Across from Ivar’s Salmon House, tucked back away from the road, is the quiet Northlake Tiny House Village. Past its security gate — open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. — are rows of small, brightly colored units with accents of home: outdoor plants, small fences and other accoutrements.
Come Dec. 9, the village may be the center of a three-way conflict between the residents, the nonprofit organization that sponsors it and the city of Seattle, which decided to cut financial support to the community.
“Northlake is not closing on the 9th and it’s not closing on the 31st,” said Sean Smith, a resident.
The flareup at Northlake is the most recent conflict between Nickelsville, a self-managed encampment model that began as a protest movement decades ago, and the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a nonprofit organization that operates affordable housing and tiny house villages in Seattle, Olympia and soon Tacoma.
Nickelsville and LIHI have worked together to operate tiny house villages since 2016, but relations between the two took a sharp downward turn in spring when Nickelsville refused to sign a memorandum of understanding that, participants said, would have ended Nickelsville’s tradition of self management.
LIHI counters that items in the MOU, such as requiring case management and transparency around kicking people out of the camp for periods of time, were not unreasonable measures.
In the intervening months, LIHI has focused on moving people out of Northlake and into other villages or transitional or permanent housing as it dealt with similar concerns at the Othello and Georgetown tiny house villages, both of which are under LIHI’s control, said Sharon Lee, executive director of LIHI.
While Othello and Georgetown will stay open, the city announced in October that it would not renew the Northlake contract, citing concerns including low exits to housing, a refusal to work with case managers and failure to report empty tiny houses to the Human Services Department, among other things.
That means the entire village needs to be deconstructed by Dec. 31 and returned to its original state — an empty lot. The tiny houses would then be refurbished and deployed at other villages.
Residents called the move an “affront to our democracy” and blamed the breakdown in communication on LIHI and the city.
“If they want to work with us, try to work with us,” said resident Hana Lake.
If participants got their way, Nickelsville would continue operating at the Northlake site and remain in possession of the existing infrastructure. A budget proposal for 2020 produced by participants suggests that the site could stay open on $81,000 for the year, a figure which accounts for costs associated with running and staffing the camp, but not the land on which it sits.
Leadership at a nearby church offered to act as a religious sponsor to give them more stability; churches have much more legal latitude to operate shelters for homeless people as part of their religious mission.
However, the property belongs to Seattle City Light and has been rented at a rate of roughly $5,000 per month. Nickelsville participants came to several budget hearings trying to advocate for continued funding for the site, but were unsuccessful.
While the Northlake Tiny House Village is set for closure, city officials are doubling down on the model as a whole.
The City Council modified Mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget to include more than $2 million to open new villages, although where those villages will be has not yet been determined.
It’s not the first time that the city of Seattle has cut off funding to Seattle’s self-managed encampment communities.
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s 2018 budget proposed eliminating funding for the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE), a group that runs a system of shelters out of churches also under the self-management model. However, councilmembers intervened, assuring SHARE shelters funding through 2020.
Previous attempts to defund SHARE shelters were met with a protest encampment forming around the King County administrative building and “Goat Hill,” which is situated immediately behind the government offices.
What happens on Dec. 9 should resistant campers refuse to leave has yet to be seen.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
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