All of the Above: Tiny Houses And More

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My good friend John Pehrson, a 95-year-old retired rocket scientist, has lived at South Lake Union’s Mirabella retirement community for over a decade. He has an active and productive retirement, leading the charge to create the green Belltown Parkway, standing up to bulldozers to save historic trees at Seattle Times Park on Fairview Avenue, and envisioning Market to MOHAI, an age-friendly, art-inclusive, mile-long walking corridor between Pike Place Market and the Museum of History and Industry. 

He’s an inspiration, but he’s getting frustrated.

Pehrson’s latest project is a tiny-homes village that he and his Mirabella neighbors want to locate at an unused property nearby.  Mirabella residents have raised nearly $150,000 of their own money, plus snagging another donation of $100,000 from local businesses – one heck of a down payment in good will.  It is the ultimate YIMBY project —Yes In My Back Yard. 

So far, as Danny Westneat recounted in a recent Seattle Times column, Pehrson has been stonewalled, first by the city and now by the King County Regional Homeless Authority (KCRHA), and its new leader, Marc Dones. Dones recently told me that Mirabella’s idea of supporting a tiny home in their neighborhood “would likely not pass our equity review.” I am baffled by this comment.

Tiny homes are a stopgap measure, and we badly need such temporary solutions. Despite the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars, more and more of our neighbors have become homeless. Thousands of affordable and low-income housing units have been built or acquired this past decade, but this has not kept up with demand. The competition for home buying is fierce, and the competition for affordable apartments is fiercer still.

In 2016, the voter-approved Seattle Housing Levy provided $290 million over seven years for building, preserving, and supporting such permanent housing. During this seven-year cycle, more than 2,500 units will be built or restored. This is laudable, but it falls far short of the need. And it takes time, a long time, to build, or even to renovate permanent housing.

Consider the case of Plymouth Housing, the gold standard for permanent supportive housing, which has acquired or restored 17 buildings with studios and one-bedroom units. Plymouth CEO Paul Lambros has three decades of experience, yet even with his know-how and political connections, Plymouth’s projects take 4-7 years from land acquisition to opening. Plymouth has six projects in the pipeline that will provide approximately 1,000 more units, but it will take years. In the meantime, thousands of people are left out in the rain.

Many good people are dedicated to addressing the needs of those on the street including Downtown Emergency Service Center which offers 24/7 shelters and mental health services at its new housing facility in South Seattle; JustCare/COLEAD build trust by getting to know the unhoused, so they can provide support tailored to personal circumstances; Mary’s Place offers beds and meals for hundreds of women and their families and last year it helped 549 families move to permanent housing. 

The list goes on. Fire Department Chief Harold Scoggins and his team created Health One, a multidisciplinary team of first responders and caseworkers trained in mental and behavioral health. Seattle Public Utilities improved environmental health by providing a new program to pump out parked RVs. 

And yet, our homelessness crisis drags on, not from our failure to try.

One big step forward came at the end of 2019, when the King County Council and the Seattle Council partnered with cities around the county to form the Regional Homelessness Authority. Everyone involved knew that homelessness is at its root an economic problem, so answers start by building more housing for people with very low incomes, plus more affordable housing across the county. Those of us involved considered the Regional Authority’s primary objectives to be increasing affordable housing supply with coordinated services. We wanted to incorporate harm-reduction strategies such as integrating housing with behavioral and mental health-care across the county.

Our approach followed best practices in other cities, and sought to coordinate the crisis response through the Homeless Management Information System, thereby creating an individualized, by-name list available to service providers for tracking progress. We envisioned an inclusive comprehensive approach that would support educational and job-training opportunities and make more high-quality childcare available. We hired Dones as one of our expert advisers. We got solid advice from him and also from people who have experienced homelessness themselves.

Getting KCRHA enacted wasn’t easy, and arguments among the cities nearly sank the Authority before it was launched. Some cities claimed homelessness was Seattle’s problem, not theirs. Other cities were reluctant to support the Authority because their constituents did not support its harm-reduction philosophy. Seattle wanted every city in the county to contribute its proportional fair share, if not with dollars, then with land for RVs, 24/7 shelters, or permanent housing. A few suburban cities responded: “Not In My Back Yard.”  

