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Woman hopes to create 'tiny house' community in Ruskin

Debbie Caneen shows off the model home she hopes to use to create a community of tiny homes in Ruskin.
Published Sep. 14, 2017

RUSKIN — Dream big, live tiny.

Debbie Caneen looks to brand her dream of a tiny home community in Ruskin with that motto.

As Director of Admissions at Sun Towers in Sun City Center, Caneen realizes the tremendous challenge of finding affordable housing in the SouthShore area for the nearly 400 employees that she administers at the assisted living facility.

"These are young kids coming to work at entry level jobs like housekeeping or dietary service," Caneen said. "Most of them still live with their parents and are just not making enough money to move out on their own.

"I've looked all over SouthShore and the least expensive thing to rent is around $1,400 a month and if you're making a minimum salary, there's no way they can afford that."

So she looks to capitalize on a new trend that has swept the country over the last decade. A typical American home averages around 2,600 square feet, whereas a tiny house ranges anywhere from 100 to 400 square feet.

Talk about downsizing.

• • •

Caneen believes tiny houses can help alleviate this growing problem because Sun City Center is a 55-plus retirement community, the younger people who make up the work force that supports the local businesses have to live outside the city.

The restaurants, the shops, groceries, banks, the hospital, and the nursing home/assisted living facilities all have employees that have to commute to work and with the lack of "work force" housing in the area, it's grown into a dilemma as the community looks to provide more amenities.

"The average cost of a home in this area is around $200,000," said Sandy Council, a local real estate broker and member of the SouthShore Coalition for Mental Health and Aging. "That is just not attainable as an entry-level home for a young person or even a college student. So there is still a huge void for the work force to be near their job location.

"Debbie is trying to find a solution to this big challenge. This is an alternative."

According to a recent survey of the Sun City Center area commissioned by the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay's SouthShore Council, there is a growing need for affordable housing among senior residents.

But as Sun City Center grows, so does the work force required to maintain it. Those people are the underlying lifeblood of the retirement community and need a place to live.

New developments popping up in neighboring communities like Wimauma offer little help as they do not offer rental property and their houses aren't in an affordable range for young singles or new families.


Caneen's dream began several months ago when a local realtor told her he had a small mobile home park for sale for someone looking for investment property. She had recently sold some rental property of her own and was in the market for another investment so she checked it out.

This was a four and a half acre piece of property with a small pond in the center near the HCC campus. She could see past the six dilapidated mobile homes that sat on the land and envisioned a cluster of tiny homes surrounding the pond with space in between to grow vegetable gardens and edible landscaping. So she bought it.

"I'm in the process of finding alternative housing for the current residents living in the mobile homes there so I can eventually clear out all of the property and start moving in my tiny houses," Caneen said. "My goal is to have a pocket community here in Ruskin within walking distance of HCC and Amazon for young people who want to get their own tiny home, move onto the property, have some pride in ownership, understand how to take care of the land and let the land help take care of them.

"I even have several employees now at Sun Towers that are getting their nursing degree at HCC so it just seems like a perfect path for young people to be able to purchase their own tiny house close to where they work."


Caneen plans on keeping the cost of the rental space low at only $375 a month. She wants to stock the pond with fish and have bee hives and chickens so residents can have fresh fish, honey and fresh eggs along with the gardens she wants to develop on the land between houses.

Caneen bought her own tiny house that is now on display at the Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin. She purchased it in St. Pete from Stephanie Henschen, who designed and built it with her father as her thesis project to complete a degree in architecture from USF.


The house will eventually be moved to Circle Pond, the name Caneen chose for her tiny home development, and she will use it as her office. Of course, she wants to be one of the development's first residents.

"I live in a house in Apollo Beach right now," Caneen said, "and my husband has just designed a really nice tiny house for us. I can't wait to live there."

Caneen is planning a Tiny Home Show in November to give the public an opportunity to see a variety of tiny homes and learn more about the lifestyle they offer.

Or see the tiny house at the Firehouse Cultural Center.

Contact Kathy Straub at


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