by Tobias Coughlin-Bogue
(This article was originally published on Real Change and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
A familiar feeling, for anyone who works with people experiencing homelessness, is wanting to help. While blankets, tents, snacks, and hand warmers go a long way, it’s hard not to think about the big need: housing.
For most people, it’s even harder to figure out how to provide housing to an unhoused neighbor in a way that makes sense. There just isn’t that much housing available, and, despite the cruel jibes of conservative Twitter users, you can’t just “take them home with you.”
Back in 2017, local architect and nonprofit director Rex Hohlbein, along with his daughter and fellow architect Jenn LaFreniere, came up with a solution. The BLOCK Project, launched the summer of that year under the umbrella of Hohlbein’s organization Facing Homelessness, offered a pretty unique opportunity to homeowners who wanted to help: Let the BLOCK Project put a detached accessory dwelling unit on your property and give it to someone in need of housing.
“Facing Homelessness and the BLOCK Project, we’re founded on the belief that we as a community have the resources to come together and create better social safety nets and create options for affordable housing so that we’re all protected from housing insecurity,” said Phoebe Anderson-Kline, the BLOCK Project’s director of Community Programs.
While she applauded the government’s efforts to build affordable housing, she noted, “Systemic issues have caused and continue to cause homelessness. … We need to address those as well as expect the government to create more affordable housing. [But] it’s just not going to happen in a timely manner, and people are dying outside. We need immediate solutions.”
Anyone who owns a sizeable lot and agrees with that sentiment can, thanks to the BLOCK Project, be part of that solution, all at almost no cost to themselves.
Hosts, as they are called, typically volunteer to cover their new neighbor’s utilities, which the organization estimates to be “less than $30 a month on average.” If that’s too much, the BLOCK Project is willing to reimburse hosts for those costs. Besides that, though, the BLOCK Project pays for everything else, from building the 230-square-foot homes in their workshop to assembling them with a small army of volunteers. All a homeowner has to do is be willing to help.
Six years in, how many homeowners have answered the call? There are a dozen current residents, according to Anderson-Kline, and the 15th BLOCK home should be built by summer.
While the BLOCK Project got a lot of attention at its inception, thanks in part to Hohlbein’s popular TEDx Talk on the project, updates have been scarce, especially given that many of the homes have had residents for multiple years. The idea is an excellent one on paper, but how is it going in practice? Pretty well, according to some of the program’s participants.
‘I’ve Never Done That. Just, Like, Put Something Nice on Your Wall.’
Peter has lived in a BLOCK home for more than a year now, concluding a long period of housing instability and homelessness. He struggles with mental health issues that have, in the past, made it impossible to keep a job or maintain normal relationships with friends and family.
“Since I left school, I’ve always struggled to find a place to live. And it’s always been the weirdest of places; it’s always been the oddest of setups, which has led to some cool memories, but also some very not cool memories,” he said.
“It just has never been comfortable,” he said, of his past housing situations. “This is the first time I’ve been comfortable.”
Peter describes himself as “practically a tourist” when it comes to homelessness, but he has experienced it, mostly in Salem, Oregon. There he spent time between shelters and the street. When he connected with the BLOCK Project here in Seattle, he was housed but precariously so. Things deteriorated for him on many fronts during the pandemic, he said, and his roommate couldn’t handle the situation anymore.
“Nothing against them. They were very patient and gracious with me, which was awesome. But, at the end of the day, putting all of my burdens on one person is a little tough,” he said.
He’d been in therapy for a year already, and he credits his therapist for helping him connect with the project. His therapist and her coworker made it their mission to prevent him from ending up on the street, he said, and their obsessive search for a solution led them to the BLOCK Project. In his case, they were able to head off homelessness at the pass.
The process of getting in was, thankfully, pretty easy.
“They did everything,” he said, of his therapist and her coworker. That was a godsend, he said, “Because at the time I was preparing to be homeless again. I couldn’t be in that head space of something positive happening.”
Lucky for him, something positive did happen.
“I was incredibly fortunate,” Peter said, but added, “It still sucked. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. [I was in] some really dodgy situations where things could have gone sideways really easy just by my own doing or by those around me.”
Instead, he’s adapting to feeling secure in his housing situation for the first time in his entire life. Which, it turns out, is quite the process.
“It took the first year to calm down,” he said. “I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. And then also there was this constant fear of, ‘Somebody’s going to take this from me. Something’s going to happen, right?’”
Eventually, that feeling faded. In its place, he put up pictures, a thicket of them visible on the wall behind him via Zoom.
“That’s why paintings on the wall [are] a really big deal. And it’s not just [postcards] this time. I chose something that I have a personal taste for that I think would be cool to have on my wall to look at periodically. I’ve never done that. Just, like, put something nice on your wall,” he said.
Besides the pictures, he credits the design of the BLOCK home with helping to make him feel comfortable.
“All of it is very nice. Right? The desk that I have right here is one that folds down, and it’s a nice desk. It’s like the wood is nice. … And then it’s like, I have a full bathroom, I have a shower, I have a kitchen. It’s just all of the things that you need in a proper way, if that makes sense? Like, [they’re] legitimate. It’s [got] a full working toilet. It works like anybody else’s toilet, not a concrete toilet. … The shower works like everybody else’s shower. It’s just all in a much smaller space.”
Besides the basics, Peter’s got high-speed internet, a nice little garden patio and a bracket on the side of the house to lock his bike to. All the creature comforts he could possibly require, as far as he sees it.