After months of negotiations, the King County Council and Seattle City Council passed parallel legislation in December 2019, creating KCRHA. But Covid interrupted implementation, and the first person offered the lead position at the Authority turned it down. Finally, more than a year later in April 2021, Marc Dones was hired.

Building permanent homes for everyone is the ultimate objective of the quest to eliminate homelessness. Those of us involved in developing the Authority focused on building more permanent housing first, with temporary options next. This is not an either/or approach. We need both.

The problem is that each new unit of permanent supportive housing costs $350,000 to $400,000 to acquire and build, and they take years to deliver so they cannot address our immediate homelessness problems. A recent report from the consulting firm McKinsey concluded that adding enough housing to address homelessness would “cost between $450 million and $1.1 billion each year for the next ten years.” That’s a sobering estimate, because the budget for KCRHA is less than $200 million per year, which is the most we have ever spent in a year. We will be at it for decades if we attempt to solve this crisis solely by building permanent housing.

Fortunately, there are many good short-term options to get people under a roof quickly, including landlord liaison-supported housing designed to connect landlords who have vacancies with people ready to move inside and pay rent.  Other proven options include dedicated motels/hotels, tiny pallet villages like those set up in Los Angeles, group homes, old-fashioned single-room-occupancy rooms (SRO’s), and tiny home villages like the kind John Pehrson and his YIMBYs want to build and support. 

KCRHA’s focus is on building permanent housing utilizing peer navigators to move homeless people from sidewalks and parks. That is one good strategy. But it should not exclude other temporary efforts.

Tiny homes are fast to make and built to last, as I have discovered in volunteering to fabricate them. They can easily be moved, so when sufficient permanent facilities are built, the homes can be moved elsewhere. Sound Foundations NW volunteers build two tiny homes every three days, each costing $4,200 in materials. When installed in a village, each home has electricity and shared hygiene facilities.

Opponents to tiny home villages object because they say the tiny homes are “inhumane.” I disagree. Tiny homes built by Sound Foundations NW are insulated; have electricity for heat, light, and charging phones; each home has two windows, a locking door, a bed, and shelves for belongings. At the villages the residents share toilets, showers, and sinks.  Is it better to leave people outside in soggy tents and have them use doorways for a toilet?  

Other objectors say people “stay too long.” Certainly, some folks may find that the tiny home is their best option, but the Low Income Housing Institute reports that the median stay is 141 days, shorter than a standard six-month apartment lease.  Jenn Adams, who spent eight years in a tent and van, says that many people on the streets report that having access to a tiny home is like winning the lottery. 

In my view, we need to ramp up the production of tiny homes and the siting of tiny home villages at the same time as we build permanent housing on a fast track. This way, we can get more people out of tents, off the streets and out of parks in a year or two, rather than waiting a decade or more.  

This is why we should support John Pehrson and his neighbors who have offered to welcome a tiny home village next to their retirement facility. It’s time for a beer summit between Marc Dones, Sharon Lee of LIHI (who operates many tiny-home villages), and John Pehrson to embrace the Mirabella proposal. The city and county have budgeted for a mere six tiny home villages this year.

My friend’s YIMBY offer should be embraced, not shoved aside.  

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Sally Bagshaw served on the Seattle City Council, 2010-19, where she was deeply involved in finding solutions for homelessness.

38 COMMENTS

  1. I am also puzzled by Dones comment that Mirabella’s idea of supporting a tiny home in their neighborhood “would likely not pass our equity review.” How could anyone object to more safe housing? And, also, The Seattle Times recently published an article criticizing Frank Chopp for giving money, previously agreed upon, to LIHI for tiny housing. Dones had claimed this money even though it was never his to claim. I felt The Seattle Times was very unfair with the coverage.

    I am not impressed with Marc Dones. His attitude seems to be one of this is the way we’re doing it, end of discussion.

