Tag: permanent housing

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

Homeless Service Priorities Shift in First Competitive Bid for Services in More than a Decade

All Home director Mark Putnam, Human Services Department Director Catherine Lester, Mayor Ed Murray

A more detailed version of this story, with information and quotes from a press briefing yesterday, is now available at Seattle Magazine

The city’s Human Services Department will issue a request for proposals today for $30 million in homeless services—the first time in more than a decade that a majority of of the city’s homelessness contracts have been put out for competitive bids. (The remaining $20 million the city spends on homeless services has either already been rebid under a different process or wouldn’t qualify under the new criteria, such as hygiene centers.) The request focuses on programs that get people who are “literally homeless” into shelter “permanent housing”—largely through “rapid rehousing” with short-term rental assistance vouchers. According to HUD, a person is “literally homeless if they have a primary “residence” that is not fit for human habitation (e.g., a doorway or a vacant house), live in a shelter, or are leaving a jail, hospital or other institution after a stay of 90 days or less and were homeless when they first came in. (Widening the definition of homelessness to include people who are about to lose their housing and have nowhere to go and people experiencing extreme housing instability would roughly double the homeless count in Seattle).

In keeping with the Pathways Home plan released last year, which emphasizes “right-sizing” the homeless system by balancing survival services and permanent housing, the RFP will prioritize proposals that provide “permanent housing”—that is, housing on the private market, paid for with temporary vouchers. The new bidding process puts longtime city partners who provide transitional housing—nonprofits like the Low-Income Housing Institute, which provides longer-term temporary housing aimed at immigrants, veterans, and women fleeing domestic violence—at a relative disadvantage, because it focuses on “exits to permanent housing” and transitional housing isn’t permanent. The target transitional housing programs will eventually have to meet is for clients to stay in transitional housing units no more than 150 days (270 for young adults) and that 80 percent of their clients exit into permanent housing. This alone will be a shock to the current system; according to the Focus Strategies report on which many of the Pathways Home recommendations were based, “the majority of programs in Seattle/King County are designed for 12 to 18 month stays” and only about 63 percent of adult transitional housing residents exit into permanent housing (the rate for families is a little better, at 73 percent).

The RFP will grade providers on their performance for the first six months of 2017 on whether they meet five new minimum standards, as well as their answers to questions about their proposals. Providers who meet not just the minimums, but the targets, will get priority for funding. If a project gets funding but doesn’t show progress toward meeting its targets, the city can decide not to provide further funding even after a contract is granted. In future years, providers will be expected to start hitting their targets, rather than just meeting the minimums.

The targets set goals for: Exits to permanent housing; average length of shelter stays; entries from homelessness; return rates to homelessness; and how many shelter beds are occupied on any given night. An agency applying for funding must have met one of these minimum requirements between January and June 2017 to qualify for funding. The proposed systemwide targets and minimum standards are detailed in these next two charts:

It’s still unclear exactly what sort of vouchers people exiting homelessness into permanent housing will be provided, but in the past, HSD has said that they will pay some portion of a person’s rent for between three and 12 months; once the subsidy runs out, it will be up to that person to come up with the money to pay full rent. In an expensive housing market like Seattle’s, where the average one-bedroom apartment rents for about $2,000, this will probably mean that a lot of people end up living in unincorporated King County or even further from Seattle, far away from services, employment opportunities, and any community they may have had when they lived in the city.

According to the RFP, “Data does not currently show us if people are being housed in their communities of choice or displaced to other locations.” Pathways Home, however, explicitly states that part of solving homelessness in Seattle may involve moving people to “housing that is a considerable distance from work or which creates a substantial rent burden”—in other words, housing that may be unaffordable and far away from Seattle. “While these are not ideal situations, they are all better than the alternative of homelessness,” the report concludes.

HUD’s definition of “literal homelessness,” it’s worth noting, does not include people who are sleeping temporarily on friends’ or relatives’ couches, people who have to move frequently from place to place, or people coming out of prison with no place to go, unless they were in shelter immediately prior to their incarceration. It also doesn’t include people who are evicted from “permanent housing” when their subsidies run out and they can’t make rent, unless they end up back in the county’s formal homeless shelter system; those who end up moving out of the county or doubling or tripling up in cheaper housing are still counted as permanent housing “successes.” A report from a homeless advocacy group in Washington, D.C., which implemented a Pathways Home-style rapid rehousing system, found that many families fell off the “rapid rehousing cliff” when their vouchers ran out and they had to pay full market rent for their apartments; indeed, all the studies that have concluded that rapid rehousing is a success were in markets where rents are a fraction of what they cost in Seattle, such as Houston, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City.

The deadline for service providers to respond to the city’s RFP is September 5.

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