Tents, wooden sheds and RVs do not provide the kind of stable and supportive housing in which an individual or family in homelessness can begin to deal with the issues in their lives.
LIKE most Seattleites, I am alternately frustrated, incredulous and dismayed by the number of homeless individuals I encounter every day while walking, driving or just living my life in Seattle.
I find it hard to comprehend that we can’t do a better job of finding housing for these individuals and families than we have done so far.
Having spent the majority of my professional life developing affordable housing — and am now retired with discretionary time on my hands — I am in the fortunate position to be able to try and do something about it.
I believe we need new approaches. We need innovation in the manner in which we approach services for the homeless population and how we house people. Traditional development of permanent affordable housing is time consuming and costly. Although the finished products are almost universally well designed and managed, the reality is we are not going to address the homelessness crisis in our community solely by building permanent affordable housing.
Similarly, I don’t believe the other options we have turned to are a solution, either. Tents, wooden sheds and RVs do not provide the kind of stable and supportive housing in which a homeless individual or family can begin to deal with the issues of their lives.
For the past six months, I have been volunteering with Compass Housing Alliance in an effort to identify, design and price a better alternative. Working with OneBuild, a Seattle-based modular-housing supplier, we have designed a number of housing configurations using manufactured steel modules. These modular housing units are fully compliant with Seattle building and energy codes, contain bathrooms and minimal cooking facilities and are configurable in a variety of manners, from dorm style to two- and three-bedroom apartments. They can be accompanied by services and communal spaces complementary to the intended population.
Best of all, these are attractive, permanent housing units that can be moved or reconfigured as needs and demands change. The flexibility and efficiency of these units can provide a dignified and supportive housing-first solution to homelessness.
Ultimately, I hope we could have enough affordable housing for the homeless that responsive units like these could be reconfigured as workforce housing within the Puget Sound region and statewide.
We have already begun. A small church parking lot in Southeast Seattle will soon be the home site of Compass Crossing, a proof-of-concept project that will help to prove that steel modular construction can provide a swift, cost-effective and flexible housing solution.
The development will feature 13 housing units — six double-occupancy rooms at 240 square feet and seven single-occupancy rooms at 160 square feet. The development will be pet-friendly, contain extra individualized storage and options for partners to be housed together. The development will also feature a multipurpose community room and kitchen, garden space and on-site supportive services and property management.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen expressed his support by making a generous gift of $1 million to help us determine if this approach can make the difference we expect.
The vision is very simple: We need everyone in the community who cares about this issue to help identify potential sites that could house at least 20 units and could be available for a minimum of three years. Assuming we can identify 50 such sites from public, private, faith community and nonprofit partners, we could add 1,000 units of real housing in less than a year. Sites could be unused land, underutilized parking lots or other small parcels. To be successful in making a real impact, we would need landowners throughout the Puget Sound region to help identify sites.
I understand many people would not be eager to have a community of homeless individuals in their neighborhood. I also know many people who would support dignified housing if it were to come with appropriate supports, be properly managed and designed and if all of our communities were doing their share. Perhaps this new approach would appeal to those who wouldn’t have considered providing space for tent cities. Sparingly used parking spaces or small parcels could provide safe and dignified housing for 20 homeless households. Would this not be worth the inconvenience?
As a community, we’ve talked long enough about addressing homelessness and have only seen the problem worsen.”
Addressing homelessness in a timely and efficient manner is not beyond our ability or means as a community. But we will need the cooperation and collaboration of our public, private, nonprofit, faith-based and philanthropic communities, as well as individuals with the personal resources to achieve our goals.
As a community, we’ve talked long enough about addressing homelessness and have only seen the problem worsen. It’s time for bold and decisive action by public and private leadership. It’s time for something new.