  2. Sally: Good article and I think “small houses” are needed. But not: “Everyone involved knew that homelessness is at its root an economic problem.”
    It is far more complicated with substance abuse, made easier with legal marijuana as a gateway drug, the Ninth Circuit opinion in City of Boise which opened the sidewalks to “camping,” mental illness and a lack of in-patient facilities, the Courts revolving door and a reluctance to require bail, good police leaving out of frustration and retiring or moving to cities where these issues are far less severe, and elected officials have a plan other than continuing to fund the same special interest groups who then help them get reelected and so much more.
    The “King County Regional Homeless Approach” may help but viewed differently it is am approach which “kicks it all upstairs” and lets the City – if not wash its hands – at least say “its not me, its the government over there behind the tree.”

  3. Low income housing was built in most cities when land was plentiful and cheap (Yesler Terrace). This is no longer true. In UK they built “Estates” away from the cities where affordable land was more available; shouldn’t we be adding that to the mix?

  4. It’s certainly more complicated if we choose to define a problem that no single solution can address. Sure, there are crazy/sociopathic/drug-addicted homeless.

    There are also many who can move forward with the stable housing they get in these sites, probably many more than we can accommodate. The question shouldn’t be whether this solves all problems, but how much do we want to solve this problem and whether it’s the best way. LIHI and others are very excited about this approach, others not so much. Management makes a big difference, hopefully LIHI learned something there from their difficulties with Nickelsville.

  5. Sally: Good article. I KNOW land in the Seattle area is expensive, but I was shocked by the estimated cost of a permanent unit.

    Did Marc Dones ever provide voters with a link to the Regional Authority’s equity review criteria?

    Are units which cost $350,000-$400,000 only needed to house formerly homeless individuals with a violent criminal record or a record of repeated thefts?

    Do units which cost $350,000-$400,000 merely serve formerly homeless tenants who regularly attend outpatient mental health, drug, and alcohol treatment – and other court-mandated education and support services?

    Do you know the average cost of an ADA compliant temporary unit for a disabled homeless person – or does such a thing exist?

    Have any studies asked the question: “What would it cost to fund programs which grant single family home owners (and their neighbors) the rights (and funding) necessary to mitigate the risk of hosting a temporary housing unit?”

    For example:
    1) Free and fast eviction services for hosts?
    2) Free and fast relocation services for evicted tenants?
    3) Separate government-funded utility and garbage services for temporary housing units?
    4) Free or cheap removal of temporary housing units?
    5) Government-funded insurance to repair any damage to a temporary housing unit?
    6) Property tax subsidies for every homeowner whose property abuts the housing unit – based on the time which elapses between the landlord’s application to evict the unit’s tenant and the date the tenant is actually evicted?

    Does the King County Regional Homeless Authority keep the records necessary to reliably refer only non-violent tenants (and tenants who don’t have a scary criminal record) to home owners who DO host a temporary housing unit on their property?

    Which members of the Seattle City Council (or King County Council) might be willing to propose a change in zoning – with the objective of ensuring that every block in King County hosts 1-3 temporary housing units (units which offer a bathroom and a small kitchen)?

  6. An excellent but scary analysis. The amount of money you cite to create sufficient permanent housing will never be allocated. And the Regional Authority bringing together representatives from cities and towns along with stakeholders and “experts” to make wise decisions? I hope I’m wrong, but envision a series of endless meetings with participants unbudging from previously held positions.
    I’d take a stepwise approach, starting with the homeless who are most seriously impaired. The ones in tents in parks and under freeways, a majority of whom are both addicted and mentally ill. They need shelters that meet basic needs, like food, toilets and showers, safe storage of belongings, space for animals, drug treatment, and social service and security personnel. Sound expensive? Sure. But an approach that might gain public support.
    In fact there’s a facility in downtown that will have a lot of unused space; a floor at the massive convention center addition that is nearing completion. I’m guessing it will awhile before the anticipated huge conventions will be coming to Seattle.

  7. If you study cities which have ended or who are ending homelessness, the comment is always the same: homelessness is not about a lack of a home. Homelessness is about a lack of COMMUNITY. The existing LIHI model of tiny home villages is one of the most successful in the country because it addresses the PEOPLE of the tiny home villages with both their peers who encourage them to succeed and Case Managers who know the right resources to make it happen. We need more tiny home villages as a way to get homeless folks off the streets in order to transition them into permanent housing.

