Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis announced Monday that he has $1 million in commitments from the private market for a campaign to double the city’s stock of tiny house villages for homeless people in just one year.

He calls the fundraising campaign “It Takes a Village,” and said that Canadian developer Onni Group and wealthy individuals from Seattle’s business community have already contributed. He hopes to secure more than $7 million in private donations and more than $8 million in taxpayer money this year, and then put almost $10 million in next year’s city budget to keep the villages running.

But it’s unclear if that can happen in the timeline he’s proposing.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

For years, Seattle businesses have been pushing the city to do something radical about the increasing visible homelessness in the urban core. Some have banded with homeless advocates to lobby for more housing options for homeless people; others have steadily pushed the city to take a heavier hand in law enforcement.

But as the pandemic has upended the city’s shelter system and more people than ever appear to be living in Seattle’s parks and alleys, some businesses and philanthropists are stepping up to put their own money into what they see as a quick, stopgap solution: opening new tiny house villages.

Advertising

“We talk a lot about our divisions in the city of Seattle,” Lewis said in an interview, citing his fellow council members’ support. “Tiny house villages are something everybody thinks are a good idea. Talk to Alex Pedersen: tiny house villages are a good idea. Talk to Kshama Sawant: tiny house villages are a good idea. Talk to Jenny Durkan.”

Lewis’ timeline would be a fast turnaround for something that has historically taken years to develop. While tiny house villages tend to be acceptable stopgap solutions to businesses, neighborhoods and some homeless advocates while permanent, affordable housing is built — and are popular with people living on the streets who tend to dislike shelters — past promises to expand the city’s tiny house villages have failed.

In her first year, Mayor Jenny Durkan promised to build 1,000 tiny houses; it’s now the last year of her term, and the city has fewer than half of that, total.

Last year, right before the pandemic, the City Council lifted the city’s ceiling of three villages allowed within city limits to 40 villages and dramatically loosened restrictions to start tiny house villages. Ever since, Lewis said, they’ve been looking for ways to dramatically expand.

The council budget for 2021 already allocated enough funding for three new villages; Lewis’ proposal would take the public money for their startup costs and replace it with private funding, stretching the public money further. But a statement from Durkan’s office said that two of those villages, costing $1.2 million to set up, will continue as planned with city funding, regardless of Lewis’ efforts.

“Mayor Durkan supports expanding tiny home villages and welcomes councilmembers identifying 10 sites across the city and identifying $13 million in new resources for new villages,” said the statement.

Advertising

Lewis touts the success of tiny homes as springboards to more stable housing as the reason for his enthusiasm. According to statistics from the city’s only tiny house village operator, Low-Income Housing Institute, 41% of the 2,800 people who have lived in a tiny house in the last five years have gone on to stable housing — the highest percentage of Seattle’s emergency shelter options.

That number reached its peak in 2020, with 53% leaving a tiny house for stable housing. However, 2020 also saw nearly 21% going back to living outdoors — the highest since 2015.

Lewis’ plan would require $3.6 million for six villages in a first phase, and then the same for another six. He wants private companies to pay for the one-time cost of setting up these villages — laying gravel, hooking up electricity, bringing in sanitation — and then to persuade the city to supply the more expensive operations budget — money for food, case managers and operations. Lewis said he hoped to use the already-budgeted money for those costs, as well as secure more during a potential supplemental budget season this summer.

Companies like Onni, which has started to build high-end residential, retail and office space in South Lake Union, have gotten desperate enough about nearby homeless encampments that they have approached Lewis, he said, interested in paying for places for campers to go.

“As things have got so bad, we’ve started to get approached by people who are willing to put in some private contributions to move the process along,” Lewis said.

Rebecca and Eli Almo, who own senior housing company Era Living, and Judy Pigott, author, philanthropist and an heir to the Paccar fortune, also helped contribute to the $1 million.

Advertising

“The tiny homes allow for safety, for equity and for community within the tiny home village and with the larger community that surrounds them,” Pigott said Monday. “I know I doubled what I was going to give, and I hope that’s the experience for many.”

Half of that initial $1 million comes from one anonymous donor.

Duncan Wlodarczak, the chief of staff at Onni Group — which is perhaps best-known in Seattle as the company that drew community ire for their plans to tear down the beloved Showbox music hall in 2018 — said in the press conference that the group’s donation will pay for about 40 tiny houses. 

“Being a premier city is not just about great downtowns and great projects and mixed-use projects that add a lot of value to your city,” Wlodarczak said. “It’s also about taking care of your most vulnerable people.”

If Lewis’ plan for 480 new tiny homes succeeds, he would quadruple the number of tiny house villages the city had hoped to open by the end of 2021.

It’s unclear if the ambition matches reality for the city’s homelessness services division, which would handle the contracting and some paperwork for these sites and has been shrinking for years as it’s about to be replaced by a regional homelessness authority. Lewis said Monday that he assumes that any villages started by the city in the meantime will be assumed by the authority when it is up and running.

The Low-Income Housing Institute, the city’s only contracted provider for these villages, also has a small staff to handle such an expansion.

Sponsored

Lewis’ plan also raises questions about the fundraising mechanism. A press conference Monday almost turned into a fundraising call for the Low-Income Housing Institute by founder Sharon Lee indicating that private donations should be made directly to the institute, and that a donation to the nonprofit Sunday brought the cash in hand up to $1.4 million.

However, these projects will have to be awarded to a nonprofit through a competitive bidding process.

Lewis didn’t directly say whether the private fundraising is going through the nonprofit but added that he’d be open to other providers opening other tiny house villages.

Lee said that donations are tax-deductible when made to nonprofits, so that is why donors have given “It Takes a Village” money to Low-Income Housing Institute.

Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, pointed out that the city and county declared homelessness a state of emergency nearly five years ago. He believes Lewis’ plan is a good one, but that it should be backed up with better mental health and drug disorder treatment services.

“We need to act like it’s an emergency,” Scholes said. “It’s not perfect by any means — tiny homes are not permanent supportive housing — but they’re a heck of a lot better than the alleyways, and sidewalks and parks system.”