Sharon Lee is the Executive Director of Low Income Housing Institute or LIHI, a nonprofit housing organization.
Nancy: Working with the Low Income Housing Institute has probably given you many opportunities to work with the homeless community. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience?
Sharon: We are a nonprofit organization and have been around since 1991. We own and manage over 2300 apartments, affordable and we do permanent supportive housing. We serve people who are 30% of the area median income or below. We have a lot of housing that reaches people with no income, people on disability, people who are struggling to live on minimum wage.
In addition to our housing, which we own and manage. We have three Urban Rest Stops which are hygiene centers for homeless people. They are located in downtown Seattle, WA by the University of Washington by the Ballard Neighborhood. These are facilities that are fully staffed providing free bathrooms, showers and laundry facilities for homeless individuals who are unsheltered. We have a lot of homeless individuals who are working they need to stay clean and presentable, so we offer this public service.
In addition, a few years ago we started developing tiny house villages. Because it became very clear that it took too long to develop multi family housing even though we continue to keep up our pace on developing permanent supportive housing and low income housing.
In the mean time, in the Seattle area there are over 5000 unsheltered homeless individuals. We said this is untenable so why not give people more than a tent on a platform?
Nancy: I think that is amazing and here in Indianapolis, IN we don’t have anything like that. Part of my goal with this video blog is to raise awareness about what is going on around the country with different services that are available to the homeless as well as the tiny home villages. I know that you have several out west in Oregon and Washington. Can you tell me a little bit more about the tiny homes and why you feel those are a viable solution. I know that homelessness is a very complex issue and there are a lot of different solutions, why are tiny homes one solution?
Sharon: Well, we have about 13 tiny house villages. Actually, some are still underway and the majority are in Seattle. We have one in Tacoma and two in Olympia. Some are very small the smallest is 14 tiny houses with common facilities a kitchen, a shower, bathrooms and that one is being sponsored by a church. We work with churches, we work with the public sector, we work with private owners to develop these villages.
The largest village has about 48 tiny houses and it is serving 60 people. Each village has it’s own management plan and service plan. We have one village that is homeless women only. Some villages have families with children as well as singles and couples. Other villages are adults and couples. All of them allow pets. All of them allow partners and people who have a safe place to keep their belongings.
Each tiny house is 8 feet by 12 feet, the size of a small bedroom. They are insulated and have locking doors, they have windows, they are furnished and they have heat and electricity.
And then what we typically have is a kitchen with refrigerator, freezer, appliances and then we also have plumbed showers and toilets and laundry. Most importantly, we have case managers that are on site that work the residents to move them into housing, employment services and education.
Each village has a fence with a security pavilion, and an emergency exit, a communal space and a smoking pavilion some place on site. So, it’s a community, not just a tiny house but a community with a very strict code of conduct and expectations in terms of people have to agree to nonviolence and agree to follow the code of conduct. What is really great there are weekly chores and except for the pandemic there were weekly mandatory community meetings.
Nancy: You mentioned that there are 13 different villages across Washington, what is the oldest village that was built?
Sharon: The first one is on 22nd and Union with the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd. That is our smallest one, it is still operating today and it is about 5 years old.
Since then the city of Seattle has been a tremendous partner. The current mayor helped setup four villages and the previous mayor was very supportive as well. And so the city has been a wonderful partner. We are on city owned property and they have partnered with us to help setup these villages and providing operating funds.
Nancy: That is amazing, I commend the mayor and your city council representatives for making that commitment to the homeless.
Sharon: Because we have such a crisis here around homelessness. We have the third largest homeless population of any mayor city, we are right behind New York and LA and then it’s Seattle. It became clear that allowing tents, like even tent cities, was not something that the elected officials, or even the neighbors were very happy about. We now have a lot of support from our neighbors and of course from the city county council and the mayor. Because the tiny house villages are very attractive, they are cute, they are good looking, the villagers are good neighbors. We have an advisory committee for every village that has business leaders, the chamber of commerce, the neighborhood community council, a church group, some direct neighbors. And now, once people get over the initial fear. People are bringing donations they are being very supportive. They have become champions for the residents and for the villages.
I’ll give you a very good example of how this happened and maybe it’s something you can try. We went to the head of the building department about four years ago and we told her we just can’t have people living in tents, especially in Seattle. It’s so cold and it gets wet and the wind really makes it impossible to stay dry. People keep putting on tarp after tarp. They store their belongings and it just gets wet, it stays wet and it’s cold. We asked her what would you allow us to do with the building code. She said if we agree to build tiny houses that are under 120 square feet then she will allow us to do that. Because anything under 120 square feet is below the International Building Code to be considered a dwelling unit. That is why all of the tiny houses are under 120 square feet. And of course when we build out the community showers and toilets and when we install electricity we always get a permit so we have a license plumber and licensed electrician and that part gets inspected. It is a great model with other communities that are trying to do something similar because it is extremely workable.
