The case for building tiny house villages during the pandemic

Real Change News, June 10, 2020

By Sharon Lee


Seattle’s adoption of tiny house villages as a crisis response to homelessness several years ago is now paying unexpected dividends as an ideal form of shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.


The mandate from public health officials is clear: Stay home, stay separate, stay clean. But you can’t stay home without a home and you can’t shelter in place without shelter. A basic condition of being homeless is the necessity of frequenting and inhabiting public places: You must look for food, bathrooms, warmth and ad hoc shelter. This often requires interacting with others.


In the public interest of flattening the curve and basic human decency, all available resources should go toward ensuring that every person has a safe, clean, warm and separate place to live or, at very least, shelter. Homeless people are frequently elderly or in poor health, two factors that increase the risk of COVID-19. Traditional shelters with barrack-style open sleeping arrangements are problematic for preventing the spread of infectious diseases; having people sleep inches away from one another is dangerous.


On April 20, Seattle & King County Public Health officials announced that 112 homeless people and staff working in homeless shelters were infected with COVID-19, and that two homeless people had died. In mid-April at the Multi-Service Center South shelter in San Francisco, 96 people and 10 staff tested positive — this was the largest outbreak in a single shelter nationally. On April 23, officials shut down the Division Circle Navigation Center in San Francisco’s Mission District after two people tested positive and the rest of its residents were moved to hotels.


Government officials throughout the country are working to “de-intensify” existing shelters by spacing people 6 feet or more apart, arranging beds so people can sleep head to toe, setting up temporary emergency shelters in public buildings and master-leasing hotels as de-intensification shelters.


In many communities, a priority is placed on social distancing current shelter residents rather than setting up new beds or facilities to bring vulnerable homeless people in from the street. Because of COVID-19, tens of thousands of existing shelter beds are simply being moved around at taxpayers’ considerable expense.


Local governments and service providers are applying for fema, state, county and other emergency funds to shelter homeless people in repurposed public facilities during the crisis, but how long can emergency funding last, and how long can homeless people stay 24/7 in city hall lobbies, sport stadiums, large tents and community centers? After the pandemic ends, it is unlikely that public health officials will ask people to simply return to their shelters and resume the practice of sleeping inches apart.


Placing homeless people in hotels may appear to be a solution, but it is only a short-term and expensive quick fix. In some cities, such as Los Angeles, millions of dollars are being spent to lease hotel rooms and provide three meals a day, plus there are the added costs of staffing, PPE, supportive services and security. Local governments still have to figure out what to do afterward. As new shelter standards for physical distancing are being developed to address COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, what will happen to the thousands of unhoused men, women and children who are now sheltering in hotels? If they can no longer return to the shelters they came from, will they be sent back to the streets?


Will we see even more homeless people on the streets after the pandemic because shelter capacity is being reduced across the board?


In early April, King County rented the Red Lion Hotel, located in the city of Renton (just south of Seattle), to de-intensify Seattle’s largest homeless shelter. The lease was for 90 days. The initial response from the mayor of Renton was a demand that the county remove the 200 homeless people immediately at the end of the lease. Renton officials stated that the hotel is not zoned as a shelter and that the county should ensure that homeless individuals not remain in Renton, but return to their original shelters in Seattle or find other options. For cities and counties, not only is paying for hotel stays expensive and hard to sustain, but nimby and anti-homeless sentiments can easily flare up and divide those communities.


Another Approach: Tiny Houses


Since early March, when public officials were scrambling to de-intensify shelters to protect people from the coronavirus, families and individuals living in the Low Income Housing Institute’s (LIHI) tiny house villages have been able to shelter in place and implement public health procedures to stay safe.


The 12 tiny house villages that LIHI operates in Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia are a better shelter option than traditional shelters because they provide separate living and sleeping spaces. Residents have privacy, dignity and a safe place to store their belongings. LIHI’s tiny houses are 8 feet by 12 feet and the houses are spaced 5 feet apart. A person living in a tiny house is automatically sleeping more than 6 feet from another person. Plus, they are separated by two walls and two doors. In a tiny house, people are not breathing the same air as their neighbors. When they open their doors, they breathe in fresh air — making it far easier to adhere to social distancing guidelines.


