By Erica C. Barnett
A former resident of the Low-Income Housing Institute’s Plum Street Tiny House Village in Olympia has sued the nonprofit shelter and housing provider in Thurston County Superior Court, claiming they unlawfully evicted him from his unit—an argument that, if it prevails, could reclassify tiny houses as a form of housing and give residents of tiny houses, and possibly other types of shelter, protection from eviction under state landlord-tenant laws. The lawsuit also names the city of Olympia as a defendant.
The former resident, Ryan Taal, was kicked out of his unit at the Olympia tiny house shelter after a verbal altercation with a staffer in March that, in LIHI’s telling, amounted to a threat. Taal, who had lived in his tiny house since October 2020, acknowledges that he told the staffer “you don’t know who you’re messing with right now” during an argument over the condition of his unit, but said he was referring to his struggles with bipolar disorder and anxiety attacks, not threatening her.
“I needed case management and help getting my prescriptions,” Taal said. “[The staffer] called the cops and lied to them and told them I was threatening her.” Shelter staff left a note on his door saying he had to be out within 48 hours or they would call the police, but Taal said he was gone by the following morning.
For the next two months, Taal lived in his car with his dog, using a nearby public restroom at night. At times, he couldn’t make it to the restroom, or found it occupied by people smoking fentanyl and meth. Taal says the food at the Plum Street Village was never great—the outdoor kitchen reminded him of “a refugee camp”—but his diet got worse when he was living in his car, and he developed gout.
“I’ve worked on a lot of tenancies that don’t look like a typical tenancy. However you look at these relationships, there needs to be a court process [for eviction].”—Carrie Graf, Northwest Justice Project
Taal’s Northwest Justice Project attorney, Carrie Graf, says that even though Taal didn’t have a formal lease, kicking him out with 48 hours’ notice and a threat to call the police is “kind of the definition of a wrongful eviction” under the state’s Residential Landlord Tenant Act (RLTA).
“I’ve worked on a lot of tenancies that don’t look like a typical tenancy. However you look at these relationships, there needs to be a court process [for eviction],” Graf said.
The RLTA defines a tenant as anyone “entitled to occupy a dwelling unit primarily for living or dwelling purposes under a rental agreement.” Taal’s lawsuit argues that the three-page intake form he signed as a condition of living at the village constitutes a rental agreement that entitled him to his unit, and that tiny houses are a form of transitional housing under state law.
Legislators only incorporated a formal definition of transitional housing into the RLTA in 2021, so this case—if it goes forward—could be a test of that definition.
LIHI executive director Sharon Lee says that although the agency operates its own permanent and transitional housing programs, tiny houses are a form of emergency shelter, not housing—an argument she says is backed up by a court order in another recent case against LIHI, in which a King County Superior Court commissioner refused to grant a restraining order on behalf of a former resident of a Seattle tiny house village, finding that tiny house villages are “transitional encampments,” not housing. (That determination raises a whole other set of questions that, as much as I’m tempted to dive into them, are outside the scope of this article.)
“We take people who are being swept from parks and public places… and we don’t do a criminal background check, we don’t do a credit check, we don’t ask for references,” Lee said. “The moment you say ‘all shelters are going to be covered through the Landlord-Tenant Act’—which means you would have to go through this very extensive process of eviction—then I think you’re going to change the very nature of what a shelter is.” (Of course, if tiny house villages aren’t really shelter but “transitional encampments,” they would be subject to a number of restrictions that could force many of them to shut down—but, again, that’s outside the scope of this piece!).
LIHI staff pointed PubliCola to a 2008 case in which a resident at a YouthCare transitional housing program called ISIS House claimed YouthCare wrongfully evicted him for allegedly failing to follow rules and refusing to sign a behavioral contract.
In that case, US District Court Judge Robert Lasnik found that ISIS House was exempt from tenant protections because Youthcare counted as an “institution” where “residence is merely incidental” to another purpose, such as providing “social services and life skills support.” Lasnik also wrote that the existence of strict rules, such as a prohibition on any sexual conduct, made YouthCare’s rental agreements different than a traditional lease.
“If there are significant cases—violence, assaults, dangerous behavior, weapons— you would have to go through this very long, expensive eviction process. I think the sponsors of shelters would then say, ‘Well, we’re not going to take in all these people.'” —LIHI Director Sharon Lee
Similarly, Lee says, LIHI’s tiny house villages require residents to sign a code of conduct, participate in communal chores, and allow staffers inside their units at any time—all things a traditional landlord doesn’t do. Although some of LIHI’s tiny house villages are low-barrier, meaning people can use drugs or alcohol inside their units, Plum Street Village is not; the contract tenants sign bar them from using drugs or alcohol within a mile of the village property.
If tiny house villages were defined as housing, Lee said, it could lead to fewer low-barrier shelters that serve people with addiction and behavioral health needs, because shelter providers won’t want to take on the risk.
“If there are significant cases—violence, assaults, dangerous behavior, weapons— you would have to go through this very long, expensive eviction process,” Lee said. “I think the sponsors of shelters would then say, ‘Well, we’re not going to take in all these people. We’re not going to open our doors and have everybody claim they have a right [to tenant protections] under the Landlord Tenant Act.”
Graf believes tiny house village residents do have a right to those protections, including those who—like Taal—are accused of violating their contracts. The Landlord-Tenant Act, she said, “is just establishing a pretty bare-minimum set of rights for the person living there, like: you get three days’ notice before you have to leave, and if you want to contest that you’re entitled to a court process. If someone is committing criminal acts within the tiny house village, they can always be arrested.”
Since his ejection from Plum Street Village, Taal moved into an apartment across town—his first real apartment after years of being homeless in Oregon and Washington state. He’s also gotten help with medical care and prescriptions from his case manager with Familiar Faces, a program run by the city of Olympia that provides support for people who have frequent encounters with police. “I’m still worried about what if I become homeless again, but the majority of the days are good days,” he said.
His personal turn of fortune hasn’t shaken Taal’s commitment to his case. “I’m not the only victim,” Taal said. “What they did was super wrong, and I feel like they should rewrite their policies on how they properly exit people—get them the right case managers, the right therapy, not ignore them … or kick them out. Give them some hope.”