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Seattle extends 3 tiny-house villages, weighing what to do

March 31, 2019

SEATTLE (AP) — When Seattle began permitting homeless tent camps in 2015, they were truly camps, almost entirely tents, and fairly easy to pick up and move.

That’s not the case today. The tents have mostly been replaced by tiny houses with heat, and the camps usually have trailers with bathrooms connected to water and sewage. There’s Wi-Fi in many of them. Moving them is more expensive, and when a tiny-house village moves to another neighborhood, the new neighbors often have concerns about safety.

So after saying in the ordinance that the camps could stay two years, the city of Seattle is extending that time limit at three villages that have reached or are far beyond that deadline by using temporary permits.

Georgetown Nickelsville, Camp Second Chance in West Seattle and Othello Village will stay where they’ve been for six additional months while the city evaluates options for the future, the city announced Wednesday.

“The original plan was put up during the state of emergency, to allow tents and port-a-potties . to stay in one place,” said Lisa Gustaveson, program planner for the city’s Human Services Department (HSD). “It evolved into the system that you see now, which is modeled after our enhanced shelter model.”

Some state and local officials have warned Seattle not to open more tiny-house villages, arguing that they take up lots of energy and distract from solutions. The federal government considers someone living in a tiny house village to be “unsheltered.”

When Nickelsville Ballard moved last year to Northlake, in Wallingford, it cost between $260,000 and $300,000, according to Sharon Lee at the Low-Income Housing Institute (LIHI), the fiscal sponsor for the city’s sanctioned villages. And the move seemed chaotic: It took weeks to get electricity, and more than three months for a hygiene truck and case management to arrive.

With three camps facing a similar move, there are a few things that could happen. Religious communities have approached the city about possibly taking some of the villages in, Gustaveson said. Law allows religious institutions to host camps anywhere and for any length of time.

The city is also exploring the option of letting the villages stay longer where they are now, with input from the neighborhoods. Some churches and organizations in West Seattle have lobbied the city to keep Camp Second Chance for longer, although there’s also been push back for keeping it there.

Or the city could close the villages the way they’re closing the Licton Springs Village on Aurora Avenue North, which was controversial because it allowed residents to use drugs. Licton Springs will shut on Monday, according to LIHI.

At least one village — Nickelsville Othello in Seattle’s Rainier Valley — is on land LIHI owns and plans to develop. But LIHI hopes the city will keep the villages open, Lee said.

That is a relief for residents of Othello Nickelsville, said Bruce Gogel, one of the leaders at the village, who’s lived there since November.

There’s been internal discord at Othello and the Northlake village recently, with LIHI ejecting the leaders of an activist group with provided day-to-day management of the camps. A city spokesperson said these two things are not related, and the city has been considering this before the dispute.

The city is likely to face backlash from neighborhoods in going back on its promise to limit tiny-house villages to two years at a site. Georgetown Nickelsville and Camp Second Chance are operating under the 2015 ordinance — which allow for one year and then an optional extension for another year, but nothing beyond that — but Othello Nickelsville is operating under temporary use permits.

A city spokesperson said the city can use temporary use permits to extend beyond the two years allowed by the ordinance. But Eliana Scott-Thoennes, chair of Othello Village’s community advisory council, is frustrated that the city continues to say they need time to work on this. As of this month, Othello Village has been in its site for three years, a year beyond what was planned.

“I’ve had to figure out every six months what’s happening,” Scott-Thoennes said. “Each time it’s a crisis, instead of there being a clear process.”

Scott-Thoennes and Gogel both support Othello Village staying in Othello, citing community support like residents helping pick up trash in the neighborhood. But for Gogel, who lives at Othello Nickelsville, it’s more about the city’s promise to the community.

“It’s always our concern or our belief that we keep our word, so when we move into a community, if we said we’d be there for two years, we want to honor that,” Gogel said.

“It’s very clear that they’re not following the ordinance. So what’s the point of making rules if you don’t follow them?”