The city of Seattle announced in June that it would begin drastically and quickly expanding its number of tiny house villages — fenced lots with shed-sized wooden homes that have become a distinctive and at times divisive feature of Seattle’s homelessness landscape.
But though the city said it anticipated the nonprofit Low-Income Housing Institute, which manages villages around the region, could open three villages in summer, those have been pushed back to the fall. One, on Aurora Avenue, isn’t scheduled to open until Nov. 15.
For the village opening in University District and an expansion of an existing village in Interbay, those delays are purely bureaucratic — they’re on land owned by Sound Transit and the Port of Seattle, and had to undergo state environmental policy act review, votes from the port commissioners and insurance negotiations with Sound Transit.
But the other is delayed for a more complex reason: the site of what will soon be a “Friendship Village” on Aurora Avenue is on land owned by the Low-Income Housing Institute and the institute delayed its opening to demolish a condemned motel next door because homeless people were sleeping there. Sharon Lee, the director of the institute, said occupants were using drugs and lighting fires.
Low-Income Housing Institute consultant George Scarola said the motel’s demolition will also provide space for 12 more tiny houses and more space for common areas, trash bins and “breathing room” for the plot’s two other tenants, the 125th Street Grill and Anita’s Mexican food truck.
“Both are popular small business[es] that will add vitality to the site and a screen between our village and the prostitution and drug scene at that corner,” Scarola wrote in an email to The Seattle Times.
The old Black Angus Motor Inn, built in 1956, has been closed since 2009; it’s one of many cheap motels along Aurora that are still standing and when open, are used by everyone from sex workers to homelessness nonprofits looking to put up their clients.
It’s a type of homelessness — living in cheap motel rooms, squatting in abandoned buildings — that’s been around for decades, since long before Seattle’s mad dash to open more tiny house villages and stop the growth of tent camps throughout the city.
Although the motel is likely unsafe — The Seattle Times was unable to contact anyone who had been sleeping there — the tiny houses replacing it are not without their own controversies. On Tuesday, the Lived Experience Coalition, a political union of people who are or have been homeless, issued a news release calling tiny houses “sheds rather than tiny homes.” One prominent leader in the Lived Experience Coalition, Harold Odom, has lived in a tiny house in Georgetown for years.
“For better or for worse, the many people warehoused there in dehumanizing conditions and lack of services still make it home,” the news release said. “This speaks to the strength and resiliency of the human spirit to create a home out of any situation for their loved ones even if that is a car, a tent or a tiny shed.”
The Low-Income Housing Institute has maintained in the past that because people have privacy, a locking door and indoor heaters, tiny houses are fit for transitional housing.
Low-Income Housing Institute staff spent considerable time boarding up and fencing off the brick and wood-frame hotel, but people kept breaking in and sleeping in the rooms or under the second-floor walkways, Lee said.
“It’s a very unsafe situation for anyone staying in those buildings and, after the village is up and running, for our village residents,” Lee told city officials on July 13 in an email obtained by The Seattle Times, asking if they would help speed demolition permits through the city department of construction and inspections. “We have decided it makes more sense to demolish those buildings now than try to keep them boarded up for the next 4-5 years.”
Staff at the city were surprised, according to spokesperson Will Lemke. It was the first they’d heard that “LIHI wanted to demolish a vacant building that was sheltering people experiencing homelessness,” he said in an email.
But the city put the permits through quickly, according to Lee, and demolition began this month. A visit to the site revealed half the motel sitting in rubble under the treads of excavators. The fencing around the rest of the motel had one large hole in the back, but no one seemed to be sleeping there anymore.
Elizabeth Dahl, the executive director of Aurora Commons, a nonprofit that has put up many homeless clients in functioning motels along the Aurora strip, said she was sure the motel generated calls to the police and complaints from neighbors. At the same time, any place to sleep is a respite.
“I can understand some of the reason why they would want to do that, and also for the folks who are staying there — that’s going to be a tough thing for them,” Dahl said.
Colleen Echohawk has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, run two homelessness nonprofits and this year, made a bid for mayor. Echohawk knows the motel well and felt torn about its planned demolition and the potential displacement. She knows the homelessness and sex work will likely just move somewhere else.
“This is my ‘hood down here, and I love living down here, and there are things that go on down here that are heartbreaking to me,” Echohawk said. “We just need more housing. We need real housing. Yes, tiny homes are a stopgap, but they are not the answer.”