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Seattle’s new tiny house village for the homeless — women only

Whittier Heights Village will be the city’s eighth tiny house community, but the first that’s for only one gender.

Whittier Heights Village in Seattle

A collection of tiny houses is under construction to become Whittier Heights Village in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, May 7, 2018. The village is scheduled to open May 31. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

A tiny, new community is taking shape within Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood with the aim of helping homeless women return to sheltered living.

Tucked between a bank’s parking lot and a four-story apartment complex off 15th Avenue Northwest, a nondescript fenced-off lot will soon be home to 16 “tiny houses,” capable of temporarily sheltering up to 20 women at a time.

The homes in what’s called Whittier Heights Village, north of 80th Street, are part of a growing trend in Seattle of using 100-square-foot structures to provide housing, security and stability to unsheltered people.

This tiny house village — funded through public and private donations — will be the eighth of its kind in Seattle but the first that will serve exclusively one gender.

“It’s a need in the community. There’s a lot of homeless women. Some of them feel more comfortable in a single-sex environment,” said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, an affordable housing developer that manages the city’s tiny house villages.

Lee said the village will welcome women who are mothers or are pregnant, seniors, veterans and same-sex female couples.

Whittier Heights Village should be completed by the end of this month, Lee said. Some of the first residents are already lined up.

Not only is the new tiny house community for women, it’s being built predominantly by women, too. Weekend work parties have drawn dozens of female volunteers skilled in trades — carpenters, electricians, plumbers, painters and more, Lee said.

With an estimated 11,600 people homeless in King County and no sign of the problem abating, the tiny house trend is just one tool among many to gradually help people return to permanent housing. “The idea is to get people in a safe environment, so they’re no longer living in a tent or in a sleeping bag on the street,” Lee said.

Residents of the tiny house villages use them more as a temporary solution. They have a safe place to live while they work with an on-site social worker or case manager to receive needed services and eventually move into long-term or permanent housing.

Lee said it’s “so cost-effective” given Seattle’s shortage of affordable housing, and she said Seattle’s tiny house villages are a “proven model” that’s being replicated in other parts of Washington state and as far away as Denver, Colorado.

National advocacy groups dedicated to ending homeless say it’s hard to gauge how prevalent tiny home villages are nationwide. But, they say, there’s certainly a lot of talk about using them, and villages are popping up in some communities, particularly on the West Coast. “It’s a good alternative to unsheltered homelessness and also has the effect of connecting people with permanent housing; that’s fantastic,” said Tristia Bauman, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

But one of the biggest knocks against the concept is its limited scale.

“While they’re good, they barely scratch the surface,” Bauman said.

Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, agreed: “A community with 50 tiny houses set up in the context of a place like Seattle where there are thousands [of homeless], it’s not going to have much impact unless people can come in and use that little bit of stability to jump to the next step — to an apartment or something else through rapid re-housing or subsidized housing.”

“Thirty days [for each resident to live in a tiny house] are really what communities are setting as their goal,” he continued. “Then you can help 12 people a year for every bed; it just multiplies the effect. If you don’t turn them over at all, you’re just going to help one person [a year for every bed].”

About 1,000 people are served over the course of a year by the 250 tiny homes that the Low Income Housing Institute oversees in Seattle, Lee said.

Berg and Bauman also noted the villages tend to be more effective when embraced by surrounding communities. But the concept of tiny homes for the homeless hasn’t come without controversy or criticism.

When Seattle gave its endorsement in recent years of “sanctioned encampments” such as these tiny house villages, some neighborhoods — including some residents in Ballard previously — rose up in protest, not wanting an authorized gathering of homeless people near their homes.

But Lee says the public reception to tiny house villages “has gotten much better.”

“It’s something that’s captured people’s interest because when you think about a neighborhood, people respond so much more positively to neighbors living in tiny houses than neighbors living in tents,” she said. “When people say ‘we don’t want you in our neighborhood,’ we say, go visit one of the villages. We have people visit and talk to the residents and meet them and see how secure they are.”

Seven of Seattle’s eight villages, including Whittier Heights, are on city-owned property, Lee said, which triggers a requirement for a “community advisory committee” of various local stakeholders who oversee the village. The villages are secure, with a gatehouse and a sign-in requirement for guests. Residents take turns with chores, like litter pick-up and kitchen duty.

Lee said: “It’s an organized village; people who are here feel secure.”

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Seattle’s new tiny house village for the homeless — women only