  8. Critical public dialogue to be having! We have to do better as a city and need to have a multi-pronged approach that is well-coordinated. Services are critical. Assessments are critical. The How is as important as the What. It takes too long to create permanent supportive housing to have that be the only short-term solution.

  9. Is Seattle not doing “enough” in terms of supported housing? A story in the Times over the weekend says 9% of housing in Seattle is supported, by public or non-profit funds:

    “In Seattle, publicly-supported housing makes up just under 9% of housing stock.”

    https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/seattles-middle-class-is-vanishing-could-this-idea-save-it/

    What is the figure for other cities, or the unincorporated portions of counties in Washington?

    If more subsidized housing is needed, there would seem to be plenty of other places that could absorb it before they reach the 9% level.

  10. Great piece. I’ve now volunteered to help build tiny homes several times and found it really satisfying to do something positive, even in a small way, to help address this community crisis.

    Providing permanent supported housing certainly is crucial, but tiny home communities seem an essential part of moving faster to get people a roof over their head and a secure place to live.

  11. Sally Bagshaw’s article is right on. We need both non-congregate shelter villages like Tiny House Villages and more permanent subsidized housing. The magic of a. Tiny House Village is the tiny houses that are heated, out of the weather, lockable for personal possessions, and the village with a structure and standards of behavior and a size (about 50 people) one can relate to, and social services. It’s the whole wrap around concept. And it’s affordable. Thank you Sally for ‘leading the band’.
    John P

  12. Thanks Sally, great piece. While I sort of get the concern that tiny home villages might become a permanent rather than interim feature, isn’t this an instance of the perfect being an enemy of the good?

    I’ve participated in tiny house building at Sound Foundations NW. The enthusiasm of volunteers is one sign that people really do want to help to get people off the streets and out of parks. It seems unfortunate to not support such efforts.

  13. Thank you for this summary, Sally. I don’t understand why a tiny home village next to Mirabella would fail to meet equity standards. It seems like being next door to a centrally-located community of supportive retirees would be ideal. I spent a morning volunteering to build tiny homes and came away inspired. This is a well-run operation. These homes are beautiful, solidly built and offer privacy. The villages offer services and a community. The time line for building enough permanent housing is YEARS. Meanwhile, right now, too many people are living in tents. This intermediate transition solution is common sense.

  14. There is no doubt, in my mind, that solving this huge problem requires action from every possible entity. We must address the most vulnerable among us and continue to move forward toward preventing folks from becoming homeless. Less talk, more action. We know of many solutions that can help us move forward.

  15. The article is a good illustration of why it took so long to create and empower the Regional Authority. By now, there are many vested interests in treating homelessness, and this powerful change put some of these interests at risk, at greater accountability, and with less autonomy. I see the struggle over Tiny Houses as the first skirmish in an effort to undermine the Authority and restore the chaotic status quo. I certainly hope that Dow Constantine and Mayor Harrell signal their strong support of the new approach, and I worry what will happen when Constantine, a key player, steps down from county executive.

    • “I see the struggle over Tiny Houses as the first skirmish in an effort to undermine the Authority and restore the chaotic status quo. I certainly hope that Dow Constantine and Mayor Harrell signal their strong support of the new approach.”

      But, David, every reply so far has been in favor of having more tiny houses built. The Authority is against building more tiny houses. Are you suggesting we support the Authority if we disagree with its’ approach? That it should not be open to criticism?

      • Tiny Houses are popular. The main problem is there are not enough spaces for them, nor neighborhoods willing to have them. Easy to build, hard to site. There’s also lots of pressure to build more permanent housing (but not enough funding), and tiny house villages might take that pressure off.

        • What about “all of the above is needed” don’t you understand? Siting more tiny house villages which are temporary transitional shelter will not take the pressure off longer term solutions. What it will do is get more people off the street and decrease the number of people who have been chronically homeless. All of the above is needed.

          I encourage people to seek out signature gatherers for I-135 and sign the petition to get it on the ballot so we can have the discussion about social housing, another piece of the puzzle. All of the above is needed.

        • A city councilmember writes me that there are new city laws that create a lot more opportunities for siting tiny house villages. I worry, though, that even if there are more opportunities the affected neighborhoods will find reasons to oppose a village.

