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Tiny House Villages in Seattle

Six tiny houses with a common deck, Lake Union Village

Tiny houses sharing a common deck, Lake Union Village

This entry is based on an article by Sharon Lee, Director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), which owns and manages more than 2,200 units of affordable housing in and around Seattle WA. In “Tiny House Villages in Seattle: An Efficient Response to Our Homelessness Crisis” Sharon presented the “lessons learned” in the tiny house villages program in the first three years. The article was published in ShelterForce: the Voice of Community Development on March 15, 2019.

In January of 2019, in one county there were 12,112 homeless men, women, and children in Washington State. Over half had no shelter. The first three villages of tiny houses were planned, constructed, and opened in 2018. They house a total of 155 homeless people.

  • Whittier Heights Village is on property owned by a Seattle public utility. It shelters single women, same-sex couples, seniors, pregnant women, and women with pets.
  • True Hope Village is church-sponsored and focuses on people of color including families with children
  • Lake Union Village, for singles and couples, is on a city-owned parking lot.

There are 15 to 34 tiny houses in each village. There are also shared community kitchens, a community meeting space, counseling offices, storage, donation huts, security huts, and plumbed bathrooms, showers, and laundry facilities. Each village required only four to six months’ lead time to be constructed.

A village requires anywhere from 6,000 to 30,000 square feet of vacant land, depending on the number of tiny houses and common facilities to be placed there. There are suitable urban infill sites zoned for residential and mixed-use, as well as larger commercial and industrial sites. It takes careful research and help from local government to identify good sites, and we were quite surprised to find a large inventory of publicly owned underutilized and surplus sites held by the city, county, state and even the Port of Seattle. We also found multiple nonprofit, private, and church-owned properties that could be used.

Effective collaboration between LIHI and city departments was crucial. The LIHI coordinated with city departments to install water, sewer, and electrical connections. City architects planned each village. LIHI staff raised funds and organized the help of hundreds of donors and volunteers who applied for permits, led work parties, and developed management and staffing plans. Neighbors, businesses, and the public were informed and consulted throughout the process.

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Tiny House Villages vs. Other Options

A new emergency shelter requires years of site planning, permitting, and construction, and millions of dollars in construction costs. Creating a tiny house village of  15-34 homes can be done in less than six months and costs between $100,000 and $500,000 depending on size and whether the connections for water, sewer, and electricity are close by. Each village can serve 20 to 70 people for $60,000 to $500,000 a year, depending on staffing and services. Villages are staffed 24/7 and have Village Organizers and case managers to help residents prepare for long-term housing, jobs, and services.

Spaces in tiny home villages represent approximately 12.5% of all shelter beds and safe places the City supports and make up less than 3% of all homelessness response investments made by the City of Seattle.  —Seattle Human Services Department

LIHI has also worked with six self-managed villages where formerly homeless residents are organized to manage day-to-day operations and employ democratic decision-making.

Other options to shelter homeless people are more expensive and take more time to establish. It has taken six years to find a site for a men’s shelter because of community opposition. Financing, permitting and construction will take two years. The shelter might open in eight years. A plan to renovate an unused city-owned building for 100 people is expected to cost $2 million, plus $4 million to fund the next two years of operations. The cost per person is more than twice that of a tiny house village.

Compared with other options, tiny house villages are quicker, more humane, and cost-effective.

Tiny Houses vs Shelters

In forced removals, homeless people will move to another neighborhood or move away and then return rather than enter a shelter. But many will move into a tiny house which is much more comfortable and healthier than a wet sleeping bag or tent.

Each tiny house is insulated and heated, and the size of a small bedroom, 8 by 12 feet. A small family can live in one tiny house; a large family in two tiny houses side by side. Each furnished house has a locking door, windows, an electric light, an electrical outlet, and a smoke detector.

