Theo Baedke, 6, will probably think of this particular Saturday — when a huge crane parked in front of his little blue house in south Beacon Hill, lifting and placing a 125-square-foot mother-in-law unit into his family’s backyard, next to his swing set — as the day his life changed forever, his mother Audrey Baedke said.
Either this day, or the day coming soon when a homeless person shows up to live in that house.
The Baedkes are the ninth family to join the BLOCK Project, a celebrated nonprofit effort to house homeless people in Seattleites’ backyards.
In 2017, when the first house was built, news outlets from across the world covered the event, and the effort was lauded as an innovative yet intimate way to bridge divides. Governments and public-private partnerships have launched similar projects in Los Angeles, Denver and Portland.
“It’s the ultimate coming closer,” Rex Hohlbein, co-founder of the BLOCK Project, said to a small crowd of neighbors and volunteers gathered around the Baedkes’ home on Nov. 2. “It’s turning all the NIMBYs to YIMBYs.”
But that transformation is happening very slowly. When the project first started getting attention locally, 130 families expressed interest. That was two years ago: Only eight of those families have had houses installed, and only four have residents living with them.
Next year, the BLOCK Project expects to build between six and 12 homes. A host of regulatory hoops, a lofty environmental goal that each house be off-grid, and high standards for community engagement from the project’s leadership make placing them a slow process.
The biggest hurdle — the thing that the BLOCK Project is most concerned about getting right every time — is finding the right match, according to Hohlbein.
“To state the obvious, we’re dealing with people’s lives,” Hohlbein said. “We don’t want them returning — not even one — back to homelessness. That’s probably the largest bottleneck for us right now.”
“We’re not the quick fix”
As the tiny house swung over his room, Theo watched nervously; he’d overheard family friends ask his parents, “What about your kids?” when they heard about the plan. A few weeks earlier, Theo told his mom he didn’t want someone moving in.
“And I said, ‘Well, what if it was your crossing guard at school?” Audrey Baedke said. “ ‘What if it was this friend of ours?’ Both of whom have been homeless before, and are people that he loves.” Theo thought that might be okay.
Audrey Baedke and her husband, Keith, have long wanted to give back to the community, aware of the privileges they have. They bought this house with help from Audrey’s parents. The two volunteer at nonprofits like Facing Homelessness, which Hohlbein and his daughter founded to spread the gospel of bringing homeless people and housed people closer, but they felt they needed to pass on their generational wealth.
Supporters of Facing Homelessness raised $35,000 for the home, coupled with more than $50,000 worth of donated time.
“We’re not the quick fix that a lot of people are looking for right now,” said Jenn Lafreniere, co-founder of the BLOCK Project and Hohlbein’s daughter. “But we are going to change the future.”
These houses cost between $35,000 and $100,000 (labor and materials are often donated, creating a wide range of costs), cheaper than the average cost to build permanent supportive housing, said outgoing Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw.
“It’s exactly one of the strategies we should be focusing on,” Bagshaw said.
In the next few weeks the Baedkes will be presented with a few people that social service agencies think might be a good fit and meet with them.
They’re not choosing a tenant: Facing Homelessness will provide the lease, the insurance and the maintenance, so the Baedkes don’t have to do anything “other than be a good neighbor,” Hohlbein said.
The homeless person also has to consider whether they’d feel at home in this family’s backyard. Before C’zar, 50, moved into the second BLOCK home in Greenwood in 2018, he and the family filled out a questionnaire, answering questions about their lifestyle, any substance use and recreation. C’zar — who asked that his last name be withheld for privacy — put “gardening,” which he hadn’t been able to do in nine years of homelessness when he’d mostly stayed in shelters, where he felt treated like “cattle.”
“You don’t have the opportunity to be the individual as opposed to just being one of the client base,” C’zar said. “Do you think the Salvation Army or William Booth Center is concerned with gardening?”
But his host family let him take control of their garden: He’s filled it with bok choy, chard and tomatoes.
Sometimes, potential residents do say no: The fourth home, deep in South Seattle, has been empty for months because it’s far from low-income services downtown.
None of the residents can have sex offenses or violent offenses in their past, and the case manager has to have known the client for at least six months before they refer them. They also can’t have overnight guests.
Part of this caution is born out of the knowledge that one high-profile incident could set the project back. In 2018, after an elderly Bellevue couple took in a homeless woman, she stabbed them and set fires in their home. Both survived, but something like that happening in a BLOCK home would be devastating, Hohlbein said.
After the family and the homeless person consents, the Baedkes will ask neighbors to meet with them and representatives from the project, encouraging them to ask questions and get involved. That’s the heart of their mission, and it’s why Hohlbein isn’t concerned with how many tiny houses are built in people’s backyards.
“It’s only nine now, but damn — those nine could start a religion,” Hohlbein said. “Because they are showing us what it actually means to lean forward on an issue that most people are turning their backs on and walking past.”
Hohlbein’s approach has even won over skeptics: David Preston, who has sued the city of Seattle over its tiny house villages, was critical when the BLOCK Project was first announced. He’s since met Hohlbein, calling him “an unusually scrupulous and honest person,” and appreciates the effort.
“If BLOCK homes were causing problems, we would have heard about it by now,” Preston said.
Sara Rankin, a professor of law at Seattle University and founder of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, was an early supporter of the BLOCK Project and sees it as “one of the few bright lights in the way we talk about homelessness and housing and communities.”
But to her, Hohlbein’s focus on love and community is more about changing the way housed people react to homeless people.
“Is that sort of Marianne Williamson approach to homelessness applicable across the board? No,” Rankin said. “It’s a fascinating and important experiment that he’s doing, but it’s not a large-scale solution.”
“Nine BLOCK homes have been built in two years’ time, and while that’s great news for the nine people in those homes, it doesn’t address the thousands who are still on the streets,” Preston said.
But the project will scale up: Next year they plan on moving into a construction yard in Sodo where they can put a workshop to fabricate the next spate of homes.
These homes won’t come on cranes; they’ll be panelized and assembled in backyards. Hohlbein’s goal is to get construction time on these homes down from three months to three weeks.
But as the ninth house was lowered into its spot in the Baedkes’ backyard, he just enjoyed the moment. He’d reconsidered what he said previously about a bottleneck.
“There is no bottleneck,” Hohlbein said. “We are progressing exactly as we want to progress.”