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Tiny house villages spark interest outside of Seattle—but scrutiny at home

Other cities and counties are studying Seattle’s tiny home model

A mix of tents and tiny homes fill Camp Second Chance.

It’s easy to miss Camp Second Chance along Myers Way in West Seattle. Set back from the road, it’s guarded by a wire fence, decorated with a colorful heart that speaks to the mentality of the camp’s residents.

“You’re here? You’re family,” camp manager Eric Davis said, smiling at the group of Kitsap County officials who had come to tour the camp on a chilly, late January day. Kitsap County is preparing to launch a tiny home village to help with its own homeless population, and the officials wanted to get a sense of how Seattle’s model works.

The short, jovial Davis manages the 50 or so people who live in the tiny home village. One of nine such sanctioned encampments throughout the city, Camp Second Chance near Highland Park is a place of temporary shelter for those experiencing homelessness. The City of Seattle owns the land, and the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) sponsors the camp, which officially opened as a sanctioned encampment in March 2017.

After going through a vetting process, residents accepted to the camp are allowed to stay as long as necessary, though the intention behind the camp and others like it is to get people into permanent housing. Instead of living in gusty tarpaulin tents, most residents live in insulated, one-room tiny homes that have almost all the amenities of a regular-sized house. Davis also lives in the camp, in his own tiny—and tidy—home with a large flat-screen television.

Camp Second Chance Manager Eric Davis, center, gives Kitsap County officials a tour of Camp Second Chance.
Light fills Camp Second Chance Manager Eric Davis’ tiny home at Camp Second Chance.
Items sit around a tiny home at Camp Second Chance.
Carolyn Bick

The camp is a combination of tiny homes, both new and old, mixed in with the original tents from its time as an unsanctioned encampment in July 2016. Tomasz Biernacki, a local retired architectural illustrator, has been working with the Alki United Church of Christ program Sound Foundations NW to create the former. After Davis had explained the camp’s rules and procedures, Biernacki and Mark Worden, another volunteer with Sound Foundations, took over the Kitsap group’s tour, taking the group through the large construction tent situated in the middle of the village.

Each tiny home is comprised of a platform, two side walls, a front wall, a rear wall, and two roof halves that are joined together, all assembled on five separate jigs—devices that hold pieces of construction work in place and help guide working tools. The houses look identical to the original LIHI model common in the organization’s tiny house villages, but have been modified to be more easily assembled by volunteers and stay drier in Seattle’s wet climate, Biernacki said in an email.

The group was impressed with the camp’s models, said Charlotte Garrido, one of Kitsap County’s three commissioners. While Kitsap has a dozen tiny houses, Garrido said the county doesn’t have a dedicated site for them yet. Right now, she said, they are in the permitting process, but expects the village will be up and running by summer. She said the current batch of houses are based on the LIHI models, and the new ones “likely” will be, too.

“We are eager to see them lived in, and see how that goes,” Garrido said.

Kitsap County wasn’t the first municipality to visit the camp. In 2016, staffers from several organizations in Denver, Colorado, including the Urban Land Conservancy (ULC), toured Camp Second Chance—then on its way to becoming a sanctioned encampment—and other sanctioned encampments to plan Beloved Community, a downtown Denver tiny home village that opened in July 2017. It’s the city’s only tiny home community, consisting of 11 tiny houses and 12 residents. It was initially run as two separate, 180-day pilot programs, both under Beloved Community, with two separate permits on different parcels of ULC land. In December 2018, the city denied a permit application for the village to move to the Taxi Campus development due to concerns that it would have been on a floodplain, instead choosing to site the camp elsewhere.

Tomasz Biernacki, left, shows the Kitsap officials various elements of tiny home construction at Camp Second Chance.

Urban Land Conservancy President and CEO Aaron Miripol said in a phone interview that the tiny home community in Denver has implemented a similar construction process to the one modeled at Camp Second Chance, using a slightly tweaked LIHI model. It’s run similarly to Camp Second Chance, too: While there’s no single camp manager, the entire camp participates in camp governance, and the surrounding community gives feedback. Like Camp Second Chance, Beloved Community is meant to be a stepping stone.

“This is not a solution that we are saying that someone can live here, and raise a family for the next five years,” Miripol said. “Instead of being on the streets, you actually have shelter and heat, those kinds of things. You’re in a safe and secure environment.”

Others are interested in Camp Second Chance, too. Officials from two cities in California, from Detroit, Michigan, and from New York State have visited, too, in order to get ideas for their own city’s efforts to mitigate homelessness. LIHI Director Sharon Lee recently visited Honolulu, Hawai’i to meet with the island’s council members.

Honolulu City Councilmember Joey Manahan said he has been interested in bridge housing solutions like Camp Second Chance since 2013. Honolulu has its own homelessness problem: Hawaii has the highest per-capita homelessness rate in the United States.

Manahan said he first met Lee in 2014, when he visited Seattle to research LIHI’s Urban Rest Stop (URS) program. Manahan later visited several tiny home villages. He said he’s not sure if he visited Camp Second Chance, but he remembers touring Nickelsville in 2015, then situated where Camp Second Chance is now. At the time, he said, LIHI only had a few tiny homes, and he is pleased to see the idea “flourishing” throughout Seattle.

