Tiny Home Village

Amy Blank Wilson, an associate professor in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work, stands on the deck of the model Tiny Home.


By Laurie Paolicelli

Tourists are drawn to Orange County with certain expectations, just as they are everywhere else they may visit. It’s a feature-driven decision: culture, architecture, dining, infrastructure, landscape, events, shopping, etc. However, one of the reasons travelers love Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough in particular is its people and the giving, progressive culture they engender.

This is a story about one of those people, Thava Mahadevan. Mahadevan is the founder and director of Tiny Homes Village, a new form of affordable housing for people with mental illnesses and other health conditions — a population most at risk for homelessness. The village will also support and house veterans in need. A ground breaking ceremony is planned for November 15th.

Thava Mahadevan, UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health. Photo by Jon Gardiner UNC-CH

Tiny Homes Village is a byproduct of the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, which was established in 2009 to bring the expertise of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to bear on the challenges facing North Carolina’s mental health system.

Mahadevan has spent the last few years trying to get the innovative community off the ground, working closely with Amy Blank Wilson, co-director of the project and an associate professor and social work researcher at the School of Social Work.

Mahadevan and Wilson see the Tiny Homes Village, which includes the construction of fifteen 400-square-foot houses, as a model for building well-designed, permanent, sustainable homes for $50,000 each.

The village may also provide a new option for increasing the state’s supply of affordable, sustainable housing, Mahadevan said. Residents who qualify to live in the Tiny Homes Village will pay, on average, $250 to $300 for rent, or about one-third of their monthly income.

From Sri Lanka to Chapel Hill

In 1983, an ethnic conflict erupted in Sri Lanka where Mahadevan belonged to a minority group known as the Tamils. Mahadevan said his family home tragically burned down during the conflict, but he and his family were among the few to escape and move to India as refugees. Experiencing this at such a young age, he witnessed a great deal suffering and mental health issues, and this is one experience that led him to pursue the field of mental health.

Fast-forward to the year 2000. The North Carolina Legislature passed a mental health reform law that privatized some of the services formerly afforded for those experiencing serious mental illnesses and other co-occurring disabilities. Nevertheless, Mahadevan brainstormed a solution: XDS, Inc., a nonprofit created to serve people who were falling or at risk of falling through gaps in health care. The nonprofit has since served about 300 clients with significant disabilities.

Mahadevan did not stop there. He then established the inaugural Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team in North Carolina designed to work with people who experience multiple disabilities. ACT teams provide an individual with an interdisciplinary team of mental health professionals and paraprofessionals who all work together to devise a treatment plan for that individual. There are now nearly 90 ACT teams in North Carolina.

All of this placed Mahadevan where he is today, director of operations for the UNC Center of Excellence for Community in Mental Health and the director of the Farm at Penny Lane.
He founded the Farm at Penny Lane through a partnership with XDS in 2012 and runs it to this day. The Farm uses a holistic and sustainable approach to enhance the quality of life of individuals who experience severe and persistent mental illness by offering opportunities to become healthier and more self-sufficient.

All of which has led to Tiny Home Village.

John Gilmore, MD, Thava Mahadevan, MS, are posing with Carrie Brown, MD, MPH, keynote speaker at the 2019 at Ninth Annual N.C. Community Psychiatrists’ Symposium

“The UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health was established in 2009 to bring the expertise of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to bear on the challenges facing North Carolina’s mental health system, said its Director, John Gilmore, MD. “In 2011, XDS Inc., led by Thava, joined the Center, bringing an approach to the treatment of mental illness that combines academic and community experience and know-how.”

Mental illness can strike anyone, regardless of economic status, race, gender, creed or color. One in four Americans, approximately 62 million Americans, experience mental illness in a given year. With compassionate and evidence-based treatment and support, a life of recovery is possible. Treatment and recovery are ongoing processes that happen over time. The first step is getting help.

It’s people like Thava Mahadevan who make Chapel Hill the special place it is, for visitors, students, and residents alike. Click here to learn more about Tiny Home Village.


Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.


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1 Comment on "Tiny Home Village"

  1. Sandy Eisdorfer | November 3, 2019 at 6:13 pm | Reply

    To the Editor,
    I was inspired–even moved–by Laura Paolicelli’s story about the Tiny Homes Village. The ground-breaking ceremony on Nov.15 will be a major event. The project seems perfect because it highlights the character of the people who live and work in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough–decent human beings all who care for those in need. Thank you.
    –Sandy Eisdorfer

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