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  • Nathan Ellis-Brown

Tiny Houses: A big help for the homeless

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

The following article was published on Crosscut on January 4th.  Read Article on Crosscut.

Tiny Houses: A big help for the homeless

Margaret Pitka, age 41, was napping inside her tent near downtown when she was fatally shot by a gunman who fired through her tent flap. Stacey Davis, age 48, was fatally burgeoned with a homemade club, and her husband was seriously injured, when they were attacked by a neighbor while living in a tent under a bridge. William Burton, age 19, was killed when a drunk driver careened off the I-5 ramp in the University District and plowed into his tent.

Looking back on 2016, the King County medical examiner identified 69 homeless men and women who died while living on the streets. The causes of death? People died from exposure, poor health, violence, gunshot wounds, drugs, suicides and being run over by cars. While this is a reduction from the 91 deaths reported in 2015, the situation is depressing. No one should die from being homeless.

Death from homelessness is totally preventable, but we currently have more people dying from being homeless than being murdered in Seattle. The homeless activists from SHARE and Nickelsville make a valid point: “Without shelter, people die.” The One Night Count last January showed 3,000 vulnerable men, women and children living unsheltered on the streets of Seattle.

Mayor Murray showed leadership in declaring a state of emergency on homelessness in 2015 and putting forward landmark legislation to establish three legal and safe encampments. The mayor even offered up city-owned property in Ballard, Interbay and other locations.

From a homeless person’s perspective, living in a legal encampment with food, water, toilets, a kitchen, security, tiny houses (with doors that lock) and case management services is a far cry from trying to survive alone on the street. We now have a year’s experience with the three city-sanctioned sites that have been operating in Ballard, Interbay and Othello. They house 160 people at any time, including singles, couples, seniors, vets, families with children and people with pets. Thousands of other people have been helped in the short term as they pass through, staying for a night or a week before moving on.

Each location has a city mandated Community Advisory Committee (CAC) comprised of neighbors, businesses and church groups who monitor progress, give feedback and lend support. Each site has social workers helping families and individuals connect quickly to housing, employment and education so that living in a tent or a tiny house is not a dead end. My organization, the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), contracts with the city for services. SHARE and Nickelsville organizes the program participants on daily operations, employing self-help requirements and democratic decision-making. Everyone has duties and chores, they must follow a strict code of conduct, and they are accountable to the community. No alcohol, drugs, weapons and violence are allowed.

On December 1, Mayor Murray announced the establishment of three new homeless encampment sites in Licton Springs, Georgetown and Myers Way in West Seattle. These will shelter over 200 individuals and will prioritize homeless people who are currently living in dangerous and unsafe locations on Seattle’s streets and sidewalks. The Georgetown and Licton Springs sites will open in early 2017, and both are planned with tiny houses instead of tents. Councilmembers Bruce Harrell and Debora Juarez are supporting tiny houses over tents for the sites in their district.Tiny houses are a preferred option over tents for many reasons. They provide better protection, they are insulated, some have heat, light and electricity, you can lock the door and windows, and you can get a good night’s sleep without worrying about your safety. Living in a tiny house allows a person to go to work or school, and gives them the ability to keep their belongings safe and secure. They’re also cheap, costing only about $2,200 to build.

How is it possible for tiny houses and tiny house villages to be built so quickly given Seattle’s land use and building codes? Tiny houses that are under 120 square feet are not considered dwelling units under the International Building Code (IBC). Therefore they are under the wire and can be built in a few days or over a weekend by volunteers, church groups, high school students, apprentice/vocational training programs and neighbors.

This may feel like guerrilla housing, but a legal loophole actually exists. Anytime a new multi-family apartment building is planned to provide homeless housing, it takes three to four years to get through land assembly, financing, environmental and design reviews, building permits and construction. Building affordable housing is the real solution to our homelessness crisis — but with thousands of vulnerable families and individuals on the streets today, tiny houses are a viable, quick and low-cost solution.

So far over 60 tiny houses have been built and 40 more are underway. Each house is about eight feet by 12 feet, the size of a bedroom. Singles, couples, families and people with pets are living in them. A family of four can fit snugly in a tiny house. A family of seven who showed up at Othello Village lived in two tiny houses side by side!

The cost per tiny house is only $2,200 for wood and building materials. They can be constructed on site, or built elsewhere and brought in on a flatbed truck. The Tulalip Tribes’ TERO pre-apprenticeship program has built eight houses. The Apprenticeship and Non-traditional Employment for Women (ANEW), YouthBuild, Walsh Construction, Seattle Vocational Institute, Renton Technical College, and many others are building them with enthusiastic participants who want to help people in need.

Further, program participants in Ballard, Interbay and Othello have embraced their new neighbors and are generously supporting the families and individuals with donations of building materials, clothing, blankets, food, books and toys for the children, flash lights, hygiene supplies and other necessities.

While a tiny house may seem like a teeny idea, it can help save a life.

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