Finding the Future: Building Tiny Houses for the Homeless

09/27/2021 / Bill Griffith

In cities across the country, the pandemic has brought home the plight of the homeless.  Rising home prices, job losses and economic disparity have left more and more people without viable housing options.  Communities everywhere are struggling to find alternatives to the tent cities that have sprung up in public parks and along highways.

One solution is gaining national attention – the construction of tiny house villages.  A housing nonprofit in Seattle has had great success pioneering the concept and now manages tiny house villages in Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and King County.  The organization is known as LIHI, which stands for the Low Income Housing Institute.

Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Josh Castle, the Community Engagement Director for LIHI.  It’s his job to run the gauntlet of community and church organizations, building support for the construction of tiny house villages and seeking volunteers.  Josh has seen volunteers’ attitudes shift from concerns about the impact of the villages on neighborhoods to “tell us what residents need.”

A little over five years ago LIHI started partnering with the city of Seattle on the tiny house village project. Castle explained, “There was a huge homelessness epidemic in the Puget Sound region with encampments popping up all over the city. Seattle was trying to find a solution, so they started authorizing these encampments, allowing them to be in place as long as they had some kind of an organized structure, some management and a fiscal sponsor.”  LIHI stepped in to serve as fiscal sponsor working with other organizations to address homelessness.

LIHI has been around for 30 years and owns or manages nearly 2,400 units of housing in six counties.  About 20 years ago, the organization opened its first urban rest stop in downtown Seattle providing laundry services, showers and bathrooms for people experiencing homelessness. Eventually, that experience and working with the City led to the creation of the tiny house village concept.

“We realized that if you build a structure that is 120 square feet or less, it falls below the limit for the International Building Code so it’s not considered a dwelling unit, and it makes it much quicker and easier to build the structure,” said Castle.  “So, we started building tiny houses that were 120 square feet or less and very cost-effective, about $2,500 to build.”  The cost has gone up with the spike in lumber prices but it is starting to come down again.

Now, LIHI manages a total of 14 villages, eight in Seattle alone, two in Olympia and three in nearby Tacoma. Recently, they added a village in Skyway which is an unincorporated area of King County near the airport.  Castle adds, “It’s the first one that the County has funded.”

Castle points out that residents really like having their own place to live and almost 50 percent move on to permanent housing, which is way above the norm for people who live in shelters.  “The idea is to serve as a steppingstone from homelessness to permanent housing, and the bridge that gets it there is case management,” according to Castle.

Case managers hold regular office hours in every village and work with residents to obtain permanent housing, employment, health care, education, which usually starts with getting IDs and documentation together. Castle explains, “A lot of people come into a village after having their encampment swept away or they just simply lost their ID and their documentation. You can imagine it’s complicated to try to get an ID if you don’t have any way to prove who you are.”

Castle talked about a resident who was living outside with her daughter.  “She ended up connecting with a church and the pastor recommended that they go and visit a tiny house village and see what it’s all about.” He was able to refer her and her daughter into the village because his church was one of the sponsors.

“When they saw the village, they said ‘this is a place we want to be,’ it was the first sense of hope that they felt in years,” said Castle. “They came into the village and she was just a natural leader and an organizer inside the village and helped with everything from working with staff to working with volunteers. She was part of the success of the village.”  Working with case management in the village, the resident and her daughter eventually transitioned into permanent housing.  Castle added, “And now they’re doing just great.”

There’s no limit to how long somebody can stay in a village, but Castle said they want to get people in and out as quickly as possible. Homes in the villages are rarely empty and fill up within 24 to 48 hours of opening.  Referrals are made through the City’s outreach services to various service providers and nonprofits. It is clear the tiny house villages are in great demand.

Now that LIHI manages a number of villages, they have developed programs that are targeted to specific demographic groups. “We have a village that serves all women.  We have villages that serve families with children. And then we have several villages that specifically serve African Americans, Native Americans and Alaskan native people experiencing homelessness, and they’re referred by organizations that serve those communities.”

When LIHI first started the tiny house village program, there was significant resistance. Castle said, “We had these community meetings, people were very vocal and the meetings were quite dramatic, but over time people realized that the tiny house villages are transitional and it’s an interim solution to homelessness.”  They presented empirical evidence that the model is actually working and is the most successful shelter program for getting people into permanent housing.  Some of the initial critics became volunteers when they saw how tiny house villages created a real alternative to tent encampments in their neighborhoods.

LIHI now has a record of success in rolling out tiny house villages and building community support. The Seattle experience shows a marked shift from managing tent cities and emergency food programs, to creating a solid path to housing stability – a model based on strong case management and a commitment to addressing the individual causes of homelessness on a person-by-person basis.

Bill Griffith practices real estate and municipal law and is the host of Finding the Future, a podcast that explores innovation in land use and sustainability. Listen here for the interview with Josh Castle of LIHI.  If you have a story about innovation in land use and sustainability, please reach out to Bill.

Low Income Housing Institute staff member standing in a tiny house village.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Low Income Housing Institute staff member standing in a tiny house village.