Share story

OLYMPIA — On Christmas Eve, Kevin Johnson received these gifts: a bed and mattress, a blanket and sheets, a desk and chair, a toilet and sink, towels and washcloths, toothpaste and floss, and a new house.

Johnson, 48, a day laborer, did not find that last item beneath the Christmas tree, although it nearly would have fit. At 144 square feet — 8 by 18 feet, or roughly the dimensions of a Chevrolet Suburban — the rental house was small. Tiny would be a better description.

This scale bothered Johnson not at all, and a few weeks after moving in, he listed a few favorite design features. “A roof,” he said. “Heat.” A flush toilet! The tents where he had lived for most of the past seven years hadn’t provided any of those things.

In what seemed like an Oprah stunt of old, Johnson’s friends (21 men and seven women) also moved into tiny houses Dec. 24. They had all been members of a homeless community called Camp Quixote, a tent city that moved more than 20 times after its founding in 2007.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Beyond its recent good fortune, the settlement was — and is — exceptional. Quixote Village, as it is now called, practices self-governance, with elected leadership and membership rules. While a nonprofit board called Panza funds and guides the project, needing help is not the same thing as being helpless. As Johnson likes to say: “I’m homeless, not stupid.”

A planning committee, including Johnson, collaborated with Garner Miller, an architect, to create the village’s site layout and living model. Later, the plans were presented to an all-camp assembly. “Those were some of the best-run and most efficient meetings I’ve ever been involved in,” said Miller, a partner at MSGS Architects. “I would do those over a school board any day.”

The residents lobbied for a horseshoe layout rather than clusters of cottages, to minimize cliques. And they traded interior area for porches. The social space lies outside the cottage. Or as Johnson put it: “If I don’t want to see anybody, I don’t have to.”

It is rare that people who live on the street have the chance to collaborate on a 2.1-acre, $3.05 million real-estate development. Nearly as surprising is that Quixote Village may become a template for homeless housing projects across the country. The community has hosted delegations from Portland, Seattle and Santa Cruz, Calif.;
and fielded inquiries from homeless advocates in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Salt Lake City; and Prince George’s County, Md.

In a few other cities, “microhousing” is close to sheltering populations of the chronically homeless. OM Build, a subsidiary of the economic-justice movement Occupy Madison, runs a workshop to build 99-square-foot wood cabins on wheels in Wisconsin’s capital.

Some advantages to building small are obvious. Ginger Segel, of the nonprofit developer Community Frameworks, points to construction costs at Quixote Village of just $19,000 a unit (which included paying labor at the prevailing commercial wage). Showers, laundry and a shared kitchen have been concentrated in a community center. When you add the cost of site preparation and the community building, the 30 finished units cost $88,000 each.

By comparison, Segel, 48, said: “I think the typical studio apartment for a homeless adult in Western Washington costs between $200,000 and $250,000 to build.” In a sense, though, the difference is meaningless. Olympia and surrounding Thurston County hadn’t built any such housing for homeless adults since 2007.

While the residents of Quixote Village are expected to pay 30 percent of their income toward rent, 15 of the 29 individuals reported a sum of zero. Segel added that the average annual income for the rest of the residents — including wages, pensions and Social Security payments — was about $3,100 each.

“This, to my knowledge, is the first example of using microhousing as subsidized housing for very poor people,” Segel said. “It’s such an obvious thing. People are living in tents. They’re living in cars. They’re living in the woods.”

Easier to look for a job

Jon Waddey describes Quixote Village “not as an end, but a means.” He had been cooking in a restaurant that closed, and bottomed out in jail on a felony heroin possession.

Even after starting methadone, he was in no state to look for another job. “I had a huge beard,” he said. “I needed a place to shave and shower. I just needed a place to feel human.”

At other homeless shelters, the employees rummaged through your bags, Breathalyzed you and kicked you out from morning to evening time. “It’s a horrible feeling having no place to be,” said Waddey, 41. At a facility like that, “You’re really made to feel where you’re at.”

Of his new cottage, he said: “I absolutely love it. I have my little writing desk, my reading desk, a lovely view of the trees. In a way, that’s what I’ve always wanted.”

A few weeks after settling into Quixote Village, Waddey was starting to investigate how long it would take at The Evergreen State College to finish his long-deferred undergraduate degree. At night, he was making his way through the John le Carré BBC miniseries “Smiley’s People,” and cooking for friends in the community kitchen.

