this spring and has two more under construction. The newest designs are a single story with 240 square feet and a two-story residence with a total of 465 square feet. Coram Houses has 18 projects in the pipeline, with a potential of providing 80 affordable housing units. Thomas hopes to break ground on 20 houses this year, with all but one project based in Durham. He would eventually like to have a model that could be replicated anywhere.
Current tenants make between 30% to 60% of the area median income, but Thomas wants to be flexible in defining what is affordable. For instance, someone could make more than 60% of AMI, but have a huge amount of student debt to pay off. For that reason, Thomas encourages interested homeowners to find a tenant whose situation they are familiar with.
“The whole idea of building in backyards is to be relational,” Thomas said. “I want for the community to have more connectedness.”
And those connections can emerge at the most unexpected moments, like when Thomas was recently hanging drywall.
“‘My living situation is terrible right now,’” a worker told him. “‘I would love to live in something like this.’”
So Thomas put him on the list for a future tiny home.