The city has been data driven to make sure it’s a model they want to replicate. They compared our numbers, in terms of success, to an overnight shelter, where people are sleeping in a church basement and sleeping on mats on the floor. They also compared us to what is considered an enhanced shelter, a 24/7 shelter where people are in congregate or dormitory and we were much more successful, our numbers are proven out. Not only the homeless people who are living on the streets prefer to have a tiny house but the data from the Homeless Information Management System shows that our performance were way beyond what the other shelters are doing.
Nancy: That’s amazing, congratulations! I know from my research everything that you are saying is true among other cities. The tiny home communities are a great transition for helping to continue to provide those wrap around services and transition homeless individuals off of the street and into housing but into a community where they are with like minded individuals and working together to improve their situation. Because of that they are more successful when they go into permanent housing because they have had that transition time to get used to going from street life to house life.
Sharon: Absolutely, we are serving a very large population of people who are chronically homeless. We have moved in people who haven’t had heat for 6 years and when we show them the heater and the tiny house they start crying. They have never had a place on their own, they haven’t felt that level of privacy and security. We have this wonderful video on the positive impact for homeless women living in tiny houses we would love to share that with you.
The other thing about the tiny houses is that they are so easy to build. We have hundreds and hundreds of volunteers. We will put a Facebook post out and we will have a hundred people show up and help us build the tiny houses on site and then we also have people who are building the tiny houses in their backyard and we pick them up. We have high school students, middle school students, businesses, friends who get together and work on a tiny house.
Each tiny house costs only $2500 in materials. We have a package that lists out what dimension of lumber you need and the blueprint. We are able to get lots of donations of tiny houses. We will have paint parties with people in the neighborhood and artists who spend a weekend to decorate the tiny houses, we have fabulous art work on the doors and the sides of the tiny houses.
Nancy: Only $2500 that is really a great margin. That is even with the plumbing and all of the additional heating and air?
Sharon: That is just for the tiny houses. Obviously, depending on where you are located the cost of the community kitchen and bathrooms and showers will be additional. But the tiny house itself is $2500.
Nancy: Okay, so your tiny house doesn’t have kitchens or bathrooms inside the actual tiny house is that correct?
Sharon: It’s sort of like the old family camp where your family would live in the lean-to and then you would go to a community kitchen and have shared bathrooms and showers.
Nancy: I’ve definitely seen that and that is what we have talked about having for our tiny home community is doing something similar to that. Definitely having a community kitchen and there has been some discussion with having a kitchenette and little private bathroom with a sink and toilet. I wasn’t sure if your’s had that or not.
Sharon: No, because we are under the building code if we increase our square footage we could do that. We are currently working on a cottage plan that recently got funded. The city is giving us land for $1 per year for the next 30-60 years. It’s 22 cottages with a common house on city owned property. Those cottages will be fully contained with a kitchen, bathroom and living space.
Nancy: You mentioned abut the success you are finding with the tiny homes compared to the shelters. I know there has been a lot of discussion around how much better the tiny houses are for the COVID-19 pandemic because there can be social distancing with the tiny homes whereas in the shelters you aren’t able to social distance. I believe I saw something that you wrote recently that touched on this subject, can you share a little about that?
Sharon: Yes, the city and county and state are spending tens of thousands of dollars putting people who are currently in shelters into hotels or into giant warehouses or buildings because of COVID-19 they are trying to de-intensify everybody who is currently living in a shelter. Because so many people are sleeping inches away from other people so the shelters are not a good place because of the proximity. Everyone is breathing the same air, everyone is too close so it’s easy to spread contagious diseases like COVID-19.
All of a sudden, people who are critical of us realize you don’t have to de-itensify people in a tiny house because they are already 6 feet away from each other, there are two walls and a locked door separating you from the next person. You are breathing your own air and when you step outside you are breathing fresh air.
We just got everyone in the tiny house villages tested for COVID-19 and nobody has been found to be infected. In the meantime there’s over 112 people who are now living in the traditional shelters who have been tested and found to be infected. That’s not to say we won’t have cases we may have cases because you don’t know who is following the stay at home rules that the governor has put out. In terms of social distancing the tiny houses are so much better during the pandemic than someone living with 50 other people in a group shelter.
Nancy: Yes, and I have heard that housing is healthcare, even before the pandemic. Just how much money we spend on emergency care and healthcare in general for the homeless, especially the chronically homeless individuals because of the unsanitary and lack of ability to be isolated because they are in shelter types of communities. Having housing would provide a level of healthcare for the homeless. Do you find that to be true?
Sharon: We think it’s very dangerous to put everyone together. Everyone thinks we have all of these homeless people on the streets, why don’t we just put up one gigantic tent or put them in one big warehouse or put them in the lobby of one big public building. I think that has contributed to people who already have health problems, they may be frail, they are suffering from exposure and poor health from living outdoors for so many years and they do have compromised immune systems. That is why people are very worried right now in California and in Seattle the spread of Hepatitis A and in California the spread of Typhus because people haven’t seen Typhus for years. Now it’s the Coronavirus and TB as well. We think it’s inexpensive and makes more sense to put people in tiny houses.
