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One approach to long-term shelter: Tiny grants for tiny homes

City Councilmember Mike O’Brien is floating a new city program to help tackle the homelessness crisis

Councilmember Mike O’Brien poses with Close to Home founder Rachel Stamm outside the Aspire tiny home.
Courtesy of Mike O’Brien

As Seattle heads into its fourth year of a state of emergency on homelessness, Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien wants to try a new approach to helping the community pitch in: making it easier to build a small cottage.

O’Brien hopes to add a small pilot program to Seattle’s biennial budget, which the Seattle City Council is currently in the process of building. $300,000 would allow homeowners and community organizations to apply for one of 12 grants of $25,000 that could go toward providing long-term, affordable housing on their property, covering up to half the cost. The money would come out of the city’s general fund and be distributed to Housing and Human Services to administer.

Unlike the tiny houses common in sanctioned city encampments, these tiny houses—like the kind popular amongst housed people looking to downsize—would be up to building code for long-term housing, although the grant outlines the homes as temporary. They have plumbing, electrical, and cooking needs taken care of. Rents would have to be well below market rate.

“This could be a permanent home for someone,” O’Brien told Curbed Seattle. “They’re just small.”

“I’m not going to pretend that $300,000 and 12 units is going to drastically change the landscape of housing and homelessness in Seattle,” said O’Brien, but it provides an opportunity for the city to “learn something from these pilots and see if there’s something we can take to a bigger scale.”

A Block Project home under construction.
Courtesy of King County

O’Brien points to the Block Project as one example: In this program, volunteers and professionals work together to build permanent, backyard cottages, literally putting solutions to the homelessness crisis in someone’s backyard. The first house went up in Beacon Hill about a year ago; houses two and three are under construction.

Block Project houses, O’Brien told us, are somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 to build—so a $25,000 grant could reduce the cost by a third, potentially allowing more people to host the homes.

Another option, said O’Brien, would be a more classic tiny house on wheels, often referred to as a THOW—although O’Brien refers to all these tiny houses as “mini cottages” to avoid confusion with encampments. Local builder Close to Home provides a DIY kit for about $50,000 that would also qualify for the program, complete with kitchen, bathroom, and sleeping loft. That home, the Aspire, is 200 square feet. While local building code wouldn’t allow a THOW to provide long-term housing in a single-family backyard, O’Brien said church groups could potentially host one.

O’Brien tours an Aspire tiny home.
Courtesy of Mike O’Brien

There are programs besides the Block Project and Close to Home, of course—and any up-to-code residential project could apply.

“This is not the single tool that will solve our crisis,” O’Brien told us. Rather, it’s “trying to unleash some of the creativity of our community and say we’re willing to kick in $25,000 if you can make something that fits the building code … Maybe there’s ideas coming out of UW’s architecture programs, maybe there’s an architecture firm that’s thinking about things.”

Ultimately, the idea is for the city to support community members who want to get hands-on in alleviating the homelessness crisis.

“I think one of the things the city can do a better job at is creating more opportunities for the broader community to engage in finding solutions to this crisis we’re in,” said O’Brien while introducing the budget item last week. “One of the things that’s hard for me is when I’m out in community and I’m hearing from folks that are frustrated—some are frustrated focused on garbage or criminal activity—but a lot of people also say look, we understand this is a challenge, how can I help and short of showing up and arguing for policy, often they don’t have great tools for them to help.”

In addition to letting the community pitch in, O’Brien argued that an approach like this allows Seattleites to connect with others who are experiencing “all levels of the crisis,” whether they’re a housed volunteer, housing-unstable, or unsheltered.

That way, said O’Brien in council chambers, we could “all collectively better understand some of the challenges and hopefully start to diminish some of the polarization that’s in our country right now—and frankly in our community, too.”

This article originally stated that the Block Project was able to move into a warehouse space on Harbor Island. That is not the case.