A push by Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant to significantly expand the number of tiny house villages in the city through a series of land-use code amendments could be taken up by the full council this fall.
The District 3 councilmember has proposed legislation that would allow up to 40 of the transitional encampments to be permitted in Seattle. It also would allow tiny house villages on all publicly owned and private property in the city on an interim basis, remove land-use permitting requirements for religious organizations to host the encampments and ease site requirements citywide.
“They’ve been by far the most successful of the homeless strategies in terms of successfully transitioning people into permanent housing,” said Ted Virdone, one of Sawant’s legislative aides.
Virdone added that the current law is antiquated, noting that only three tiny house villages are technically allowed in Seattle while nine are in fact currently operating in the city.
The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection on Aug. 8 released its Determination of Non-Significance (DNS) for the proposed amendments to the city’s land-use code that would change development standards for transitional encampments and increase the amount that can be authorized.
An ordinance regarding the permitting of tiny house villages was approved by the city council in March 2015, allowing their interim use on land in industrial, commercial, neighborhood-commercial and downtown zones.
Sawant proposes to amend the land-use code to allow them in all zones, including residential. One-year interim use permits for the tiny house villages would also be allowed unlimited renewals, and these shelters would no longer be required to relocate after two years.
The Low Income Housing Institute doubled its number of tiny houses at its Interbay Village earlier this year. The tiny house village moved to the Port of Seattle’s Tsubota property near the Magnolia Bridge in November 2017.
The appeal deadline for the DNS for the tiny house village land-use code amendments is Thursday, Aug. 22. If no appeals are filed, it will still take up to 30 days to reach a council committee, and also will require a public hearing before a full council vote.
Sawant addressed tiny house villages with LIHI staff and partners on May 24.
Tiny house villages offer access to homeless individuals and couples that have trouble using traditional shelters, including those who are LGBTQ, have large families, are undocumented, immigrants or refugees, single men with children and people with pets. Five of the nine villages in Seattle are on city-owned property, including Camp Second Chance in Seattle.
“The thing about Camp Second Chance is when I arrived, I have certain services I needed, mental health doctors and certain things of that nature,” said Zsa Zsa Floyd, a former village resident who recently transitioned into permanent housing. With the stable environment at the tiny house village she was able to access those services, “or also the services came to me, which was big and huge.”
She said Camp Second Chance provided her with stability, empowerment and safety, all within a gated community with 24/7 security.
“Living there, you have to do two securities a week at 4-hour intervals, and that requires the entire camp,” Floyd said.
Eliana Scott-Thoennes, chair for the Othello Village advisory committee, said the advisory committees required for each tiny house village bring together stakeholders that can create a bridge between the villages and their surrounding communities.
“From what I have seen, the self-managed village model is the most important harm-reduction tool that the city has available for addressing the homelessness crisis,” she said.
The City of Seattle spends an average of $390,000 annually per tiny house village, and $4.8 million for transitional encampments is in the adopted 2019 budget.
LIHI executive director Sharon Lee said the nonprofit has found people who have long rejected traditional shelter models are more willing to relocate to a tiny house village.
Residents have their own tiny houses, electricity, heat and fans, plus toilet, shower and laundry facilities. There is also a full kitchen and dining area.
Volunteers construct about 90 percent of the tiny houses, Lee said, which cost about $2,500 to make.
LIHI helped transition around 500 people from tiny house villages into permanent housing between 2016 and 2018, and very few were through the Coordinated Entry for All system. When the Licton Springs village needed to close in early April, Lee said, LIHI requested help with five chronically homeless clients, but calls, emails and in-person appeals were ignored.
“We did not get any help from Coordinated Entry at all,” Lee said, “and, as you know, Coordinated Entry is run by King County.”
This has the LIHI executive director concerned about plans for the City of Seattle and King County to consolidate their efforts to address the homelessness crisis, she said.
King County used the west wing of its downtown jail facility to create a shelter for 100 people. Lee said it cost $2 million to open the West Wing Shelter, and then another $2 million in annual operating costs. The Georgetown and Othello villages, which each shelter 60 people, costs $325,000 and $440,000 per year, respectively, she said.
LIHI also builds affordable housing, but it can take 4-5 years to produce a new development. Each unit costs $300,000 to produce, Lee said, and there is a lack of capital. A tiny house can last up to 15 years, she said.
“We think you have to do both,” she said of transitional shelter and affordable housing, “because we had 191 people who died on the street last year.”
On top of creating affordable housing developments and tiny house villages, LIHI also operates an Urban Rest Stop program, providing free restrooms, showers and laundry facilities to people experiencing homelessness in Downtown, Ballard and the University District.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold said there are only six publicly funded 24/7 shower and bathroom facilities in the city, and asked whether there is a way to open these rest stops to larger populations.
Lee said the U-District Urban Rest Stop, as well as Roots young adult shelter in the neighborhood will have to move soon due to redevelopment, and urged the council to help find new spaces for them.
More information about tiny houses and availability is at lihi.org/tiny-houses.
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