From Olympia to Bellingham: Tiny home villages offer a path toward permanent housing

Beginning talks happening on Eastside village partnership.

At one point it may have been considered a radical idea, but for those sleeping under bridges, on park benches or in cars, a wooden structure with a roof, door and lock offers a secure and dry place to sleep.

The idea has become more common — in 2018 a group of 20 local Mercer Island volunteers built two tiny houses on the lawn of Mercer Island Presbyterian Church near Island Crest Way, and in 2019 the Mercer Island United Methodist Church followed with its own tiny home project. Tiny houses have been built and placed in villages emerging up and down Interstate 5. As a result, advocates say tiny house residents have found a path to not only permanent housing but toward reclaiming a sense of dignity.

Count Us In, an annual point-in-time count, found a total of 11,199 people experiencing homelessness in 2019 in King County. That included 5,971 people living sheltered and 5,228 people living unsheltered.

Some 30 miles east of Seattle, two small wooden structures sat at the Sallal Grange. Construction began on June 8, but the houses were not the first crafted in North Bend. In 2015 — in partnership with the service providers Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and Nickelsville — a tiny home was built and delivered to the Nickelsville village in Seattle.

“We’re trying to raise awareness,” said Alexis Kaplan, event organizer for the Sallal Grange. “That’s why we want to do this build here.”

Kaplan was busy rushing around outside on that sunny Saturday of June 15. It was a day dedicated to building the two structures. At the hands of volunteers from organizations Women 4 Women, Rugby4Good, Sow and Sew as well as non-affiliated community members, the buildings drew closer to completion. One of the tiny homes is slated to be placed in South Lake Union in Seattle. The other is a welcome center destined for Georgetown.

The homes are all roughly 8 by 12 feet, smaller than 120-square feet and smaller than what international building code deems a residency. Each has an overhead light and heater and will be placed in villages with a communal kitchen, hygiene facilities, storage, security and access to case managers and services.

Melinda Nichols has been a LIHI board member since 1999 and has lived in North Bend for about 40 years. She’s also part of the Sallal Grange and was approached by members interested in participating in the build. The North Bend build is one of many others happening in pre-apprenticeship programs and at colleges and prisons around the region.

Nichols is a self-described “construction person” and the first woman to go through carpentry apprenticeship in the state, she said. Nichols attended Seattle Community College in 1972 and entered the carpentry apprenticeship program in 1973. She’s helped to impart her skills to other women and has lent a hand building many tiny homes for the unsheltered.

“Frankly, for me, once I build the houses and get them in there, I move onto the next one,” she said.

Leading up to the event, awareness was drummed up by grange members Larry Houch and Leah Aichele, who spend their Sundays posted at the local QFC gathering donations of cheese for the foodbank. They also used their time to promote the upcoming build and the need for volunteers. Posts were made on social media advertising the volunteer effort.

“Sometimes we get some flak from people,” Kaplan said. “They said, ‘They’re druggies’ — that kind of stuff.”

But to her, this response acts as a form of education, giving her a chance to eliminate the myths surrounding those who are homeless. And the visibility of building the tiny homes at the grange raises awareness to the problem: an abundant amount of King County residents living unsheltered, and the lack of affordable housing.

“I never get mad at people,” Nichols said. “I see a lot of the homeless and I could be wrong, some could be drug addicts, but I don’t even care — If they’re a human, I’d like them to have a roof over their head. If we want to help them, they need to be in a stable place so that they can get the support services they need.”

Nichols only wishes people opposed to the villages could hear and see the kindness that pours from the people who inhabit the tiny homes. In one story she shared, a woman she came to know had been homeless for 10 years until she was finally placed in a tiny dwelling. It wasn’t too long later that a mother approached the gates at the tiny home village one evening with her four small children.

The mother pleaded with those at the village, “ We don’t have a place to be. We need a home.”

The chronically homeless woman, the one who was given a safe spot to sleep, offered to again move out so the mother and her children could have a place to sleep.

“When you think about what generosity really means … I’ve seen some of the most beautiful, touching, generous people in tiny house villages that I’ve ever seen,” Nichols said.

