When her daughter was discharged from the Navy at the end of 2010 and returned home after serving 2½ years, Darline Bell-Zuccarelli discovered that the young veteran could not afford her own place to live, and she was determined to do something about it.
So, Bell-Zuccarelli built a small home for her daughter — in her own backyard.
“My daughter was a little depressed because she was having a hard time finding a job in the first place, and then when she found the job, and then taxes and everything, she realized she could not afford to live on her own,” she said.
From June 2012 to June 2013, Bell-Zuccarelli and her husband, Gilmar Hernandez, spent nights and weekends working on the 192-square-foot house situated behind the couple’s home on Woodland Road in Gaithersburg.
Complete with a living room, kitchenette, sleeping loft, bathroom, vaulted ceiling, skylight and porch, the home is small but functional, Bell-Zuccarelli said. It also has electricity, air conditioning and heat, and it is set up for plumbing.
An accountant by day, Bell-Zuccarelli said she had limited experience in construction, and relied mostly on the Internet and her local Home Depot to learn how to build the structure.
“Home Depot university is what I call it,” she said. “I just spent half my time there.”
Bell-Zuccarelli estimated that the entire project, from lumber to furniture, cost $15,000. She and her husband, a landscaper, paid for the project by working on a “pay as you go” plan, meaning that they completed tasks as money became available to them from paychecks.
She has electrical and building permits for a shed of up to 216 square feet under city code. The house also passed foundation, framing and electrical inspections, Bell-Zuccarelli said.
No one has been able to live in the house yet because there is no running water, Bell-Zuccarelli said. Once she can afford the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission charge to connect the house’s plumbing pipes to those located on the street, which is expected to cost around $10,000, Bell-Zuccarelli can apply for an occupancy permit to have her daughter, Adrienne Baker, officially live in the structure.
Aside from giving her own daughter a place to live, Bell-Zuccarelli believes the little house could serve as a prototype to bring in people off the streets. Her idea is for Montgomery County to buy a parcel, and build small, inexpensive houses on the property to serve the homeless population.
“Build 10 of these and people won’t have to go on vouchers, people won’t have to go on welfare,” she said. “People will have somewhere to live other than the streets.”
With the goal of ending homelessness, the Montgomery County Council approved an appropriation Dec. 3 that gives $649,325 to the county’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs to provide permanent housing for 15 homeless people classified as medically vulnerable.
Bell-Zuccarelli said she thought the county’s plan was costly and narrow-reaching.
On Dec. 17, officials from the county’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs came out to tour the home.
The department’s director, Richard Y. Nelson Jr., said if the county were to consider Bell-Zuccarelli’s suggestion, an investigation would have to be conducted to see if homeless people would want to live in the homes and if the houses could be equipped to help those people back on their feet.
“One big question is whether or not people would prefer to live in a small house like that,” he said. “I’m not sure if there is a market for that. Also, the homeless need services in the home, like counseling and therapy.”
Baker, 25, said she enjoys spending time in the tiny house.
“The house is great and my mom worked really, really hard on it,” she said. “If she had the water hooked up, I would be more than happy to live in it.”
Now working in Silver Spring with Chimes, an organization that helps people with disabilities learn life skills, Baker said she thinks the tiny house represents more than just a house for herself.
“She’s saying it’s for me, but I think she really hopes it will serve as her mission for helping homeless and low-income families.”
Ultimately, Bell-Zuccarelli said she wants to help those in her community and increase their quality of life.
“I don’t want anyone else to go through what my daughter’s going through,” she said. “She works every single day and she can’t afford to live on her own. This tiny house works for her.”