Photo depicting Sharon Lee standing at a podium and microphone speaking and gesturing to a land-use poster with text that reads "A New Tiny House Village."

With Future of Tiny Houses Up in the Air, Advocates Push for Action This Year

by Erica C. Barnett

(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

Advocates and city councilmembers are putting pressure on Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City’s Human Services Department (HSD) to move forward with three new tiny house villages — groups of small shed-like shelters for people experiencing homelessness — this year, before the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) takes over the City’s homelessness-related contracts in 2022.

The short-term (and at this point, probably quixotic) goal is to convince Durkan and HSD’s short-staffed homelessness division to commit to moving forward with all three villages before the City’s homelessness contracts move to the KCRHA at the end of the year. The long-term goal, which may be equally quixotic, is to demonstrate strong community support for tiny house villages in the face of strong opposition at the new authority, whose leader, Marc Dones, has no allegiance to what has become conventional wisdom at the City.

Earlier this year, the Seattle City Council adopted (and the mayor signed) legislation accepting $2 million in state COVID-19 relief funding to stand up three new tiny house villages and setting aside an additional $400,000 to operate the villages once they open — the Seattle Rescue Plan. Since then, HSD has declined to issue a request for proposals to build the villages, arguing that the council doesn’t have a long-term plan to operate the villages after this year. The longer HSD waits, the more likely it is that the job of deciding whether to stand up additional tiny house villages will fall to the regional authority.

On Wednesday, Sept. 15, village supporters arranged themselves next to a mock land-use sign for project “SLU-145” to make their case for a new village on a long-vacant parcel of City Light-owned land a block away. On hand: Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) Executive Director Sharon Lee, City Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Teresa Mosqueda, and several dozen residents of the nearby Mirabella retirement community, who have raised $143,000 for the effort.

“What we need is for those checks to be written now. That is in law. We cannot grind to a halt in the very moment that community needs us to be standing up shelters and services,” Mosqueda said. “By supporting the deployment now of the additional three tiny house villages funded and signed into law by the mayor through the Seattle Rescue Plan, we can support these immediate solutions and remain committed to building affordable housing and creating additional services.”

Lewis, who rolled out a plan to build 12 new tiny house villages called “It Takes A Village” earlier this year, told PubliCola he was frustrated that the City hasn’t added a single tiny house village all year during “the worst homelessness crisis that we’ve ever faced.”

“We have 295 tiny homes right now,” Lewis said. “And maybe we don’t need 2,000 tiny homes, but we certainly need more than 295. We’ve got over 4,000 people in the city who are experiencing homelessness right now. It’s just frustrating.”

Contacted after the press conference, Mosqueda added, “I sure wouldn’t want to be the mayor who saw growing homelessness during a deadly pandemic and have my legacy be that I rejected funding, that I wouldn’t stand up the housing that I had signed into law. I don’t think that’s a good legacy for this mayor, and I don’t think that’s what business owners and residents and service providers want to hear right now.”

Tiny houses evolved out of ordinary tent encampments, as residents of both authorized and unauthorized tent cities set up semi-permanent structures, many of them no bigger than small garden sheds, to provide additional shelter from the elements. Over time, the encampments — now City-funded, standardized, and rebranded as “villages” — proliferated, spurred on by LIHI and supportive elected officials, including both councilmembers and, at one point, Durkan herself.

Although tiny house villages are commonplace, they have detractors — including KCHRA Director Dones, who has made no secret of their skepticism about the village model of shelter. Dones, a former consultant to King County who developed the model for the regional authority, has argued that people tend to stay in tiny house villages for too long compared to other shelter options and has suggested that group homes and transitional housing may be more effective at moving people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing.

The Lived Experience Coalition (LEC) — a group of advocates with direct experience of homelessness with three seats on the KCRHA’s governing and implementation boards — agrees with Dones. Last week, the group issued a statement (which the KCRHA reposted on its website) decrying what they called “dehumanizing” conditions at tiny house villages and urging “caution to any decision makers, funders, and community members contemplating an increase in tiny homes and tiny home villages.” Without funding for permanent housing and stabilizing services, the LEC continued, “tiny home villages may become our de-facto community response — warehousing and dehumanizing people into our own entrenched version of shanty towns, favelas, and slums.”

Asked for her reaction to the LEC’s statement, Lee told PubliCola, “First of all, they didn’t ask for a meeting with us, nor did they ask for a meeting with the 500 people who live in tiny houses … We have the highest rate of exits [into housing]. The data show that tiny houses are working and they’re working very effectively.” In a statement responding directly to the LEC, Lee said, “The Lived Experience Coalition’s statement is not supported by the thousands of people who want a tiny house and who’ve benefited from living in a tiny house.”

Responding to charges that people stay in tiny house villages for months or years, Lee continued, “This year LIHI is opening 500 units of permanent housing for homeless and low-income people with the full intent of moving in people from tiny houses. We will then be able to make available tiny houses for people currently living on the streets in tents.”

Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.

📸 Featured Image: Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) Executive Director Sharon Lee. (Photo: Erica C. Barnett)

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