Melinda Nichols, a carpenter since 1972 and longtime board member at the nonprofit that is developing and will operate this tiny village, thought a village specifically for women should be built by women.

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Boo Torres high-fives Hilary Leonard, who just made her first cut with a chop saw.

“Feel the power!” Torres shouts.

They’re two of about 40 volunteers — mostly women from the building trades — joyfully toiling Saturday at Seattle’s first tiny house village designated exclusively for women experiencing homelessness.

For Torres and the other tradeswomen working at the city-owned property off 15th Avenue Northwest, the project is unique in their professional lives: For once, they’re not the only women on a construction site.

“Projects like this, we really fall in love with,” said Torres, a union electrician who owns Q Generation Electric with her business partner Deb McGowan. “This is our work. We want to help women. We’re into providing transitional living and giving people second chances. And it’s just nice to be in a place where most of these people are women helping other women. There’s nothing more powerful than that.”

Melinda Nichols, a carpenter since 1972 and longtime board member at the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), which is developing and will operate this and other tiny house villages around the city, thought a village specifically for women should be built by women.

Apart from the symbolism, a female-dominated construction site “is a confidence-builder” for women new to the field or interested in it, she said. Too often, women entering construction trades are handed a broom instead of a hammer.

Deb McGowan climbs a ladder Saturday as she works on framing in a tiny house for homeless women in the Whittier Heights neighborhood.  (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
Deb McGowan climbs a ladder Saturday as she works on framing in a tiny house for homeless women in the Whittier Heights neighborhood. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

Those who have fought their way through discrimination, harassment and worse to find a place in the high-paid trades are still only a fraction — less than 10 percent — of the construction workforce in Washington state, said Nichols, one of the region’s foremothers working for decades to try to change that.

Washington does better than the national average, she said, thanks to programs designed to actively recruit women into the field, like the Washington Women in Trades career fair, which ran for its 39th year Friday at Seattle Center. That’s where Torres, a mother of five, got her entry into an electrical apprenticeship 15 years ago.

Another program, ANEW — Apprenticeship and Non-Traditional Employment for Women — began here in 1980, the first of its kind in the nation.

Leonard, who made that first cut on a board that would trim one of the tiny house windows, is not in the trades, though she’s curious.

“I’ve never really thought about it, but I think it’s just because it wasn’t in my purview,” she says. “But I like doing it.”

Volunteers, many of them professional tradeswomen, work on small houses intended to house women who are chronically homeless.  Work is expected to continue through May on the  former city property in Whittier Heights.
Volunteers, many of them professional tradeswomen, work on small houses intended to house women who are chronically homeless. Work is expected to continue through May on the former city property in Whittier Heights.

A roof, security, cookies

The Whittier Heights Village for Women consists of 16 cabins arranged around a gravel lot sandwiched between the high wall of a new apartment building and a bank parking lot. An old concrete building on the site that used to hold Seattle City Light electrical equipment is being converted by volunteers to a community kitchen, laundry and shower facility.

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The village will house single women, same-sex couples, pregnant and postpartum women, seniors and women with pets. Most will come to the village directly from unsanctioned tent camps and other particularly vulnerable states of homelessness.

It is a low-barrier site, meaning residents will be allowed in regardless of whether they’re using drugs. Access to the village is controlled, and it will be staffed by a security guard 24 hours a day.

A case manager will work there 40 hours a week to help people transition to permanent housing and find health care and employment.

It is not without controversy. Across an alley to the east are the back fences and garages of single-family homes. “There are some people that are opposed to it,” said John Syverson, LIHI facilities manager. But given the amount of services planned, “we don’t anticipate any problems at this point,” he said.

Tiny house villages are so new, Nichols said, that people are still forming opinions of them.

“We underestimate the generosity of our community,” she said of the volunteer response. People came from as far away as Arlington and Camano Island to help out. Other contributions have flowed in, too, including a $2,500 donation from the Ballard Rotary in recognition of Mother’s Day.

That’s about what each of the structures costs to build, Nichols said.

“For 2,500 bucks you actually put a roof over a person’s head,” she says. “They’re safe. They’ve got a door. They’ve got a lock. They’ve got heat.”

“It isn’t permanent,” she adds. “It’s a Band-Aid for a hemorrhage. But I’ve seen people that we’ve done it for, and it really works.”

Volunteers Boo Torres, left, and Amy Ecklund frame a small house intended for homeless women in the Whittier Heights neighborhood.  (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
Volunteers Boo Torres, left, and Amy Ecklund frame a small house intended for homeless women in the Whittier Heights neighborhood. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

Most of the Whittier Heights tiny houses — each about 8 feet by 12 feet — are nearing completion. Volunteers were finishing roofs, painting and running electrical conduit, among other tasks Saturday. The goal is to be ready for occupancy at the end of the month, Syverson said.

Many of the houses were built on site. Others were constructed elsewhere and moved to the location, including one done by Girl Scouts, who got a taste of the building trades through their contribution.

The Girl Scout house is already furnished with a bed, a chest of drawers, boxes of Thin Mints, and a framed note for a future occupant, signed by a scout named India. It reads in part:

“I really hope this house gives you as much happiness as it gave me building it … that this house gives you a sense of safety and home and that you love it as much as I do.”