Seattle Villages

In 2015, after tent cities continued to crop up in Seattle and the city declared a state of emergency over homelessness, LIHI began working with Nickelsville to replace the unsturdy and leaky tents and tarps with safer and more sturdy structures. It was in partnership with the Nickelsville camps and other organizations that the birth of tiny house villages came about.

“We were like, ‘OK, if we’re going to replace tents with wooden sheds, why not insulate them, add electricity, a lock and door?” said Luke Reynolds, program coordinator with the Tiny House Village program for LIHI. “It started to evolve into, ‘Let’s build villages with all tiny houses.’”

The first village went live in December 2015. It was located on a residential lot owned by the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Seattle’s Central District. Today there are 10 tiny home villages in Seattle, situated on public and private properties. The city of Seattle provides financial support for the city’s villages — about 300 tiny houses that shelter some 450 people each night.

Certain villages tailor their services to target various populations. The Whittier Heights Village, located near Ballard in Seattle, serves women and was built primarily by women. It shelters seniors, single women, pregnant women and same-sex couples. Another, the True Hope Village, is focused on housing people of color.

According to LIHI, the average length of stay in a tiny home village is four to five months and the rate of successful housing placements in 2017 was 39 percent. That number jumped to 42 percent in 2018 and doesn’t typically account for people who move to transitional housing, such as crashing on a relative’s couch.

Brad Gerber, tiny house special projects manager, said at first many neighbors outright opposed the tiny house villages. This opposition, he said, stemmed from “bias and misinformation around the facts of homelessness and who the people experiencing homelessness are.” LIHI often conducted outreach education and employed myth-busting tactics during the development and community engagement process.

In the state, 40,000 people are sleeping in shelters or outside, according to figures from LIHI. More than 7,000 of those people are part of a family with children.

As the development of a village in Ballard was ongoing, a local business owner was highly opposed to his new incoming neighbors. But through community outreach, Gerber said, they came to terms and within a couple of months, the opposition largely dissolved.

Two years later, as the village moved to another location, the business owner of the small gas station on Northwest Market Street told media outlets he was very discouraged to see it leave and the positive effects the village had, Gerber said.

The success hasn’t come free of controversy, however.

Media outlets reported this spring that differences on operational practices at some villages has led to a dispute between Nickelsville and LIHI. Because of the differences, Nickelsville staff was removed from three city-funded villages.

Even still, tiny home clusters continue to develop. A village in Olympia managed by LIHI opened in February for single adults and couples. The 40 tiny homes are situated near the Lee Creighton Justice Center at 830 Union Ave Southeast in Downtown.

Keep pushing

Sometimes the challenge can be finding a place to build the village, and getting local lawmakers behind the cause.

Jim Peterson, co-founder of Homes Now! Not Later, a grass-roots nonprofit, began pushing for a tiny-home village in Whatcom County in 2017. Having been homeless, he knew of the impacts of living outside and the dangers that come along with it.

He dreamt of building a tiny-home community, full of 10-by-10 feet structures. The structures would cost about $3,500 to build and help alleviate the number of people sleeping outside.

So he (along with co-founder Doug Gustafson) vocalized the intent at Bellingham City Council meetings and county council gatherings. People and businesses donated the needed funds to begin building structures. They only needed the land — a costly hurdle given Whatom’s rising property values. But when Peterson hit a wall, he pushed and pushed and pushed.

Finally, after successfully managing two temporary tent communities for homeless people in Bellingham, Peterson’s dream became more like a reality. The Fairhaven Unity Village will have 20 tiny home, first beginning with 12 and eight tents and will take about eight months to complete (completion date is April 2020). Tents will be replaced, as more homes are nailed together. Unity Village, like the tent encampments run by HomesNow!, will be a drug-and-alcohol-free community.

On the Eastside, the idea of creating a tiny home village is circulating among community faith leaders and there is interest brewing among local politicians, Gerber said. Conversations on what a partnership would look like could happen soon, although there is no timeline set.

Despite where the villages crop up, or the differences between them, the underlying idea remains largely the same — getting folks into a more secure and dry place to sleep — whether the tiny homes are used in the meanwhile or as a permanent housing mechanism.

When asked if tiny home villages are a solution to the homelessness problem, Aichele said “It’s a step.”

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