King County and federal officials raise concerns about Seattle’s increasing reliance on tiny-house villages to house homeless people.
Seattle’s increasing reliance on city-sanctioned tiny-house villages to house homeless people could cost King County federal dollars for the fight against homelessness.
King County human-services director Adrienne Quinn raised that concern at a recent board meeting of All Home, the county’s homeless coordinating agency, as her staff prepared a new application for funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“A shift toward tiny sheds may reduce our federal funding if the community focuses on tiny sheds and not housing people or providing shelters that have bathrooms and electricity,” she said.
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Although tiny houses are technically indoors, HUD counts people living in them as “unsheltered,” which is one factor in federal funding. In King County’s 2018 snapshot count of homelessness, the number of unsheltered people — 6,320 — exceeded the number of people in homeless shelters — 5,792 — for the first time.
Federal authorities also recently raised concerns about tiny houses, in a memo issued last month by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). The advisory report noted that local governments “understandably” want to get people indoors, but sanctioned encampments and tiny houses were the wrong approach.
The encampments “by themselves … have little impact on reducing homelessness,” consume time and money that could be directed to more permanent solutions, are “difficult to manage and maintain,” and — although proposed as temporary — they “prove difficult to close once they are opened.”
Seattle agrees with “many of the cautions outlined” by USICH, and tiny houses are a small part of the overall strategy to address homelessness, Jason Johnson, the city’s interim human-services director, said in a statement.
“The City is in daily contact with people living outside, in inhumane and unsafe conditions,” said Johnson. “We hear them say they are on a journey out of homelessness, and our job is to assist them — even with temporary supportive villages to help them along the way. “
Seattle has seven sanctioned homeless camps, four of which operate as so-called tiny-home villages, with roughly 120-square-foot cottages, often built with donated supplies and labor, surrounded by sanitation and cooking facilities.
Seattle contracts with the Seattle nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) to oversee the encampments, and the organization’s executive director, Sharon Lee, rebuked the critiques by Quinn and USICH. “We believe that the tiny houses save lives. Not doing it means that more people will die on the streets,” she said.
Lee said “every tiny house has heat, electricity and light,” and most villages have plumbed bathrooms. “We’ve set a new standard that’s consistent with what the community wants.”
The point-in-time count of homelessness tallied 370 people in the encampments on one night in January. Seattle has at least one more village in planning stages, and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has proposed further expansion in a plan that was passed by the Seattle City Council.
Quinn said that the expanded use of tiny homes could lower the city’s score in an annual national competition for HUD grants. The awards are based on a complicated array of criteria, and they attract hundreds of applications.
All Home, the body tasked with coordinating the region’s application, has historically scored well in the competition. In 2017, it requested $36.7 million but received $35.1 million, and did not get a “bonus” award.
The scoring process is complex, but at a presentation to All Home last week, staff said King County lost points for, among other things, a rise in unsheltered homeless people.
The 2018 application is expected later this summer. Overall, federal funding — the competitive HUD grants, plus local housing authorities money — was 58 percent of the $195.5 million in operational spending for King County’s homelessness response in 2017, according to a Seattle Times analysis.
Seattle first started authorizing encampments and tiny-house villages in 2015, amid former Mayor Ed Murray’s state-of-emergency declaration on homelessness. The per-bed cost for encampments was about $28 per bed, less than half the cost of the city’s model of indoor, enhanced shelters.
A city-staff analysis last year found some of the sanctioned camps were better at getting people into permanent housing than new enhanced shelters, like the Navigation Center, although people also left the camps for places “not fit for human habitation” at a higher rate.
An earlier version of this story inaccuratedly summarized King County human services director Adrienne Quinn’s concerns about tiny house villages.