Durham Magazine April / May 2022

Page 114

durham inc.

TINY HOMES, BIG DIFFERENCE Local educator tackles affordable housing crisis with new business BY B R A N D E E G R U E N E R | P H O T O G R A P H Y BY J O H N M I C H A E L S I M P S O N


NE OF THE smallest tiny homes in Durham sits atop a hill in Topher Thomas’ backyard. At just 120 square feet, the woodclad 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 live 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.





Topher Thomas’ new business, Coram Houses, addresses the affordable housing crisis by building backyard tiny homes.

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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