The C Is for Crank: No, Danny Westneat, Building 1,000 Tiny Houses Won’t Solve Homelessness

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.

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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.

8 thoughts on “The C Is for Crank: No, Danny Westneat, Building 1,000 Tiny Houses Won’t Solve Homelessness”

  1. What is needed is a range of housing based on economics as well as range of personalities/needs of individuals. Danny’s argument is actually valid. He specifically refers to emergency housing. With COVID, the large communal sleeping areas are out. Tiny homes solves the distancing problem.

    I also agree with Erica that permanent supportive housing is need and that tiny houses is not THE answer. But I think it should be part of the answer. The facts that are irrefutable is the large cost to build permanent housing (about $350k/unit depending on specifics) and the length of time to build a one new project (2 years to permit, +probably 2+ years to raise funding, + 2 years to build). So for 100 units =$35,000,000 in 6 years.

    VS

    $2500/tiny home x 1000 units =$2.5M. Timeframe is dependent on resources but if the materials and labor is available, they can start getting cranked out tomorrow (would need to find the sites, set services etc we’re talking months vs years).

    So when you are talking about what to do with people on the street today, in the freezing cold in the middle of a pandemic, I think the answer is clear: tiny houses fill an important need while long term solutions are worked on.

  2. He may have the wrong approach or he may have the right approach but it’s obvious that what we are currently doing is not working. Allowing people to fester in tents along highways or even in parks is completely inhumane. Seattle does need sufficient capacity of enhanced shelters and tiny homes in order to justify moving people out of these squalid conditions. Without them then you’re just sweeping people from one place to another or you just leave them in place.

    The benefit of a tiny home is a semblance of privacy which is the number one reason people would rather be in a tent rather than in a shelter. I do agree with Westneat that without the funds and resources to build Permanent Supportive Housing for thousands of people in need Seattle should invest in these forms of transitional housing, with supportive services, to help get people off the streets (literally) and build their lives back.

  3. One of the reasons housing has become so scarce is that we’ve made it that way politically. The SRO hotel I lived in for my first six years in Seattle has been empty for most of the years since, because a fire gave the city the excuse it wanted to shut the place down. This hostility to poverty housing exists even in places whose zoning laws might otherwise allow it. People know this, and rightly see tiny houses as an end run around the problem. No, it’s not a magic bullet. But if, in the process of building a thousand tiny houses, that engenders political support for a new generation of SROs, it’ll do more than you’re admitting.

    1. A question I’ve always had is why we don’t have really low-income housing? Why does every single person need their own toilet, shower, stove, two sinks? I remember those SROs, with a toilet down the hall. Not exactly luxury, but lots better than living in the streets.
      The movie “Cider House Blues” was about migrant workers who followed the apple harvests in New England. My dad was such a migrant, so I paid attention, and it seems to be historically accurate. They lived in barracks-style housing.
      For people who can’t even afford an SRO, barracks-style housing where they all have lockers is still better than living on the streets.
      I lived on the streets for about a year and half, and one of the worse things is not being able to leave your stuff anywhere.

      For some reason, we got rid of public lockers. We should bring them back, and have a variety of sizes.

      Homeless people aren’t necessarily penniless, they just can’t afford the high cost of housing, but they maybe can afford $200 a month to pay for pay-as-you-go lockers and sanitation stations .
      We have this attitude that everything has to be free, or expensive. We need to bring back things that poor people can afford, that don’t have to be subsidized.

      That won’t take care of everyone, but it will go a long ways toward dealing with people who are on the streets because of high rents.

      Change the laws so that people can invest in low-cost housing and services (like sanitation stations) that are pay-as-you-go, and basic, so that low-income peole can afford them.

      But what’s really going on is that hte billionaire developers are using the homeless as a cover to get taxpayers to subsidize their middle-class buildings, which will revert to market-price housing after the tax breaks are over.

      The “homeless” solution is aimed at enriching these developers, who have the city Planning Dept in their pocket, rather than at really making life easier for poor people.

  4. You, yourself, leave out one important detail: “To solve homelessness, we need to build housing” … ==> with rents that currently homeless people can afford <==. Housing for the poor must be provided as a public good (i.e. paid for with taxes), or poor people must be given a basic income sufficient for rent (paid for with taxes). Housing must become a public project, removed (in part) from the private market which only acts for profit. There is no profit in housing the poor.

  5. It is more politically and financially expedient to build tiny houses and get people out of parks for $2,500 a pop than pony up $300,000 per unit (not including operating costs). That’s a difference of $30M vs $3.6B to house Seattle’s homeless population. You can pick at the details of his analysis but that doesn’t detract form the fact that we still, years later, have 12,000 living in tents in parks and sidewalks who would rather be in tiny homes. Got $3.6B?

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