Honolulu recently opened the Hale Mauliola Navigation Center on Sand Island, which uses furnished shipping containers as housing for individuals and couples for a period of 60 to 90 days. The 78 units are meant to be temporary while the people living in them find employment and permanent housing. At any one time, the site is usually at maximum capacity. But while it’s a similar project to a tiny home village, it’s not the same, Manahan said.

“Tiny homes [are] something that, as a policy, we on the council have adopted, but we haven’t yet implemented one here in Honolulu,” Manahan said. “I’m hoping to do that here in the next couple years. It seems likely now that there is funding from the legislature for these types of non-traditional projects. So, with land and additional funding, that is something that we could probably solve, in the next couple years.”

But as the model gains traction elsewhere, at home, the future of Camp Second Chance is unclear. City Councilmember Lisa Herbold said in a telephone interview that, under the law, each of the city’s encampments has a year-long permit for the site on which it sits, with the possibility of another year-long extension. However, Herbold said, the city can issue temporary use permits for the camps after this two-year period, thus extending the siting of the camp. The city renewed Camp Second Chance’s permit in 2018. The camp’s permit will be up in March, unless the city issues a temporary use permit.

Gracie the dog sits inside her owner’s tiny home at Camp Second Chance.

Part of the city’s decision regarding the camp’s placement depends on the neighborhood’s overall feeling about the camp. When the city announced its decision to extend the camp’s permit in June 2018, West Seattle Blog published the joint response email from the Highland Park Action Committee (HPAC) and North Highline Unincorporated Area Council (NHUAC), both neighborhood action groups. The email, sent to the city’s Department of Housing, Health and Human Services, expressed disappointment with the city’s decision. The coalitions believe that the Highland Park and Highline are suffering from an ongoing lack of city investment, including a legacy of redlining, which they say amplifies the effects of hosting an encampment.

“[W]e ask that neighborhoods like ours not continue to be overwhelmed with the responsibility of shouldering the burden of the City’s homelessness policies while wealthier, less diverse neighborhoods remain largely unscathed,” the email reads, noting that the area has hosted three encampments and an RV staging area.

Herbold lives near Camp Second Chance, and said most of her neighbors aren’t opposed to the camp or the people who live there. They do, however, believe the city has neglected its commitments to bettering the Highland Park community in favor of focusing on the camp.

Generally speaking, she said, there are four main issues the community has regarding the camp. The first is communication: No one from the city explained to the Highland Park community that the City of Seattle could issue temporary use permits to extend the camp’s stay beyond two years. Secondly, Herbold said, when Mayor Ed Murray was in power, the city had committed to creating a park on the Myers Way lot. The city hasn’t taken steps to creating a timeline for the plan.

Herbold added that there are “a lot of cross-jurisdictional safety issues” because of where the camp sits. There’s an unsanctioned encampment across the street from Camp Second Chance, but Camp Second Chance and the unsanctioned encampment fall on different jurisdictional lines, as they sit at the intersection of city, unincorporated county, and state land.

“There are a set of expectations with how we can address that, when people can literally—somebody can just jump over the line, and then one agency or the other says, ‘Okay, that’s not mine now,’” Herbold said.

The fourth issue, she said, is frustration with neighborhood protocols that the housed Highland Park community had requested from the city. While the city implemented some of their suggestions, they had been hoping for “something that they can pass out … to our housed neighbors in the area that explains who to turn to if there is a problem,” Herbold said.

Clothing and other items fill the donation tent of Camp Second Chance.

Whether the city moves the camp also depends on the monetary value of the land in an increasingly expensive city, the City of Seattle’s Homelessness Response Director of Communications Will Lemke said.

“There are realities that govern how this plays out. Seattle has some of the most expensive real estate right now, and everyone is scrambling for parts of land that they can fit whatever need they have out there, said Lemke in a telephone interview. “So siting these [camps] has been one of the more challenging projects the city has taken on, especially when the city has had to do it so rapidly.”

Land value isn’t just a factor in Seattle. Miripol said that the land where Beloved Communities sits is currently valued at about $200 per square foot, and will eventually be developed into affordable rental housing. When ULC bought the land in 2011, it cost just $27 per square foot.

The City of Seattle holds monthly meetings for both the surrounding community and camp residents to talk about their concerns. Like Herbold, both Lemke and City of Seattle Planning and Development Specialist Lisa Gustaveson said that, generally speaking, the neighbors are supportive of the camp. Also echoing Herbold and the coalitions’ joint email, they said the biggest concern they’ve heard has been the city failing to honor its commitments to the neighborhood. Though the city recently held a neighborhood meeting regarding Camp Second Chance, HPAC also decided to conduct its own survey about the camp asking neighbors whether they support the extension. The survey closed on February 14.

Meanwhile, Biernacki said the mood at the camp is “good.”

“Everyone is hopeful that the mayor will give the extension,” Biernacki said.