Hundreds of students, volunteers, churches, and businesses have built and donated over 325 tiny houses. Construction materials average $2,500 each. Volunteers make the houses home-like by adding flower boxes, porches, curtains, artwork, and furniture. The tiny house built by a local Girl Scout troop included boxes of cookies. Over 400 Vulcan employee volunteers, pre-apprentices, and contractors built 30 tiny houses in one day.

Tiny house villages keep families together and along with their belongings safely indoors. They eliminate the need for frequent moves between shelters. With access to showers, laundry, and a kitchen the residents find work, maintain a job, attend school, improve their health, and access community and health services.

The average length of stay is four to five months, but there is no time limit. An important factor has been engagement with case managers to get proper IDs, obtain Social Security cards, complete housing applications, and establish a steadier income.

The Importance of Tiny Houses to Successful Outcomes

LIHI’s goal was to provide tiny houses as a stabilizing step to permanent housing. The rate of successful housing placements in 2017 was 39 percent. In 2018, 42 percent. From city-funded shelters usually open only at night, the rate was only 4 percent, and from 24-hour shelters with more services, 20 percent.

The City-permitted encampments have met and exceeded the contracted performance measure. The model is successfully serving people who have been living outside in greenbelts, on the streets, in cars, and in hazardous situations.  —Human Services Department

There are now 10 tiny house villages located throughout Seattle on government, private, nonprofit, and church-owned properties.

Lessons for Sustainable Cohousing

The tiny houses have been accepted well by the residents who are moving off the street or out of city shelters. Even minimally equipped and finished, without bathrooms or kitchens, the homes are safe and secure and warm.

Many of the benefits of the villages are attributed to the dedication of the caseworkers. But caseworkers are also available to the homeless who are not living in tiny house villages. The villages, even if transitional, provide a stable environment and predictability. The doors lock. No one has to cope with traveling to city agencies to find the caseworkers—taking their children and belongings with them. Available energy can be used to better their lives.

The value is stability and a place to belong. Neighbors who can help each other. And a village layout that encourages socializing, not isolation.


Sharon Lee, Director of the Low Income Housing Institute

Sharon Lee, Director of the Low Income Housing Institute

Sharon Lee is the executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, which owns and manages over 2,200 units of affordable housing.

For more information on Tiny House Villages visit: LIHI.org or www.seattle.gov/homelessness/city-permitted-villages.

For a different perspective on Tiny Homes, see Tiny Homes—Not a Big Enough Solution.

Categories: Stories: Personal & Community, Cottages & Tiny Houses

2 replies

  1. Let’s try this formatting.

    With no plumbing, these tiny buildings wouldn’t receive occupancy permits in my locality. I wonder how they were permitted, especially the church-sponsored village because a church is not a government agency or public utility company.

    https://shelterforce.org/2019/03/15/tiny-house-villages-in-seattle-an-efficient-response-to-our-homelessness-crisis/

    Some people ended up living in a tiny house for over a year, refusing to obtain identification, get a Social Security card, or sign up for public assistance, Social Security, VA benefits, or TANF. The newer villages now require that people meet with a case manager to get on a path to secure housing.

    How dare these bad people not sign up for welfare, and merely use the inexpensive housing as inexpensive housing!

    Having people live long-term in a tiny house is not our goal

    How dare these bad homeless people prefer secure housing, and refuse to live beyond their means! They should have a huge pile of debt and be a few paychecks away from disaster like government tells them to!

    • Tiny Houses would not be acceptable in most urban areas — rural areas are more likely to be free of zoning or even residential approval permits. The Tiny Houses in Seattle are covered as temporary housing with central facilities and are supervised by on-site social services workers. That is clearly a different circumstance. To establish a Tiny House village would require zoning variances — many cohousing communities also had to get zoning variances to build multi-household buildings in areas zoned one-household and a minimum lot size. For some, this required more than a year to accomplish. And some had to give up and change planned locations. The place from which people view the requirements and preferences of other people determines whether it makes sense to them or not. The focus on the homeless has detracted from the focus on the housing insecure. Those who fall into the minimum wage trap of working, not eligible for subsidized housing, and not able to afford secure housing. It’s hard.

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