“It’s perfect. Works perfect. I love it,” he said.
Another happiness in his life since getting housed by the BLOCK Project is helping others get inside, too. He’s volunteered as a builder on other BLOCK homes and said that he agreed to this interview specifically to help spread the word.
“I want to be an advocate for something that has drastically improved my life and the lives of those around me,” he said. “So, [despite] my own personal qualms about [being] a little shy about something like this, this is the most important thing to me right now.”
‘Such an Easy Give.’
Jen and her husband Dave are Peter’s hosts. Jen, via Zoom, had similarly good things to say about her experience with the project so far. The two of them had volunteered with Facing Homelessness, food banks, and other service providers for years, she said, so they were already eager to help when they heard about the project.
“It just felt like — from our perspective as a host — such an easy give. A little bit of space in our yard to help somebody and … be part of the giant wheel of solutions that are out there. It just felt like pretty ‘no brainer,’ I guess,” she said.
While the idea was instantly appealing, she said, they still had to have some serious family conversations about whether to actually do it. They have two daughters and took some time to grapple with the idea of inviting a stranger to live on the property. Ultimately their lack of prejudice toward homeless people helped get them there.
“Through the experiences, I guess, that we’d had … we were past the stereotypes of the dangerous, drug-addicted, mentally ill [homeless person], and we knew that there was screening and everything, so we didn’t have too much of that worry,” she said. Convincing the neighbors was a little bit more of a hurdle, she said, but they ultimately got all except one on board.
“To their credit, Facing Homelessness, as part of the process of even applying, you do a neighborhood walk. So you talk to every neighbor and share information with them about what you’re planning on doing,” she said. The BLOCK project also hosted a number of Zoom meetings, as their BLOCK home got underway during the height of the pandemic.
“They really do try to set it up in a way that you’re not surprising anyone,” she said. “I will say 99% of our neighbors were like, ‘What a great idea, that’s so cool.’”
Once they’d gotten buy-in, how easy was it to get built?
“Oh my gosh, they do everything. They did all the permitting, and they have done a lot of work with the city, so they were able to really fast-track permitting,” Jen said. She and her husband were in the middle of a remodel at the same time, and the BLOCK Project’s permitting was done light-years before theirs, she joked.
While the process is an important part of it, how has having an actual resident been? It helped a lot that they already knew Peter, Jen said, as he’d been to their property a bunch to work on the BLOCK home as a volunteer. Peter’s initial host didn’t work out, and when the BLOCK home on Jen’s property was done, he ended up moving in, making it a more seamless transition.
Since then, it’s been pretty smooth sailing, she said, and they’re slowly but surely getting a bit more comfortable as neighbors.
“In the recent months, there’s been starting to slowly be a little more of, like, if they see us out in the yard or in the back, maybe popping over and just saying, ‘Hi,’ or some visits on the deck or that kind of thing. And so we’re kind of slowly creeping into that,” she said.
They’ve left the pace of that relationship entirely up to Peter, she said, but are overall quite happy to have him as a neighbor. More than a year in, she gives the experience of hosting a very high rating.
“It’s a 10. Easy. I feel like we have the easiest part of it all. Like we’re just sharing some space,” she said.
Her advice for anyone interested in becoming a host?
“I would really encourage anyone who’s interested in doing something to help [with] this issue that’s clearly growing and … obviously hitting critical mass in our city … to look into it, talk to other hosts or call and connect with Facing Homelessness and ask,” she said.
“It’s such a beautiful way to make an impact in somebody’s life.”
At the end of the day, Anderson-Kline said, the model is not intended to be a silver bullet solution to the homelessness crisis, but she added, “We think that we’re onto something that could be a really powerful change maker.”
The data collected so far support that: The BLOCK Project’s rate of housing retention is an almost unheard of 96%, meaning that just about every single person who has been paired with a host is still there or has moved on to a different type of permanent housing. The fact that residents don’t currently pay rent likely has a lot to do with that, Anderson-Kline said, because it allows people to really focus on themselves.
So, given that the BLOCK Project made a pretty successful jump from theory to practice, how fast can it expand?
According to its website, there are 40,000 eligible lots in Seattle. All a lot needs is 3,200 square feet of space to qualify and for at least some of that space to not be covered in concrete. If even a third of those lots landed BLOCK homes, Seattle would have one for every unhoused person in the region — the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s most recent point-in-time count put the number of people experiencing homelessness at 13,336 in 2022.
Funding is definitely a factor, but at $75,000 per unit, BLOCK homes are a fraction of the cost of other affordable permanent housing. Its current crop of homes was built with 60% to 80% support from individual donors, Anderson-Kline said, although it would welcome support from local governments or large foundations.
Mostly, what it needs are hosts. While all the current hosts have come to the BLOCK Project organically, the group just wrapped up its first host recruitment campaign. It can’t grow too quickly, Anderson-Kline cautioned: “We … want to make sure that we have staff and support placed so that people can continue to have really good experiences with us” — but the project wants to hear from anyone who wants to help.
“They should absolutely call us,” she said, of prospective hosts. “We are always excited just to talk to people who have all ranges of interests and there’s no commitment to just call and ask about the opportunity.”
For more information on the BLOCK Project, visit The-Block-Project.org/FAQs.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
📸 Featured Image: A BLOCK home under construction sits in someone’s back yard. (Photo courtesy of The BLOCK Project.)
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