When Andrew Constantino got to John C. Little Sr. Park, in the New Holly neighborhood, he knew before going in what he was up against.
The neighbors had become furious that 15 to 20 people had laid claim to a park and kids’ play area in the middle of a Seattle Housing Authority complex. Some of the homeless folks residing there appeared dug in, in one case having built a wooden structure with a foundation and a stairway cut into the hillside.
It’s a familiar scene playing out in parks now around the city — the homeless camped with nowhere else to go, the city paralyzed, the anger rising.
So to break the ice, Constantino came with pictures.
“It only took about 15 minutes,” Constantino, who was once homeless himself, told me. “I showed them photos of the tiny houses and said, ‘Would you like to live here, instead?’ To be blunt most of them were ready to go right away.”
Constantino works for the Low Income Housing Institute, a nonprofit developer that also runs most of the city’s sanctioned camps known as tiny house villages. Once filled with tents and criticized for being inhumane in cold weather, the camps have switched in recent years to being lined with 96-square-foot insulated, heated huts.
In two afternoons, Constantino and other outreach workers were able to move 10 of the people from the park into tiny houses at three different villages, in Georgetown, the Central Area and the Rainier Valley.
They could have moved more — maybe all of them — except that they ran out of tiny houses, they say.
“People may find it hard to believe, but all it takes to break this impasse we’re in is a tiny house,” Constantino insists. “They are extremely desirable to people on the street. I have phone calls every day from people begging to get into one of them.”
Regular readers may recall that five years ago, shortly after Seattle declared homelessness to be a civil emergency, I promoted the proposal of a Seattle City Council member that we build 1,000 of these tiny houses.
The idea was to spread the huts across the city in camps located in all seven council districts. It would be as if there had been a hurricane or earthquake, with tiny houses as our homegrown version of the FEMA tent.
In return, the city would begin enforcing the no-camping law and start cleaning up the garbage-strewn sites around freeways and greenbelts.
Obviously, this didn’t happen. Five years later, we have only about 280 tiny houses, mostly built and donated by volunteers. The council member, Sally Bagshaw, isn’t in office anymore.
What happened is that a city-hired consultant blasted the idea, calling them Depression-era shacks that were a distraction from building real housing. The city chose to focus its emergency resources more on what’s called “enhanced shelter,” congregate facilities with services that are open 24 hours, making them more appealing than “mats on the floor” basic shelters.
The city’s own data, though, show the shacks actually work better than either mats on the floor or enhanced shelters. Last year, 34% of the people who went into tiny houses eventually moved to permanent housing, versus 23% for enhanced shelters and only 6% for basic shelters.
Also, only 8% of those going into tiny houses fell back into homelessness within six months, versus 19% for the other two types of shelter.
A social worker for the nonprofit group REACH recently testified to the City Council that people living outside often say they’ll move to a tiny house, but otherwise would prefer to stay out in tents or lean-tos under bridges.
“Would you go to a congregate shelter in the middle of a pandemic?” asks Sharon Lee, who runs the Low Income Housing Institute. “Having four walls and heat and being able to lock your door — the tiny house means everything.”
They’re also relatively cheap. Each hut costs about $2,500 and can be built in a day by volunteers. (Last year Vulcan and a group of contractors built 30 of them in a day to show how easy it is.) Running each 40-hut village costs about $600,000 a year (for utilities, insurance, meals and 24-hour management).
By comparison, the city has proposed using COVID-19 relief funds to send homeless people to hotels at a cost of $53,000 per room for 10 months.
I was happy to see the City Council just approved adding 120 more tiny houses next year, which will bring the city total to about 400. That’s something, but when Jenny Durkan ran for mayor in 2017, she also pledged to build 1,000 of them, in just her first year. Again, didn’t happen.
“I don’t have a ready answer for you why they didn’t do more — lack of political will?” Lee said.
The problems at John C. Little Sr. Park continue, as eight tents were still there as of Wednesday. Homelessness advocates acknowledge the park and its playground remain essentially unusable by the public — as do some other parks now around Seattle.
“I swear to you if I had more tiny houses, I could have that park empty within a week,” Constantino said.
There are no quick fixes with homelessness, and this isn’t one either. The huts are but stopgaps, emergency relief on the way to real housing solutions. But here’s the thing, now demonstrated after five years: the humble huts work.
Wouldn’t it be great to have a citywide project to rally around, especially for when we start to come out of the pandemic? Five years in to this intractable emergency, I’d like to propose, again, that building a thousand tiny homes is still it.