  16. Excellent article, Sally! Thank you for your continued leadership in guiding our community to think – and act – with a system-wide approach. Homelessness in Seattle will not be sufficiently addressed through one solution. Tiny Homes are urgently needed to offer a safe, sustainable, affordable, respectful, and community-centered transition to more permanent, long-term, housing.

    Barb Oliver is also correct in stating that Tiny Home Villages offer benefits beyond getting people out of tents and off the streets; Villages offer a sense of community and multiple supports – essential foundations for stabilizing homeless individuals and bringing them to a place of mutual respect. As a Tiny Home building volunteer, I believe there is no more meaningful (or personally fun!) way to directly and immediately help transition our homeless neighbors to a more stable future. We all win with a system-wide approach.

  17. How about building tiny homes inside commercial buildings? There’s too much office space and tiny homes could be designed to take advantage of all that floorspace.

  18. There is not going to be one silver bullet that solves our tremendous, and ever growing, homelessness problem. We need to implement successful models that have a proven track record in moving the homeless to permanent housing. Tiny homes is one of those models. We can’t become discouraged that tiny homes alone won’t do the trick. When I’m volunteering on this project, I imagine myself homeless and what a gift it would be to have four solid walls and a front door. Every single home that gets built gives someone that gift.

  19. I spent significant time unsuccessfully trying to navigate the housing system for a homeless neighbor. He never got into housing and ended up passing away from a seemingly treatable infection. In my opinion, the region needs immediate (well managed) capacity until the there’s enough permanent supportive housing and coordinated services to handle the need. Why a tiny home village next to Mirabella, that would add immediate temporary capacity, would fail to meet equity standards is baffling to me.

  20. I had the privilege of volunteering at Sound Foundations NW. The day I was there, I met folks from UGM, Uplift NW and AWS (Amazon flew in a team from NYC!) – these groups all wanted to see what Sound Foundations was doing, how they were doing it and how they could partner with this amazing company. WHY? Because they’ve heard the success stories and they’ve read the statistics. Lives are being changed based on what the Sound Foundations / LIHI partnership are doing. Like Barb said, “Homelessness is about a lack of COMMUNITY. The existing LIHI model of tiny home villages is one of the most successful in the country because it addresses the PEOPLE of the tiny home villages with both their peers who encourage them to succeed and Case Managers who know the right resources to make it happen.”
    I encourage the KCHRA, our city leaders and their team members to take a day and volunteer – what do you have to lose?? Let’s not let the “perfect be the enemy of the good” (thanks Anthony.)

  21. Thanks, Sally for the overview and rationale for supporting more tiny houses as a key part of the Greater Seattle homelessness strategy. We have spent the last week visiting family here in Barcelona, a European city of 1.6 million people. Much of our time here has been spent walking all over the city. There are no tents to be seem, and we have seen less than a dozen homeless folks. It is not hard to understand why such a contrast with Seattle. Citizens in Catalunya enjoy a broad and deep social safety net. They pay for it with much higher taxes. There is also a large number of municipal employees, who do an amazing job early every morning cleaning up the streets, parks, and public beaches. The streets are clean, parks and pocket parks are to be found everywhere, and the creative design of buildings over centuries makes the pedestrian experience a pleasure. Even graffiti is celebrated as a form of art! Its urban transit system greatly reduces the need for private cars and motor scooters, although there are plenty of those. Seattle sent a large delegation here 20 years ago to better understand how their economy here successfully focuses on art and creative lines of business. While of course Barcelona faces the challenges any large city does, it works very hard to engage youth in the community and shape the city and its future with great intention for the public welfare. Seattle can still learn from Barcelona.

  22. Sally,

    Excellent article on the scope and complexity of solving the five-year-old declared City of Seattle Homeless crisis. Sobering in that homelessness is winning in Seattle. Which leads to the question, “why proven tools available to help solve the crisis are not being deployed”?

    Specifically, why is the Tiny House Village (THV) model pioneered and perfected right here in Seattle being actively side-lined by the new King County Regional Homeless Authority?