Over the past few years, with the support of thousands of volunteers, 400 insulated and heated tiny houses have been built across the Puget Sound region, helping more than 1,000 people annually. The villages have shared hygiene facilities, including bathrooms, showers, washers and dryers and cleaning supplies, that allow residents to follow recommended COVID-19 hygiene protocols. A community kitchen with refrigerators, freezers, pantry, microwave, cooktops, hot water and meal deliveries is also available to residents. Additionally, the villages provide on-site case managers who help move residents into permanent housing at a rate that has outperformed traditional shelters.


Tiny house villages can make a significant positive contribution to flattening the curve of disease transmission. Federal, state and local governments should allocate funds so that we can shelter every single person separately and safely in accordance with CDC guidelines. As of May 12, hundreds of people living in LIHI’s tiny house villages were tested for COVID-19 and no one was found positive, according to the public health nurses who reported the test results to staff.


With the pressure to help people living on the streets avoid the coronavirus, our experienced team has streamlined our new villages’ setup time from three months down to four weeks. We are happy to share our experience with others on how to create and operate tiny house villages.


Tiny house villages cost far less than extended hotel stays and can remain in place for years. The city of Seattle is funding nine of the 12 villages. The average cost for a person living in a tiny house is $38 per day, compared with $56 for an enhanced shelter bed and $130 or more for a night’s stay in a hotel. In March, Mayor Jenny Durkan provided immediate funding for LIHI to build 50 more tiny houses to help 60 unsheltered individuals. LIHI opened a new village focused on the needs of homeless African Americans, Native Americans and Alaska Natives and also doubled the size of an existing village, which operates on a housing-first model. Mayor Durkan praises tiny house villages as “probably the most successful shelter we have to get people into long-term housing, and it has become some of the most sought-after shelter for some people experiencing homelessness.”


We know that low-income housing, including permanent supportive housing, is the real solution for all people experiencing homelessness. Hopefully this will gain traction as one of the lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis. Right now, however, tiny house villages can be built quickly and affordably. Unlike the sunk cost of millions of dollars for hotel rooms, investment in tiny house villages can continue to pay off after the pandemic has passed.


The construction of a tiny house village is simple enough that social distancing can be maintained even while they are being built. Many volunteers are building the tiny houses off-site, in some cases in people’s front or back yards. The cost of materials for a tiny house is $2,500 and labor is free — we have many volunteers. If we are pressed for time and have to meet a deadline to open a village, we work with small contractors who build them for $5,500 each, including labor and material. The houses are built to our specifications on skids, and they are transported to the village on a flatbed truck and placed on concrete pier blocks.


LIHI staff coordinates volunteers to complete the community facilities including the kitchen and dining areas, bathrooms, showers, case manager’s office and security pavilion.


Electrical and plumbing work are carried out by licensed contractors. We have set up villages ranging in size from 14 to 50 tiny houses for $150,000 to $700,000, depending on infrastructure costs and site conditions.


Tiny house villages can be located on public, faith-based or privately-owned land. Vacant lots can turn into tidy villages overnight. There are churches and other religious organizations that own vacant land and are eager to find new ways to serve their communities. Public-spirited private landowners may also have fallow land that they would be willing to lease temporarily. Tax incentives and property tax exemptions are often available for private owners. Cities especially have a vested interest in protecting their residents by making surplus land available. They can often invoke emergency measures to expedite the permitting process.


Since the pandemic began, the cities of Seattle, Tacoma and San Jose, California, have responded quickly by expanding tiny house villages. Other cities nationwide should mobilize to build tiny house villages as rapidly as they can. Unlike traditional shelters and hotel rooms, tiny houses are an effective model both during *and* after the pandemic.


On May 15, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter issued a preliminary injunction requiring the city and county of Los Angeles to find shelter for 6,000 to 7,000 homeless people who are living under and over freeway overpasses, stating their health is at risk. Carter wrote: “Without adequate access to shelter, hygiene products and sanitation facilities, individuals experiencing homelessness face a greater risk of contracting the novel coronavirus, and an outbreak in the homeless community would threaten the general public as well.”


Tiny house villages can meet a critical need for safe shelter while we wait out the pandemic. New villages can be built now for people who must eventually leave the hotels. Tiny houses are an effective bridge to permanent housing, which is the ultimate solution, and one that must be scaled up to help our unhoused neighbors.


Too bad it takes a pandemic to bring the issue of housing as a human right front and center.


Sharon Lee is the executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute.

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