By Erica C. Barnett
This post has been updated.
Seattle’s ongoing expansion of “tiny house villages” could stall out as the new regional homelessness authority takes over responsibility for King County’s homelessness system. The RHA’s director, Marc Dones, told PubliCola this week that the “proliferation” of tiny houses needs to end, and that short-term approaches like shelter and sanctioned encampments should be replaced by new investments in housing construction and acquisition, along the lines of King County’s “Health Through Housing” program.
Earlier this year, the city council voted to fund six new tiny house villages using a combination of city funds (for operations) and COVID relief dollars from the state (for capital costs). But so far, the Human Services Department has not published a request for proposals (RFP) for those villages—the first step for approved funding to get out the door. Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI) director Sharon Lee says HSD seems to be slow-walking the application process until the regional authority takes over all the city’s homelessness contracts at the end of the year.
“They say it’s up to the regional authority whether there are new tiny house villages at the end of the year, which makes no sense to us” because the state funding is already earmarked for this purpose, Lee told PubliCola.
UPDATE: HSD said on Friday that it will not put out a request for proposals to build the new tiny house villages until they get more guidance from the new regional authority at a meeting of the RHA’s implementation board in September. HSD spokeswoman Lily Rehrmann said that since the money the state provided is “one-time capital dollars… While the one-time funding is important, providers need to know that on-going operations are committed in order to invest the time and resources into responding to an RFP that, as a general rule, requires the provider to propose a program model, staffing structure and budget.”
Specifically, Rehrmann said, providers need to be able to demonstrate where three years’ worth of funding for operations would come from; since the state funding is only for capital costs, Rehrmann said, that would be impossible. “HSD will continue to work closely with the KCRHA on the successful transition of the homelessness program investments in 2022 and on the stand up of the new shelter that has received full funding (for both stand up and ongoing operations and services) in 2021,” she said.”
This “full funding” stipulation has been an ongoing source of contention between HSD and the city council, and not just on tiny house villages: Council members, including budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, have argued that the council only budgets on an annual basis, so it’s impossible to guarantee ongoing funds for any project; that doesn’t prevent the city from funding all sorts of things that require some capital investment.
Beneath the debate over timing and jurisdiction is a larger question: Should the region continue building new tiny house villages, which provide long-term shelter to several hundred people, or focus on other, more permanent investments? RHA director Marc Dones says the answer to this perennial shelter-vs.-housing debate is obvious: The region needs more housing more than it needs more shelter.
“I am not saying no one can benefit from the use of a tiny house as shelter. What I am saying is that I don’t see the evidence, either in community or in the data, to talk about moving to that scale.” —King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones
“The focus that we need to have is on housing, and I simply cannot stress that enough,” they said. “Shelter is not permanent, and we are locked into a proliferation of shelter options rather than a proliferation of housing options and we must course correct on that. Tiny homes, as a subset of a broader shelter strategy, make sense, but they’re not an end point and we shouldn’t proliferate them as they are.”
“I am not saying no one can benefit from the use of a tiny house as shelter,” Dones continued. “What I am saying is that I don’t see the evidence, either in community or in the data, to talk about moving to that scale.”
Instead, Dones wants to focus on permanent housing and “bridge housing”—temporary group housing for people who need supportive services in the short term as they transition to either a private-market apartment or permanent supportive housing. “People have had a lot of conversations in the last couple of months about a right to shelter, and I think that is not consistent with our community values. We need to have a right to housing.”
City council member Andrew Lewis says he agrees with Dones that permanent housing should be the region’s ultimate goal. But he disagrees that housing should be the only, or even paramount, priority right now. Pointing to the proliferation of unauthorized encampments across the city, Lewis, who represents downtown Seattle, Queen Anne, and Magnolia, said, “I’m not going to go to my constituents and say, ‘Look, deal with that encampment on your street—or, heck, I’m not going to go to my unhoused constituents and say, ‘Eventually we’re going to build housing somewhere, but until then have fun living in your tent.’ We need to be able to offer people something better while we are building the thing they really need, which is some kind of permanent housing.”
