In a reversal, the city of Seattle won’t require the embattled Nickelsville Northlake tiny house village to shut down next week, as originally planned, giving village residents a reprieve.
In an email to city council members Thursday, Seattle’s Human Services Department (HSD) Director Jason Johnson said the village would be allowed to remain on city land but didn’t say for how long.
The change came after Northlake village residents had repeatedly threatened to stay at the site even after the city’s original Dec. 9 deadline to vacate.
Explaining the change, Johnson said a church had come forward to sponsor the village. However, the city previously said it wouldn’t consider church sponsorship because Northlake was “significantly underperforming” in terms of how many village residents went on to permanent housing, a city spokesperson said in October.
“The City believes it could support a short-term agreement between stakeholders that allows residents to have full-time case management and housing connections, while remaining in Northlake until March 2020,” Johnson said in Thursday’s email. “HSD will continue working with LIHI (the Low Income Housing Institute, which operates the city’s tiny house villages) and the faith organization to ensure all decisions made are centered on the well-being of people living at the village.”
But Jordan Schwartz, who represents the neighborhood on Northlake’s community advisory council and publishes a Wallingford neighborhood blog called Wallyhood, suspects the real reason the city reversed course is that forcing residents to leave wouldn’t look good for the city.
“I think that the city recognized that the optics of ejecting 20 homeless people from their encampment in midwinter would be problematic,” Schwartz said.
City spokesperson Will Lemke said in an email that city officials believed they could find an agreement that “includes case management and services back at the village — which is a priority for the City, which ensures the well-being and safety of the people living on site.” A case manager hasn’t regularly been physically present at the site since the beginning of August, and sporadically at times before that.
The change comes after more than a year of tensions between Nickelsville, the group of homeless and formerly homeless activists who run Northlake village, and the city and LIHI. After disagreements over how the villages should be run, LIHI announced earlier this year that it would no longer contract with Nickelsville to run Northlake, but the residents padlocked the gates and wouldn’t allow LIHI representatives in. When city employees tried to visit, Nickelsville leaders demanded they make an appointment off-site.
In October, the city announced it would cut funding to Northlake after December and said LIHI would have to empty the site by the end of the year.
LIHI, in turn, ordered Nickelsville off the property by Dec. 9 at 9 a.m., and said anyone remaining there would be “subject to arrest.”
Nickelsville leaders didn’t budge: In the days leading up to the announcement, Nickelsville began asking their supporters to come to Northlake on Sunday night and pitch tents there.
Under this new agreement, Gift of Grace Lutheran church and Nickelsville will take on the responsibility to pay Seattle City Light to rent the property, which will cost $5,000 a month, according to Schwartz (Seattle City Light is required to rent its property at “fair market value”). Supporters of Nickelsville already have raised that money, according to Gift of Grace’s pastor, the Rev. Jami Fecher.
The city-issued permit for the property expires in March, but under church sponsorship the village could stay longer if the city allows. It’s unclear if Nickelsville will try to stay longer, but Schwartz said it’s a strong possibility.
“If the encampment is well-behaved and a good member of the community and doesn’t require city funding, I can’t see why anyone would shut it down,” Schwartz said.
The city wouldn’t comment on what would happen if Nickelsville refused to leave the property in the future. Lemke wrote “as with any shelter program that is scheduled to close, we will work closely with our service provider and clients to ensure they are offered viable options when the program no longer operates.”
A previous version of this story misstated the amount of time the city would allow Nickelsville Northlake to remain. The city has not announced a timeline.