A site in Wallingford is likely to be next for Nickelsville while Seattle looks to expand beyond six sanctioned homeless camps.

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In a bit of political theater, a city-sanctioned tent encampment in Ballard prepared to break camp and move elsewhere as its permit expired, even though the city of Seattle had said it could stay.

Residents of Ballard Nickelsville began cleaning up the camp on Thursday in preparation for moving to an unspecified location. The camp’s two-year permit to occupy the city-owned parcel off Northwest Market Street expired Friday, and camp organizers said they didn’t want to risk the consequences of staying.

“We’re pretty much breaking the law,” said Annie Adan, services coordinator for Ballard Nickelsville. “We’re the ones going to get arrested, not them,” she said, referring to the city officials who said they could stay.

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The brinkmanship appears to be unnecessary. Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson said the city has repeatedly told Nickelsville leaders since August that they could stay in Ballard until a new site was ready.

Late Thursday, city staff posted a permit extension through mid-December at the camp. Will Lemke, a spokesman for the city’s homeless response, said Seattle “had no interest in having the camp move twice or being in a situation where the residents had no place to go.”

Nonetheless, five members of the Seattle City Council — Mike O’Brien, Kshama Sawant, Debora Juarez, Kirsten Harris-Talley and Johnson — wrote a letter Thursday urging city departments to prioritize two new sites for Ballard Nickelsville, including a Wallingford location.

Ballard Nickelsville, which opened in 2015, was among the city’s first experiments with a sanctioned, city-supported tent camp. It has drawn rebukes from national experts, who see camps as a distraction from larger solutions, but also positive attention from other cities struggling with large populations of unsheltered homeless people.

Seattle now has six sanctioned camps scattered across the city, hosting both tents on pallets and “tiny house” structures, usually with electricity but not plumbing. The camps are required by city law to move at least every two years.

Last summer, a city staff analysis 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.

The Wallingford site intended for Ballard Nickelsville is a small parcel in an industrial area near the Burke-Gilman Trail and North Northlake Way. On Friday, crews began cleaning out a mess that included abandoned cars and a dilapidated home.

The site preparations were stalled by a 10-month dispute between Seattle City Light, which owns the land, and the tenant of the dilapidated home who had lived there for decades, said City Light spokesman Scott Thomsen.

City Light had offered the tenant relocation assistance, storage of personal belongings and even transportation to look at other properties, but the offers were rebuffed. The tenant finally settled an eviction proceeding and vacated the property this week, said Thomsen. “We’ve gone above and beyond what the requirements are to help him,” said Thomsen.

Nickelsville structures are seen above the fence facing the 2800 block of Market Street. With the camp’s two-year permit expired, residents have prepared to move.  (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)
Nickelsville structures are seen above the fence facing the 2800 block of Market Street. With the camp’s two-year permit expired, residents have prepared to move. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

Nicole Abercrombie of JAS Design Build, a business abutting the Northlake site, said she would try to make friends when the tent camp arrived. “I think it’s not enough that the city is doing for the homeless population, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to be a problem,” she said. “There go I but the grace of God.”

Nickelsville, a nonprofit organization of homeless people, runs three of the Seattle-funded camps; SHARE/WHEEL, another nonprofit of homeless people, runs two others. Although the groups are legally separate, they share office space, and Scott Morrow, a longtime activist, has ties to both groups. All six sanctioned camps in Seattle get case management through the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI).

LIHI Executive Director Sharon Lee said Ballard Nickelsville wanted to expand, but was limited to about 25 people because of its small lot size. She called the Northlake site “a wonderful site, it’s just small.” City staff estimate it can hold about 40 people.

Seattle appears to be doubling down on its sanctioned tent-camp strategy. Incoming Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed 1,000 “tiny houses” during her campaign, and that goal was repeated Thursday as her transition team met for the first time.

And the letter from five City Council members suggests at least two sanctioned camps are likely to be funded in the ongoing budget negotiations. (The City Council has budgeted $1.7 million to support unsanctioned homeless camps in 2018.)

The most likely next site is on a City Light-owned parcel on Crown Hill. A city memo in July estimated it would cost $185,000 to prepare the site for a tent camp, plus $386,000 in 2018 for operations and services. That site is estimated to hold 40 people.

Where the eighth tent camp would go is unclear. Ballard Nickelsville faced strong neighborhood opposition when it was first sited. But on Thursday, the head of Ballard Alliance, a neighborhood business group, expressed support for the camp to stay in the neighborhood through mid-December.

“Siting these encampments takes considerable time and resources,” said Lemke, the city spokesman. “As we’ve seen in many other aspects of the city, real estate is more and more scarce in this economic boom.”