Remember that idea to build a thousand tiny houses to temporarily get the homeless off the streets? Well, a year has passed. We only built 28.
One year ago, Seattle was three months into its declared homelessness emergency, but it was already obvious the city wasn’t going to treat it as an actual emergency.
So last February, this newspaper devoted part of its front page to a column, written by me, about a city-floated plan to dramatically ramp up the urgency to get people off the streets.
As explained by Sally Bagshaw, the chairwoman of the city’s committee overseeing homelessness, the premise was: “What would we do in the event of a disaster like an earthquake? How would we house people who need help?”
Build a tiny house
Tiny houses are cheap and easy to build — more are being built right now by public-school students and other volunteers. If you’d like to help, the Low Income Housing Institute has posted a “do-it-yourself” guide, with a supplies list and step-by-step plans put together by Seattle Central College’s Wood Technology Center, at lihi.org/tiny-houses.
Please inquire to LIHI about need at 206-443-9935.
The proposed answer: Spread 1,000 “tiny houses” — 96-square-foot insulated huts built by volunteers — across the city in camps located in all seven council districts. The premise was for Seattle neighborhoods to act as the European Union had in response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
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In return, the city would begin enforcing the no-camping law and start cleaning up the garbage-strewn sites under bridges and in greenbelts. Move to a tiny house, or move along.
I don’t have to tell you this if you live in Seattle, but none of this happened.
Instead of 1,000 tiny houses — a scale that could have made a serious dent in Seattle’s street homelessness — we have added, since last February, just 28.
What’s most vexing about the snail’s pace is that these 28 units, on vacant land behind a gas station in Rainier Valley, have generated incredible bang for the buck.
In its first nine months, this one site, called Othello Village, served 300 homeless people and moved nearly a hundred of them “up and out,” into real housing or more stable situations.
According to the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), which runs the camp, 68 people moved into either permanent or two-year housing. Fourteen got bus tickets to rejoin family members in other states, and another 13 moved into transitional shelter.
That’s 95 people off the streets. That figure doesn’t include the 50 folks currently living in the camp’s lighted, heated huts and some elevated tents.
The cost to construct the houses was $2,200 each, so $62,000 total, which LIHI director Sharon Lee says she raised from private sources. The huts are superior to tents or even to conventional shelters because you can lock up your belongings and also access your private unit 24 hours a day.
“We’re very aggressive at getting people off the street, keeping them dry and warm and then getting them into real housing,” Lee said. “Which is the goal, right?”
Why haven’t we done more of this?
One reason is a city-hired consultant blasted the idea last year, saying temporary encampments are a distraction from building real housing. This is fine in theory, but in reality we just had a lottery for 109 units of real housing and more than 2,000 people showed up. So there’s a crying need for something in the meantime.
Another reason is that any homelessness facility is politically tricky to site. A third reason, probably the biggest, is that city politicians spent much of last year bogged down in power struggles and an ill-fated crusade to open city parks to camping.
Now, to its credit, the city has committed to opening two new emergency tiny- house sites (as well as a tent camp in West Seattle). One tiny house village will be in Licton Springs, along north Aurora, and another in Georgetown. Slated to open this spring, they will together include 80 tiny houses.
Adding a handful already at other sites, that will bring us up to a grand total of about 120 citywide.
That’s one slow-rolling emergency response.
“It’s great they’re doing something, but we could easily have done so much more,” Lee says.
For $2.2 million — less than 5 percent of what the city spends annually on homelessness — we could build all 1,000 tiny homes.
Now that I’ve bashed the city for doing next to nothing, I’d like to amend that by noting they did finally clear out The Jungle last fall. But as critics pointed out, many of The Jungle denizens simply scattered into new jungles in the Sodo and Dearborn neighborhoods.
How many of those might be off the street if we had spent 2016 rallying as a city to build a thousand tiny houses?
We’ll never know. But there’s always now to stop accepting this, and start treating it like the disaster it is.