By the way, if you try to set up a new shelter, can you imagine how much it would cost to get permits for a new shelter and how long it would take to build it? We can setup a new tiny house village in three weeks and that is what we did. The city of Tacoma said that there were a lot of people camping out in a public park and the council took a vote we have to clear this park out would LIHI be willing to setup a tiny house village on this piece of land and could you do it in three weeks? And we did it! We mobilized and setup a tiny house village in three weeks and this can be done all over the place because there is vacant land, well, maybe there’s some urban areas there’s not a lot of vacant land but there is vacant land that is temporarily vacant it’s not longterm vacant and so we can setup a tiny house village it’s fine if it can be there for two or three years.
All of the tiny houses are built on 4×4 skids, so a flat bed truck can pick them up. We’ve moved two villages already from one location to another location, it’s not that hard. It really makes a lot of sense in terms of community relations and engaging people. We have so many people who want to help out. They want to do something to end homelessness for people and one way you can help out is to help build a tiny house or help paint a tiny house. And that will help end someones homelessness because a tiny house is a real bridge to long term housing.
Nancy: Yes, I know in the about 12 months that I’ve been working to establish A Tiny Act of Kindness, Tiny Homes for the Homeless and just doing some outreach and really education of the community in general about what is happening around the country with these tiny home villages. I get a very positive response and support, people just want to help and they love the idea of something so simple helping a complex issue. I just commend you for what you have accomplished there and I really hope and pray that we will be talking with you in another 6-12 months telling you our success stories.
Sharon: Yeah that would be great. I’m happy to get you the press release that has the new village we opened is on church owned property and it’s a historic African American church and the target of the population of that village which is called PC Spirit Village is focused on Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and African Americans the populations that are severely under represented in the homeless system but who are over represented in terms of people who are homeless.
Nancy: That is just fantastic, I am so encouraged to hear what you are doing and all of the people you are helping and all of the success you are having, I wish you continued success. Do you have anything else that you would like to add that I haven’t asked you about?
Sharon: No, this is fine, this is great. We will send you the information and if you could send us the information on how we can connect with your Facebook group that would great!
Nancy: Yes, I would be happy to send that.
Sharon: We have a lot of resources, we have management plans, service plans, code of conduct, site plans and we are happy to share this, we really encourage other communities to do the same thing.
Nancy: Thank you Sharon I would love to have yes as much support you are happy to provide we will accept it very graciously.
Sharon: I don’t know if you saw in the news yesterday but the city of San Jose Mayor came and visited and he has committed to developing 500 tiny houses in response to COVID-19 in San Jose.
Nancy: Wow, that is fantastic, I had not heard that.
Sharon: Yes, that would top us we have 400 tiny houses so our 400 tiny houses are helping about 1000 unsheltered individuals per year so we are really making a dent in terms of what people were considered unsheltered and are now living in a tiny house they are now considered sheltered under the continuum of care and according to HUD.
Nancy: One question about that. This is a temporary solution right? So, they go into a tiny house and then is there a time limit or time frame that they typically stay in the tiny house before they go into a permanent housing situation?
Sharon: Well, it varies greatly. Families with children who come, our case managers try to move them out into long term housing as quickly as possible. So, it really depends.
The coordinated entry has been very difficult to get people into permanent supportive housing so, we have people who move in a few weeks and we have some people who stay four or five months.
We have a harm reduction model we are not forcing people that they have to be out in a certain amount of time. But we are seeing high rates of success. We help them fill out multiple housing applications and so waiting for housing in the tiny house village is the best option for them. We have a lot of people who eventually get section 8 or we help them find nonprofit owned housing or even below market rate housing.
Nancy: Are the case managers on staff with you or do you collaborate with other organizations?
Sharon: We have one or two case managers that are our employees at every site. They do a lot of housing navigation as well as get people on public assistance. But also the employment, so many people have gotten jobs just because they were able to shower and not worry about their belongings during the day so they were were able to go to work.
We have one partner who is providing behavioral health and that is at two villages where we are targeting people with mental illness and chemical dependency.
Nancy: That is interesting that you bring that up because I know that when I am out talking to people and educating people about the tiny house villages one subject that comes up is the bias’ that people have about how most homeless have addictions or a mental health issue and in my experience in working with homeless it’s not the norm. It happens and it’s out there but there are many many paths to homelessness.
Sharon: Right, absolutely, we saw families who their landlords decided not to accept section 8 so they became homeless. We have a women who became pregnant and she was told that she was living in a single room occupancy unit so she had to leave. She and her infant son and a dog were living in the woods and then we moved them into a tiny house and now she has a two bedroom apartment with section 8. We have lots of success stories. Because we own and manage a lot of housing we prioritize people who are living in tiny houses and move them into our own housing.
For more information about how you can help please contact Nancy Holland at Nancy@DE-Serves.org