By Erica C. Barnett
This week, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote a piece arguing that the solution to homelessness in Seattle is simple: Build 1,000 “huts” in tiny house villages and move homeless people through them into permanent housing, then sweep the streets of all their human and physical detritus.
Five years ago, Westneat writes, he made this same proposal to “spread the huts across the city in camps located in all seven council districts. …In return, the city would begin enforcing the no-camping law and start cleaning up the garbage-strewn sites around freeways and greenbelts.”
The solution, he concludes, is just as clear today. “Five years in to this intractable emergency, I’d like to propose, again, that building a thousand tiny homes is still it.”
Here are some reasons that, contrary to Westneat’s tidy argument, building 1,000 tiny house villages is not, in fact, “it.”
First, Westneat’s argument rests on a single statistic: “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.”
Citing the low rate of exits from basic shelter is like complaining that hand-washing stations don’t move people into housing. It’s completely beside the point.
Westneat doesn’t define permanent housing, so his readers might be left believing that this means people have this housing permanently. In reality, the term “permanent” is used by officials and advocates to distinguish housing meant to be occupied on a long-term basis from impermanent living situations like shelter, transitional housing, and tiny houses. All the apartments in Washington state from which people are at risk of being evicted once the COVID-19 eviction ban is lifted, for example, are “permanent housing.”
Moreover, he gets both the percentage of exits to permanent housing from basic shelter (actually 3 percent, not the 6 percent he cites) and, more importantly, the purpose of basic shelter, wrong. The point of basic shelter isn’t to move people into permanent housing. It’s to give people a place to stay on a nightly or emergency basis. Citing the low rate of exits from basic shelter is like complaining that hand-washing stations don’t transition people into housing. It’s completely beside the point.
This omission almost has to be deliberate, because this fact is right next to the stats Westneat (inaccurately) cites: “The primary focus of basic shelter is not moving people from homelessness to housing because it lacks the necessary services and amenities to support stabilization.”
Westneat goes on, citing a 34 percent success rate for tiny house villages at moving people into permanent supportive housing, compared to 23 percent for enhanced shelter—which, unlike basic shelter, is aimed at getting people housed. But, again, he omits several extremely relevant details about this impressive-seeming stat—details that disprove his argument that 1,000 tiny houses will solve (or even make a dent in) homelessness on their own.
All these facts, again, are in the report Westneat cites and links.
First, the total number of exits from tiny house villages is extremely small compared to other solutions—108 (duplicated) households moved on from 275 tiny houses in 2019, compared to 1,563 for enhanced shelter. That’s pretty important when you’re claiming that a single solution can meaningfully make a dent in an immense, region-wide crisis.
None of this is a knock on tiny house villages, which are an important part of Seattle’s approach to addressing homelessness. It’s a knock on influential people like Westneat who use their massive platforms to make arguments that suggest there’s a simple solution to homelessness.
Second, people tend to stay in tiny house villages for an extremely long time—almost a year, on average—which is contrary to the city’s goal of making homelessness brief and one of the reasons the number of exits is so low. On average, people stayed in tiny house villages 317 days, compared to 75 for enhanced shelter. That’s more than three times longer than the minimum performance standard of 90 days for tiny house villages adopted by the city’s Human Services Department when it began performance-based contracting in 2017.
Moving people on means new people can come in. If tiny house villages had met their minimum performance standards (and, to be clear, no shelter type met its standards, because the standards were unreasonable given the lack of housing in Seattle), they would have moved more like 450 people on to permanent housing, rather than 108.
All of this information, except for the performance standards (which are on the city’s website, a quick google search away) is in the report Westneat links in his piece, which suggests to me that he deliberately omitted these extremely relevant facts. If the omissions (and outright error of fact) were unintentional, that suggests to me that the Seattle Times needs to get some better fact checkers.
None of this, by the way, is a knock on tiny house villages, which are an important part of Seattle’s approach to addressing homelessness. It’s a knock on influential people like Westneat who use their massive platforms to make arguments that suggest there’s a simple solution to homelessness, especially arguments that they know are based on an extremely selective set of facts.
In reality, there are about 12,000 homeless people in Seattle, and the number is growing. Even if we adopted Westneat’s “solution” and built 1,000 tiny houses, and even if not one additional person became homeless in the city, and even if “permanent housing” meant that the housing was actually permanent and not just “permanent”—at the current speed and rate of exits to permanent housing, it would take 30 years to house every currently homeless person in Seattle.
And of course, “permanent” housing doesn’t ensure that people never again become homeless or unstably housed; that’s why, along with “brief,” the city’s goal is to make homelessness “rare” and “one-time.” The fact that the actual solution to homelessness is boring, expensive, and non-“innovative” doesn’t make it less true. To solve homelessness, we need to build housing.