Tiny homes in Seattle are getting a big upgrade

The Seattle Times Homeless Project is supported by BECU, the Campion Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the Seattle Foundation. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

In the face of a growing homelessness crisis, Seattle’s choices in how to use scarce land and funding could mean the difference between hundreds of people sleeping indoors or on the street.

That’s why the King County Regional Homelessness Commission has opposed expanding single-family housing, such as tiny homes, in the past.

Agency leadership suggested that resources would be better saved by acquiring denser permanent housing, such as hotels or apartment buildings. They also criticized the quality of living conditions in the small villages, with a spokesman once describing them – and later apologizing – as “shanty towns.”

However, they remain popular with local elected officials, who seem intent on popularizing tiny homes, saying it’s a way to bring people inside quickly.

A new kind of micro-community in Magnuson Park that opened this month appears to offer a partial compromise. Instead of one-room buildings with no indoor plumbing, the 22 new cottages are permanent structures with bathrooms and kitchens.

Essentially single-family housing for formerly homeless people, the officials behind the tiny shacks acknowledge that the housing model does not maximize density and therefore may not be the best fit for Seattle. But they say the tiny shacks may be a bigger factor in addressing homelessness in other parts of the county and state.

These high-quality models represent a new trend across the country as more cities adopt them. Homeowners and renters view them as less unsightly, making them easier to place in neighborhoods.

Researchers and advocates also say they foster a sense of community, something advocates assume is just as important as housing in addressing homelessness.

Cottages with living space

Seattle and other cities have increasingly relied on tiny homes in recent years as more people live outside and the deadly pandemic makes denser solutions dangerous. But the quality of housing provided by a “tiny house” varies greatly.

Seattle’s 328 tiny homes are almost entirely owned and operated by the nonprofit Low Income Housing Corporation. They are typically about 100 square feet, and are built by volunteers with materials costing about $4,500, according to the institute’s website.

They usually have enough space for a double bed and some storage space, and are equipped with a door, one or two windows, wooden flooring, lights and heating.

The institute will also manage the tiny cottages at Magnuson Park, which are 500 square feet and have a bathroom, kitchen, separate bedroom, foundation, insulated walls, heat and air conditioning, and a front porch. Business.

The interior looks like a market-rate one-bedroom apartment with high ceilings and new appliances.

The 22 townhomes in Magnuson Park cost about $280,000 piece For construction, including plumbing and other infrastructure.

The Low Income Housing Institute says both models serve a purpose. The smaller, cheaper model is intended to be a better alternative to street living for one person, and a temporary bridge to more sustainable housing.

The tiny cottages will serve as permanent housing for homeless families with children, seniors, veterans and people with disabilities to live in for as long as they want. Many residents so far work through the nonprofit Farestart or Seattle Conservation Corps, programs that employ homeless people, and will be required to pay 30% of their income in rent.

Density or dollars?

An apartment building on a two-acre property in Magnuson Park could make a bigger dent in the area’s growing homelessness crisis than the 36 people who will reside in 22 townhomes.

But the rural hamlet’s supporters say the apartment building would have been more expensive, took longer to build, and might have been more difficult to garner neighborhood support.

The Low Income Housing Institute’s newest permanent supportive housing buildings in Seattle and Olympia will contain more than 80 units each and cost $29 million and $36 million, respectively.

The tiny homes will cost $5 million to build, funded by the state’s Housing Trust Fund and philanthropy.

“We didn’t have the funding to build 60 or 100 units,” said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute.

She noted that individuals and charities were more interested in providing housing for the homeless that “gives people a lot of dignity, respect and individuality,” making it easier to fundraise for the shacks.

Not only are high-density buildings more expensive, they are more expensive per unit. Apartment-style units cost between 22% and 55% more than each tiny townhouse built.

Part of this is because the huts were built off-site by building trade students and professionals and transported to Magnuson Park, eliminating the need for heavy machinery such as cranes.

Additionally, smaller units take less time to build. If it weren’t for major delays due to the pandemic that extended the construction of the tiny huts by a full year, Lee said it would have only taken months to build them.

But Lee said that wouldn’t necessarily catch on in Seattle, where there is a scarcity of available developable land. This was a unique situation as the land had been unused for years and almost free. The city rents it for $1 a year.

There’s an ongoing tension on the West Coast between investing in housing that’s faster to build and getting some people off the streets faster versus larger buildings that can accommodate more people, said Anne Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“Every lot doesn’t have to have a 20-story building,” Oliva said.

Cautious residents are more accepting

Instead, the model may fit better in rural or suburban areas of the state where there is more empty land, said State Representative Frank Chubb, D-Seattle, who helped coordinate state funding for the project.

Tiny townhomes also have the advantage of being easier to sell to neighborhood residents, Chopp added.

“What do you think the neighborhood thinks about this? They’re nice,” Chub said.

This is important because communities are often opposed to nearby housing for homeless people. They worry about whether drug use, litter or crime will increase, and also complain that the buildings clash with the look and feel of their blocks.

This resistance can be strongest in small cities and less populated counties, where homelessness is evident in the early stages of development and most housing is dedicated to single families.

Christa Evans, a professor at Missouri State University who has surveyed tiny homes across the country, said she has found that homeowners are more supportive of tiny homes when they have foundations, porches, gardens and other amenities.

She said people are primarily concerned about the value of their home property, which is often their largest asset.

Some rural communities “actually increased property values ​​rather than decreased them because they put a lot of money into the program and the homes look nice,” Evans said.

The model comes with the philosophy

The tiny house model is exported across the country with a philosophy about what is most important to lift people out of homelessness.

The idea is that it takes more than just a home, it takes a sense of community. Supporters of tiny cottages say individual homes, like Magnuson’s, which have front porches, a children’s play area, gardens where people can work together, and a central community gathering space, are better suited to achieving this goal.

Eden Villages, based in Springfield, Missouri, is one of the leading exporters of the cottage model, with units in Phoenix and North Carolina. The root cause of homelessness is “the loss of family and a healthy family safety net,” says Chief Visionary Officer Nate Schloster. A community built into tiny home communities is a good alternative to that, he said.

Research shows that the root cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income people. Some homeless people have physical, mental, and substance abuse problems that make it more difficult to earn money, stay with family or friends, and obtain and maintain housing.

Homeless communities work best when residents feel involved, said Karen Snedeker, a professor at Seattle Pacific University who has studied tent cities over the past decade.

“Having a certain level of power, voice, and agency, but also a certain level of responsibility” informs the work of the tent cities she studied, which she believes will translate into a small shack community.

But Schloester with Eden Villages acknowledges that developing tiny homes or small rural communities on the West Coast is harder.

“The West Coast is definitely different. There’s not four acres of land that a charity can buy to house forty people,” Schloster said.

But even in Seattle, where an apartment building might make more sense, there are ways to incorporate more of a sense of community, he said.

“I think the entire basement will be a community center,” Schloster said.

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