    THVs are not permanent housing, but a means to first stabilize a difficult population with embedded drug, mental, and economic challenges at a scale that works. Once stabilized through onsite one-on-one support (which takes on average six months), these non-congregate homeless are much more likely to qualify and successfully transition to permanent subsidized housing.

    Tiny House Villages need to be put back in the tool kit for many reasons. A scale that works. A tool that is easily neighborhood-based thus able to fulfill Mayor Harrell’s call for everyone to do their part to solve the homeless crisis.

    Julie Holland

  23. Excellent article. I know that while I once would have criticized these tiny houses as inhumane and ugly; I certainly don’t feel that way now. The status quo is unacceptable; the rising crime statistics in tent cities can’t continue. Just today, a stabbing in a tent city near Dearborn. Let’s give more of these tiny homes a try.

  24. “Winning the lottery” is just how the folks on the street I’ve queried see tiny houses. You don’t need to have space to throw dinner parties to get warm, get settled, get safe, and start getting your life together. Sounds like Mr. Dones is fully enrolled in the New Seattle Way: making the perfectly just the enemy of the good.

  25. Nice write up Sally! Thank you John and friends for your commitment to helping those in your back yard. What this stall shows is that money isn’t the answer to solving the homeless crisis. If money was the answer the problem would have been solved by now. We underspent $30M last year towards homelessness in 2021 according to CM Lewis. The “equity lens” is keeping people on the steets who are otherwise ready right now! This is why We Heart Seattle is so effective. We do whatever it takes or get somebody off the streets NOW who is ready (103 people in a year) because we hustle and act and are not sitting around a weekly table trying to decide who should get what. We will NEVER end the homeless crisis without stopping the inflow of people bussed to Seattle. The other day about a dozen newbies told me they just came in from Auburn, WA and were hanging out next to a active sweep “hoping for hotels”. Lastly, to Marc who also has shunned me and ejected us from meetings and said he “has barriers in talking to us” needs to hear the truth. He’s being lied to.
    While BIPOC is over represented as a percent in population on the streets in tents … it’s still a small number comparatively. All the grant money says “most pass equity lens first” and so the money sits because what we have is a lot of middle aged white people languishing on the streets addicted to fentynal.

  26. Excellent article. Thank you Sally Bagshaw.

    All of the above is needed to begin to reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness.

    The KCRHA director is wrong when they oppose tiny house villages. They are one piece of the puzzle, one tool we can use to decrease homelessness. Community efforts like the one the people from Mirabella are supporting must be welcomed not discouraged.

    Another piece of the puzzle will be government funded permanent supportive housing. I support getting I-135 on the ballot so we can have the discussion about ‘social housing’ as well.

  27. This Marc Dones guy sounds like he is problematic and quickly making a bad name for himself. Equity issue = not my idea?

  28. When I lived by Licton Springs, there was a tiny house village on Aurora. The neighbors seemed supportive and not much fuss raised. Problem was, drug use was allowed and that was the downfall of that particular village.

    I support these villages but allowing illegal activity will only hurt the occupants and speed closure of the villages.

  29. Great article, Sally! We need to address the problem of people experiencing homelessness in a variety of ways. While permanent housing for all is the goal, it does not address the problem in the near term. Tiny home communities, while not the long-term solution, give people experiencing homelessness the opportunity to have a roof over their heads in a warm, personal and private space while living in a supportive community. Thanks for your leadership.

    Sue Brandeberry

  30. An equity review is a way for activists to exclude those that have historically, but inaccurately been blamed for the homeless crisis as it would weaken their narrative. One narrative is that capitalists have caused all homelessness. It’s why you often hear activists in Seattle scream “Fire Bezos to end homelessness”. This of course is a very flawed argument. It’s likely why this affluent neighborhood is getting denied the right to be a part of the solution because if they were, the activists would have have to admit these neighbors were helping. Activists need enemies and in their mind their enemies aren’t capable of helping. If they really cared they would set aside their differences and work with everyone to end this humanitarian crisis. At We Heart Seattle we will work with everyone. It’s these very activists though that have sadly chosen to also not work with us as we have not aligned 100% with their beliefs. We though are relentless and will never stop until we end this humanitarian and environmental crisis in Seattle.

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