“I think cooking is one of the most fundamental things you can do,” Waddey said. “To feed people and see how happy it makes them.”

Not next to dump

The classic image of a tiny home is a grown-up dollhouse, a spot to play make-believe. The scale is humble, but the architectural detail is rich: eyebrow windows, stick-style trusses.

The tiny houses of Quixote Village, by contrast, stand 10 feet apart in what looks like an industrial park. Check that; the site is an industrial park, 2 miles west of the state capital. Parked across the street is a fleet of gas-delivery trucks.

This is the vacant land that Thurston County gave to Quixote Village on a 41-year lease (at $1 a year). It wasn’t easy to find an agreeable site, said Karen Valenzuela, 64, a county commissioner who supported the project. The next-best location, she said, was “a piece of property adjacent to our county waste and recovery center — known as the county dump.”

Before construction began, planners discovered that you could practically reach the water table with a straw. All the drainage had to go somewhere. And so, during Olympia’s galoshes season, the water collects in three retention ponds, aka mud pits.

The residents hate these overgrown puddles, admitted Miller, the architect. “I like to joke that you have waterfront property,” he said.

The original design called for the community center to have a loft and library, visitors’ quarters and an infirmary. Ultimately, all these items went the way of “value engineering.”

Likewise, the first drawings of the cottages show handsome cedar-plank siding and cork flooring. The finished units ended up with board-and-batten and bare plywood floors.

“I’ve done plenty of high-design projects, and that’s not what this is at all,” Miller said. “It’s about providing houses for people who were in tents a month ago.”

Another thing Miller cut: about half his fee. He had previously volunteered as an overnight host when the tent city quartered at his church, First United Methodist, as part of a seven-church rotation that saw Camp Quixote move every 90 days.

It was these same congregants who, after forming relationships with the residents, became the staunchest advocates for a permanent housing site. Jill Severn, a member of the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation, was one of them. “When you pack a city council meeting with 30 homeless people and 120 nice church people,” she said, “they can’t say no.”

One volunteer’s efforts

Ask the residents about Severn, 66, and they will describe her as a Trotskyist, a second mother and a saint. By her own account, she has also done stints as an overnight talk-show host, a garden writer, a union organizer, a speechwriter to two Washington governors and an author of the state’s middle-school civics textbook.

As the (now former) board chairwoman of Panza, Severn called on several of those vocations to bring Quixote Village into existence. In 2011, for instance, she cooked a home meal for Hans Dunshee, 60, the Democratic chairman of the Washington State House Capital Budget Committee.

Severn’s lobbying campaign was effective. “She got me drunk,” Dunshee said. Their supper conversation eventually led to a $1.5 million allocation in the capital budget. Joking aside, he praised Quixote Village’s penny-wise approach as a kind of pilot project.

Frank Chopp, 60, the Democratic speaker of the house, was another backer. “Fifty percent of the homeless have some kind of mental illness,” he said. “The best way of responding to that is housing. It doesn’t have to be much. Just get them out of the rain, and out of the street.”

Still, no one would mistake the homeless for a powerful or popular constituency. Funding 30 cottages is not the kind of act that wins elections.

Dunshee said: “Speaking as a politician, I don’t think there’s any political value in this. You wake up feeling, I did something decent.”

Other major donations to the project included federal Housing and Urban Development money distributed by the county, $604,002, and county-distributed Home Consortium funds, $170,000. The Nisqually Indian Tribe gave $40,000 and the Chehalis Tribe gave $7,000.

The weekly residents’ meeting, which comes after dinner on Wednesday nights, strikes Severn as the quintessence of direct democracy.

A top agenda item in the new location: Why, oh why, is there no cable TV?

Villagers like Arin Long, 28, have been struggling with a related aspect of living in an industrial park. “Point blank: There’s nothing to do,” she said. “Especially for drug addicts who are getting clean. And that’s everybody.”

She has tried collaging, beading and sewing new pink curtains for her cottage. (What was wrong with the original set? “Look at them!” she said. “They’re retro — not my style.”) And yet, unexpectedly, Long said, she has found herself daydreaming about the old Camp Quixote and sleeping rough.

There were trenches to dig when it rained — and it always rained — and tarps to tie down in the wind. “I miss that stuff,” she said. “It’s labor. It keeps you busy.”

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.