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Inside the new South Lake Union tiny house village

On a former parking lot in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, rows of small, colorful structures sit waiting for their finishing touches. In a few weeks, they’ll become a temporary home to dozens of homeless men and women. 

This is the site of the newest city-sanctioned tiny house village on the corner of 8th Avenue North and Aloha St, across from an apartment building and a hotel.

Despite facing a legal challenge over a permitting issue — and opposition from some neighbors — the site is slated to open at the end of this month.

It’s designed to help transition people from the streets into permanent housing. And it’s expected to serve some of the most complex cases, people who are chronically homeless and may be dealing with mental health or substance abuse issues.

This is similar to the population currently served by the Licton Springs tiny house village in North Seattle. Launched in 2017, Licton Springs was different from other villages at the outset because it’s low-barrier, allowing drug and alcohol use on site in order to serve people who are actively using. It’s slated to close in March 2019.

The low-barrier approach at Licton Springs faced vocal opposition, with some neighbors saying they’ve seen an increase in crime around the site. 

While the South Lake Union village will not ban drug and alcohol use completely, it appears to set stricter rules and requirements. The new village will lean more towards a "behind closed doors" type of policy.

Josh Castle with the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), the organization contracted to operate the city’s tiny house villages, said the South Lake Union site will be run on a behavior-based model.

Castle said drug and alcohol use won’t be allowed in community spaces inside or outside the village. However, residents are allowed to use inside their tiny homes, as long as their behavior isn’t disruptive to the village or the neighborhood.

“If residents are dealing with addiction, they may be using. But it’s a behavioral-based model. They have to sign a strict code of conduct that includes doing chores, no disruption of neighbors or other villagers, and zero tolerance of things like theft or violence," Castle said in a statement.

It’s unclear exactly what will happen if someone breaks the rules at the new village. The code of conduct for the Whittier Heights tiny house village states that if rules there are violated, disciplinary action will be taken and may lead to a resident having to leave the village. The South Lake Union site seems to be following a similar approach.

Lisa Gustaveson with the City’s Human Services Department said lessons have been learned from the Licton Springs village and are being applied to other tiny house villages, including the South Lake Union site.

She said people being referred into the new village will know what’s expected of them.

“And what will be expected is that they can follow the code of conduct, that they can expect to interact with the service providers and the case managers from the beginning of their stay here, and that it is a place for them to transition into permanent housing, so it’s not a permanent place for them to live,” Gustaveson said.

Data released by the city shows tiny house villages are struggling to get people out of the programs and into permanent housing.

There are 22 tiny homes on the city-owned lot in South Lake Union, less than half the number initially announced by Mayor Jenny Durkan as part of her bid to increase shelter capacity across the city.

The small structures, many built by volunteers, will house roughly 35 men and women at a time, with couples and pets welcome. They’re about 8 feet by 12 feet, with lockable doors, insulation and heat.

The tiny homes are set up in rows, in a layout that looks somewhat like a traditional neighborhood. They face each other across stretches of wooden deck. Further back on the lot there’s a large kitchen tent with an industrial sink. A hygiene trailer with bathrooms, showers and hot water is also planned for the site. (See a slideshow tour by clicking on the photo at the top).

There’s a security gate, spaces for case managers to meet with their clients, and there will be 24-hour staffing.

“There will be staff on site at all times to be able to work with the residents, but also answer questions and interact with the neighbors,” said Gustaveson.

Unlike several of the other villages, LIHI is not collaborating with SHARE/WHEEL or Nickelsville to run the South Lake Union village.

They’ll be handling on site operations themselves and contracting with Lifelong for case management.

Josh Castle said the SHARE/WHEEL and Nickelsville villages are generally self-managed sites where residents take on some of the operating responsibilities. The South Lake Union site will be staff-run, he said.

Castle said not everyone can live in self-managed villages where participation in certain duties is required. And he said there need to be options for people who are chronically homeless and dealing with complex mental health and substance abuse issues.

All residents at the South Lake Union village will be referred by the City’s Navigation Team, which provides outreach and is responsible for shuttering unauthorized encampments.

This is the first tiny house village in the downtown area. 

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