When employees from the Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI) came to the Northlake tiny house village on Tuesday to tell the formerly homeless residents that their village would be closed in December, things quickly got ugly.
There was shouting. A LIHI employee called the villagers “children,” and a villager responded with obscenities. LIHI said one of their employees was shoved. A physical tug-of-war erupted between villagers and LIHI. The villagers won and pulled a gate shut.
The scuffle was symbolic of the last seven months at this tiny house village. Since April, the gates have been locked against the city and its contractors, and only a few people let in. The case manager’s office has sat empty since Aug. 5, and no one has left the village for permanent housing since at least July.
Now, after an almost seven-month stalemate, the city announced Tuesday it won’t fund the village after December, saying it’s out of compliance with its contract. This marks only the second time that the city has shut down one of its tiny house villages without a plan to relocate the site.
The institute has blamed the organization that’s been operating Northlake, Nickelsville, a group of homeless and formerly homeless activists, for keeping them off the property. Nickelsville staff and volunteers have said they keep LIHI staff, besides the case manager, off-property because they’re afraid of a takeover.
“To us, autonomy is very important,” said John Travena, 48, who’s lived at Northlake since January. “That we control who comes in and goes out.”
Sources from both sides have described loud confrontations, and three homeless people have been permanently banned from the village. A long-standing bedbug problem has gotten so bad, one of the tiny houses is uninhabitable; the woman who lived there has been sleeping in the kitchen.
“The village will no longer operate after Dec. 31, 2019, and the property will be returned to Seattle City Light,” city spokesperson Will Lemke wrote in a press release.
There are 19 beds at Northlake, according to the city; city officials say they will work with LIHI to find “new shelter or housing resources” for anyone interested. They also say new shelter space elsewhere will offset the loss of Northlake’s beds.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant is trying to save the village with a budget proposal to keep Northlake open, while also establishing 20 additional tiny home villages.
“Not allowing City staff to access the village is a concerning development,” Adrienne Easter, the city’s manager of homeless investments, said in an email to a Nickelsville leader on Sept. 9, which The Seattle Times obtained through a public records request. “Northlake Village is on City property, authorized under City permitting, funded by Seattle taxpayers, and — as you know — is contractually operated by LIHI in 2019, not Nickelsville.”
The city’s answer to the problems seems to be shutting the village down entirely.
In September, the city gave LIHI a deadline of Oct. 7 to get records from Nickelsville and enroll villagers in the county’s Homeless Management Information System, a basic requirement for every other city-funded shelter or tiny house village; LIHI didn’t make all the improvements by the deadline, and LIHI blamed Nickelsville.
“We know that there are fundamental differences that make it impossible for us to work together,” said Sharon Lee, executive director of LIHI said in a recent interview. “They haven’t changed their philosophy by making housing a priority, making cooperation with a case manager an important aspect of living in a tiny house village, and they have arbitrarily and unjustly made people homeless again.”
Meanwhile, the village’s community advisory council, which represents the neighborhood around Northlake, want to see the village stay open.
“All of us would be very sad to see the permit not renewed at Northlake,” said Brooke Brod, a neighbor and member of the advisory council. “I imagine for some folks at the city, the perspective is ‘this is a thorn in our side; it will go away if we don’t renew the permit.’ ”
Trouble in Nickelsville
Nickelsville was born through conflict between homeless people and the city of Seattle; the original founders named their first unsanctioned camp after then-Mayor Greg Nickels in 2008, protesting what they saw as a lack of shelter in the city.
The Nickelsville model is an alternative to a classic shelter: Instead of accepting a nonprofit’s charity, Nickelsville residents run their own camps, electing leaders each week. Residents take on security shifts and kitchen duties, learning to be part of a community as they rehabilitate from life on the street.
As Seattle’s homeless crisis intensified, and the city faced a lack of shelter beds, the city began to look to the Nickelsville model. A 2015 ordinance created the first sanctioned encampments, with Nickelsville and LIHI managing them.
But the city has moved to work less directly with the activist group in recent years, and more directly with LIHI. Under Nickelsville management, Georgetown’s tiny house village had a 16% exit rate into permanent housing in the first half of 2018, from the city’s data. Now, with LIHI running it, that rate more than doubled in the first half of 2019, to 38%.
The city has never been explicit about sidelining Nickelsville but puts the responsibility to mediate the situation on LIHI, saying they only contract with the institute. In March, LIHI stopped paying Nickelsville as a subcontractor, after they could not agree on a new memorandum of understanding. According to the city, LIHI asked Nickelsville to give up control of the property but they refused to recognize the institute.
And while the city is moving to shut down the Nickeslville-run camp, officials seem willing to work with other villages. For example, the mayor is preparing for the possibility of having to close a tiny-house village in Georgetown that has run past its legally allotted time, but the city has indicated it would let the Georgetown village stay if a church came forward to sponsor it.
When Rev. Jami Fecher of Gift of Grace Lutheran Church offered to do the same thing at Nickelsville Northlake, the city turned him down without discussion, Fecher said. A city spokesperson said the city wouldn’t consider it because Northlake is “significantly underperforming.”
Fecher has been on Northlake’s community advisory council since its establishment and thinks the blame lies with LIHI and the city — the ones who have much more money.
“I think that LIHI is a buffer,” said Fecher. “So that the city doesn’t really have to deal with this.”
The only LIHI employee Nickelsville residents have allowed in has been the case manager, who asked not to be named for fear of blowback from Nickelsville allies. The case manager described residents telling him he couldn’t walk freely in the village but had to go straight from the gate to his office — something that’s happened at the village before.
After two confrontational phone calls, the case manager hasn’t been back to the village since Aug. 5, he said, although some residents say it’s been even longer.
Villagers are holding onto the hope that Sawant’s legislation can save them. Mike Dunn, owner of Dunn Lumber next door to the village and a member of the community advisory council, is frustrated with what seems like a lack of reasonableness from the city, but also feels the villagers need to accept that they’re on city property.
“I think what Nickelsville doesn’t understand is in the end, as much as they would like to have it another way, that’s not the way it is,” Dunn said. “LIHI has the contract from [the city] … and it seems to me, they’re either going to have to become okay with that or they’re going to lose their homes.”