While people living unsheltered often balk at the idea of moving into a congregate shelter, including less-crowded “enhanced” shelters like the Downtown Emergency Service Center-run Navigation Center, they often will accept placements in tiny house villages, which offer more privacy and security than other types of shelter. Lee, from LIHI, said it’s “misguided to be attacking tiny houses when tiny houses are the preferred option for people who are camping out or sleeping out. We go to any encampment, and every place we go, people say, ‘We want a tiny house.'”
But the things that make tiny house villages desirable may also contribute to the fact that people stay in tiny houses longer than any other type of shelter. Although the villages have a fairly strong track record for moving people into housing (between 27 and 65 percent of tiny house residents eventually move into housing, according to King County’s most recent performance data, compared to a 15 percent average across all types of emergency shelter), people tend to live in them for months or even years—far longer than the regional goal of 90 days.
Lewis, whose “It Takes a Village” proposal would fund 12 new tiny house villages in every council district, says that while everyone agrees that permanent housing is the ultimate goal, even very long-term shelter is a better option than living outdoors. “People are willing to stay [in tiny houses] long-term as an alternative to a tent while they wait to get placed into housing,” he said. “I feel like I’m just responding to consumer demand in saying we need more tiny houses.”
During a recent meeting of Lewis’ homelessness committee, LIHI tiny house village program manager Theresa Hohman went further, suggesting that people who live in tiny house villages are more successful when they finally do get placed in housing because they have learned to live “again within community… within walls [and] within a system of rules. … I am positive that [tiny house village residents’ success rate is higher than those that have come right off the street into housing,” Hohman said.
But Harold Odom, a member of the regional authority’s implementation board who has lived in a tiny house village for several years, says that while tiny house villages are “great vehicles to get people off the streets,” they have turned into “warehouses for people—there’s nothing to motivate people to go out that door and into housing.”
“We can’t wait for years with the tents the way they are in the city. There’s going to be a give here— either we give people safe temporary places to live or eventually there’s going to be mass criminalization of unsheltered people.”—Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis
Although Odom says getting access to a tiny house “truly saved my life,” making it possible to rebuild relationships with his family, he adds that without a higher “level of care,” including on-site access to mental and physical health care, employment assistance, and other wraparound services, tiny house villages can become a form of (inadequate) housing in themselves.
“Imagine yourself seeing shanty towns all over the place,” Odom said. “Imagine yourself being in Brazil and a river coming down with sewage in it. That could be tiny house villages. Once you get them out of the way, they get forgotten about.”
Over the past decade, most cities, including Seattle, have embraced a concept called “housing first,” which is based on the idea that most people are already “housing-ready,” as long as the housing is appropriate for their needs. From this perspective, it makes little sense to make massive investments in temporary shelter. “Sometimes a person doesn’t even need to pass through shelter” before moving into more permanent housing, Dones said. “Housing is the goal, and any shelter has to sit inside a larger conversation about pathways to permanency.”
Lee acknowledges that LIHI could “improve our throughput,” but says the underlying problem is a lack of permanent housing, which takes time to build. “LIHI is working on 450 new units of [permanent supportive housing],” she said. “We are one of the largest providers of housing for homeless people.”
In a practical sense, it will be up to the regional authority to determine the future of tiny house villages in Seattle. But Dones and other leaders at the authority can’t make any decision without Seattle’s approval, Lewis points out. “The RHA needs our money, so we have some leverage here,” Lewis said. “They can’t raise taxes, their money is going to come from us, and we have a good clutch of seats on the governing board”—two council members and the mayor—”so if they are moving forward with the assumption that they’re using our money, there has to be some consideration of the immediacy of the need that we’re facing.”
In November, Seattle voters will decide whether to adopt Charter Amendment 29, which would push the city dramatically in the direction of shelter over housing by requiring the council to fund 2,000 new shelter beds next year using existing city funds. At the same time, amendment would also enshrine the city’s authority to keep public spaces “clear of encampments” in the city’s constitution, setting up a countdown clock for conflict.
Lewis, who sits on the RHA’s governing board, sees a massive expansion of tiny houses as a way of forestalling a far worse outcome. “We can’t wait for years with the tents the way they are in the city,” he said. “There’s going to be a give here— either we give people safe temporary places to live or eventually there’s going to be mass criminalization of unsheltered people.”