What if the solutions to Seattle’s housing crisis were less complicated than we are making them?
What if people could get the housing and stability they need to survive — and thrive — if there were more low-barrier, community-based housing options available to them that respected their identities, self-determination, autonomy and provided for their collective needs?
That’s the premise behind Queer the Land, a nearly 5-year-old Seattle project to do exactly that. After a tough year of negotiations, labor and a steep learning curve, late last month, the Queer the Land collective purchased a house on Beacon Hill that aims to fill a critical gap for queer and transgender people who are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC).
The need is dire. LGBTQ people face high rates of homelessness and poverty, and experience widespread discrimination in housing, lending and homelessness services. One in five transgender people, for example, have faced homelessness at some point in their lives. For queer and trans BIPOC people, the disparities are even worse —compounded by racial discrimination and the racial wealth gap.
The Queer the Land house pushes back against the displacement and gentrification that have impacted Seattle’s queer and trans people of color.
Funded by a combination of individual donors, collective members and grants from the city’s Equitable Development Initiative and others, the 12-bedroom house will provide transitional as well as permanent housing for those with the greatest need. The house is part of a land trust and is fully paid for. Residents will decide their own operational and contribution structure, with support from Queer the Land members and the community.
In addition to housing, the Queer the Land house will have an edible landscape, community food garden, food pantry, community, office and healing spaces and be the home base for the group’s mutual aid efforts as well. Over the next year, the group will focus on upgrades to make the house fully accessible, using the principles of universal design, so people of all ages and abilities are able to use it. The group expects the first residents to move in after that work is finished.
Queer the Land member and co-founder Kalayo Pestaño said the project was in response to the housing insecurity that their members experienced themselves. The crowdfunding and other stopgap measures community members used for housing and basic needs only went so far. They wanted something that would be permanent, led by and accountable to the community itself.
“This was created as a long-term solution to the housing crisis, specifically as it impacts trans and queer Black and brown people,” Pestaño said.
Queer the Land housing coordinator, Evana Enabulele, has experienced housing instability and knows firsthand how difficult it is to focus on other needs when your housing is on shaky ground.
“When your housing is stable, everything else can become stable at some point,” Enabulele said.
But it’s not just about putting a roof over a person’s head, it’s about changing the dynamic too prevalent in some affordable housing spaces of saviorism or rigid bureaucracy. “People just want to go home and go to sleep,” Enabulele said. “I feel like in American society, [some housing providers] just think everyone is trying to get over on them for some reason. And that’s all that I’ve ever felt like in low-income housing. … What I would have wanted was to just be considered in these decisions instead of just being told ‘this is what you are given.’ ”
The Queer the Land house, in contrast, will operate “at the speed of trust,” as Pestaño put it. The group itself will decide how it wants to function and decisions will be made collectively.
The process of purchasing the house was not easy. The grassroots project did not have the resources or infrastructure of large nonprofits or big developers. They did have help from pro bono lawyers, one of whom originally signed on for a month but ended up working for a year and then joined Queer the Land as an ally supporter.
Pestaño said getting the house was “the hardest thing I have ever done.” But they were determined to be a model that could be replicated for others in the Seattle area or across the country, ultimately creating a network of similar projects.
When I asked Pestaño and Enabulele if Seattle was making solving the housing crisis more difficult than it needs to be, they both gave an emphatic yes. Pestaño said, “How many more research projects and focus groups do we need? I feel like it’s been that forever.” Instead of any more years of process and bureaucracy, what if existing housing was made available for people to live in? Housing that the community itself has control over operating?
“It makes such a huge difference to know that you have somewhere to rest at the end of the day,” Pestaño said. “To know that your housing and other needs are taken care of and that the people around you got you.”