The developer of a now-shelved steel modular housing project for the homeless says too many regulations got in the way. If we're going to do anything but tread water on this issue, he says, "we need to break some rules."

Share story

Why is the homelessness issue so stuck?

Dale Sperling has been working on it now for four years, coming at it from his angle as a 35-year private real estate professional. This column is about how he also has gotten stuck — despite a $1 million donation from billionaire Paul Allen.

“We need to break some rules,” he says, exasperated. “If there’s one big thing wrong with how Seattle is going about this, it’s that we’re trying to do it the way we’ve always done it.

“It’s an emergency, right? We should start acting like it!”

Most Read Local Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Sperling’s effort was announced with some fanfare a few years ago.  Allen’s donation was to jump start Sperling’s novel idea to prefabricate steel apartment modules that could be stacked like Lego blocks. The Allen grant was for a demonstration project of 13 units in a church parking lot in Columbia City.

“The Solution to the Homeless Crisis in Seattle” gushed one headline about the portable, yet durable, 160-square-foot metal pods.

But two years later, the project has been shelved — or put “on hold indefinitely,” as the nonprofit partner Compass Housing put it. Sperling says it fell victim to his early-learning mistakes but, mostly, to a blizzard of rules imposed on the never-before-tried development by the city.

Sperling, 71, formerly CEO of Seattle real-estate investment firm Unico Properties, came up with the idea while biking to work past people living in cardboard boxes under the viaduct. The gist is that prefabricated apartments could be factory-built and then shipped here and stacked in place far cheaper than the current $300,000 or so per unit it costs to build a low-income apartment the old-fashioned way.

The modular apartments would be put together in assembly-line fashion, kind of like cars, and would arrive fully furnished and plumbed — “with everything in place but the toilet paper,” Sperling says.

His Seattle firm, OneBuild, did this with wood-frame units, building them in bulk at a factory in Oregon for downtown Seattle’s first modular development, the ‘N’ Habit: Belltown, a 49-unit project.

The steel pods have been outsourced to a factory in China. The area’s first steel modular development is 58 market-rate units planned in Bremerton. At its core it’s really four levels of stacked metal shipping-sized containers (except with windows.)

But the homeless modular housing in Columbia City ran into problems from the start. Example: The city said the lot needed an electrical transformer, which, Sperling says, required a nine-month permitting and design process. Another example: The city ruled the units’ hot-water heaters were too small (by only two gallons, Sperling says.) This forced a complete redesign of the modular pods.

“These were to be temporary units, a three-year demonstration project,” Sperling says. “But there was one code hurdle after another. Finally, I had to pull the plug.”

The building codes are important, but it’s going to be impossible to deliver ready-made housing for $100,000 per unit, as Sperling was proposing, if you have to wade through the city’s usual permitting and code-review process every time.

That this couldn’t be made to work even with a million free bucks is distressing.

“The homelessness issue just isn’t solvable without cheaper housing,” Sperling says. “There’s got to be something between a tent and a $300,000 apartment. Otherwise it’s a certainty there will be more and more people living under bridges.”

The truth of this was revealed in the head-tax debate. For all the controversy over the city’s new tax, the money raised will only pay for the construction of about 600 low-income apartments. Yet a recent count found 4,500 people without shelter in Seattle on a single night.

Sperling says he’s now trying to get the state and eventually the city to preapprove his modular apartment design. His vision is that they could then be mass-produced and “sprinkled around the city” in groups of 10, 25 or 50. The buildings could be wrapped in varied exterior treatments, so they don’t all look the same.

Think the old SROs — the single-room occupancy hotels. Only reinvented and assembled one Lego block at a time.

“I’m sure this isn’t the only answer, or even the best one,” Sperling says. “But I do know that the traditional development model for subsidized housing won’t work in the Seattle market, and with this level of homelessness. It costs too much money, and takes too much time. Something’s got to give.”

Maybe conventional thinking is what needs to give the most.