Being able to live in an insulated or heated tiny house instead of a tent is a huge improvement for families and individuals experiencing homelessness.

Share story

TINY houses resonate with us in many ways. Maybe we have fond childhood memories playing in a treehouse or playing with blocks to build toy houses. Tiny houses are not just cute and cozy, but symbolize shelter, warmth and security.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council have been struggling with the dramatic rise in homelessness (a 19 percent increase from 2015 to 2016 in King County) and how to protect vulnerable people who are living unsheltered on the streets. Why not respond to the crisis by quickly building inexpensive tiny houses to keep people warm and safe now? That strategy, and other affordable housing strategies, were at the center of the NeighborWorks Training Institute held last week in Seattle.

Being able to live in an insulated or heated tiny house instead of a tent is a huge improvement for families and individuals experiencing homelessness. Begun as an experiment in 2014, the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a member of the nationwide NeighborWorks network, worked in partnership with Nickelsville to upgrade encampment shelters from tents to tiny houses.

Shelter the homeless in tiny homes

Watch a video on the Low Income Housing Institute’s tiny house program:

There are now 50 tiny houses located in Ballard, the Central Area and the Othello neighborhood of Rainier Valley. Homeless families are now able to stay short term in tiny houses while LIHI case managers work intensively with them to secure permanent housing, employment, and other services. Last year, NeighborWorks America awarded LIHI a $75,000 grant to expand the Tiny Houses Homeless Communities Project. The long-term goal is to create a replicable model and training tools to help NeighborWorks and affordable housing organizations develop this successful approach to address our nation’s homelessness crisis.

Tiny houses can protect people not only from bad weather and exposure but from violence and death. For 2016, the King County Medical Examiner documented 69 homeless men and women who died living on the streets. More people died from being homeless than from homicides last year. No one should have to die from being homeless.

Each tiny house is the size of a small bedroom, 8 feet by 12 feet, with windows and a door that lock. A family of three or four can fit snugly in a tiny house, a larger family can share two tiny houses side by side. Each house costs only $2,200 for wood and building materials. Volunteers, students, neighbors and businesses help construct, paint and furnish the tiny houses. Donations to LIHI as small as $5 and up to the full house cost of $2,200 have come in to help cover the cost of each house.

How is it possible for tiny houses to be built so quickly given Seattle’s lengthy process for land-use and building-permit approvals? Tiny houses that are under 120 square feet are not considered dwelling units under the International Building Code. Therefore, they can be built in a few days or over a weekend by volunteers. This may feel like guerrilla housing, but a legal method has been established by the city of Seattle.

We now have a year’s experience with the three city-sanctioned sites. The sites accommodate 160 people, including children, at any one time. Hundreds of people have been helped short term as they passed through and stayed for a night or a week and successfully moved on. Last year was a watershed year with positive outcomes. Living in a tiny house allows a person to go to work or school while keeping their belongings safe and secure. In 2016, LIHI case managers moved 157 people into housing, helped 103 people obtain employment and helped 30 people reunite with relatives or friends.

Tiny houses are an innovative, quick, viable and low-cost solution that can help save a life.