There are two ways forward for Georgetown’s tiny house village, the city’s current director overseeing homeless services told a packed room at the Georgetown Old City Hall.
The city could either close the village starting in March 2020, like the city closed Licton Springs Village last year. Or, with a sponsor from the faith community, the South Seattle site could stay open indefinitely.
“Faith sponsors have a lot more flexibility than the city,” Jason Johnson, interim director of the city’s Human Services Department, told the crowd Monday night.
Georgetown residents and business owners had questions. Why a faith sponsor if Georgetown was on city land, where it’s been since 2017? Couldn’t the city keep the village open? Would community members have any input on this decision?
The city of Seattle is facing this decision with many of its tiny-house villages. Despite the fact that villages enjoy comparably more community support than when Seattle officials first opened them in 2015, existing city code doesn’t allow the city to keep them in one place indefinitely. But there’s dissension among some village residents and community members over whether partnering with faith-based organizations is a good step.
Initially, the villages were tent cities: They’ve since been transformed into tiny-home communities, most of which meet federal standards for shelter but are hard to site and expensive to move. At the same time, the privacy and community they offer make them one of the favorite options for people camping outside, many of whom don’t like staying in traditional, mats-on-the-floor shelters.
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s plan to fight homelessness leans heavily on tiny house villages, which are also doing better than other city-funded shelters at getting people into permanent housing, according to numbers recently released by the city.
“Not only is it a resource that people will accept — people who have been living outside for a long time,” said Johnson, “they have privacy, they have a door they can shut and lock, they have a place to store their belongings.”
But a continuing issue for the city has been the fact that tiny house villages cannot remain open in one spot for more than two years, and most of the city-sponsored villages are already months and months past their respective deadlines.
To address this, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant introduced legislation on Monday removing the time limits for interim villages, so they would only require a permit renewal each year. Her legislation would also greatly raise the ceiling on how many interim encampments the city can host at one time, increasing from three to 40. That bill has to finish an environmental review before it goes to the full city council for consideration.
In the meantime, the city’s fiscal sponsor and operator for the villages, the Low Income Housing Institute, is pursuing churches for their sponsorship. This month, the city announced the tiny house village in Othello won’t be moving after Truevine of Holiness Missionary Baptist Church, a church in Skyway, agreed to sponsor the village, allowing it to stay beyond the September deadline of the city’s sponsorship.
The city already has a similar relationship with Truevine and New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, which sponsor and provide clothing, donations and meals at True Hope Village in the Central District.
It’s unclear how many churches will want to take on sponsoring the villages. Many of them already host tent cities and work closely with the activist groups SHARE / WHEEL and Nickelsville, but those groups have been at odds for months with the city and the Low Income Housing Institute.
The city and the institute still haven’t gotten access to Nickelsville Northlake, a tiny house village that padlocked its gates in April and refused to let either agency in, even though they’re on publicly owned land. The city has given the institute a deadline of Oct. 7 to get access to the village.
Continuing clashes like these may make churches hesitant to get more involved, according to Rev. Rick Reynolds, who’s been executive director of the nonprofit Operation Nightwatch and a local leader in homeless services for 25 years.
“What happens is faith communities see these problems and they start to have questions, right? And where you create uncertainty, there’s going to be hesitancy to engage,” Reynolds said.
Some village residents and community advocates oppose the idea of using churches to get around what’s laid out in the city ordinance.
The Othello village residents voted against accepting Truevine as a sponsor because they said the arrangement violates the city ordinance, noting that “Othello is not a religious encampment.” They also raised concerns that Truevine’s pastor sits on the Low-Income Housing Institute’s board.
“To use a Church as a shield against community concerns, democracy and accountability is unworthy of the City of Seattle,” said an Aug. 13 letter signed by Bruce Gogel and Sean Smith, two residents elected by the village.
Eliana Scott-Thoennes, an organizer with the Neighborhood Action Coalition and the chair of Othello Village’s Community Advisory Council, stands with Othello residents who opposed the move. Her concerns are that faith sponsorship allow the city to get around listening to community and resident input, and the city wouldn’t be required to keep an advisory council of neighborhood stakeholders like the one she chairs.
Will Lemke, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, pointed out that the city holds community advisory councils for those villages even when city ordinances don’t require them.
“Those villages do not technically have a requirement in law to have (community advisory councils),” Lemke said. “However, it has been our practice and will continue being our practice moving forward, to hold CACs with our villages.”
The city isn’t bound to abide by community advisory councils’ decisions, however; when Northlake’s council unanimously threatened to resign in April if the city didn’t tell the Low-Income Housing Institute to return to the bargaining table with Nickelsville, the city did not issue such a directive.
Others believe what matters most is that the villages stay in operation.
Andrew Constantino, a two-year resident of Georgetown and the current site coordinator there for the institute, said Georgetown villagers and the city will continue to seek community input, regardless of whether the law requires them to.
“This can seem like a loophole to people, and in many ways, it is — you don’t need permission from the neighborhood. You don’t even need to ask” to stay on city land if you have a faith-based sponsor, Constantino said. “(But) the villagers themselves, you know, in our village meetings — we don’t want to do anything without the neighborhood’s blessing.”
That question — whether or not the city has been good at engaging the community about tiny house villages — came up at the Georgetown meeting Monday.
“We could’ve been better,” Johnson admitted. “I could’ve been better.”
Clarification: The Low Income Housing Institute, the fiscal sponsor and operator for Seattle’s tiny house villages, is officially pursuing partnerships with faith-based organizations to help run the villages. A previous version of this story said the city of Seattle was pursuing those partnerships.