It’s not much to look at yet, but a vacant parking lot in Interbay that was once home to a carwash and coffee stand is going to be a really big deal.
Since 2016, when a safe parking lot for RVs run by the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) closed, there has been no safe and legal place for people who live in larger vehicles to park. The property on 15th Avenue West, known for being covered in colorful murals by local artist henry, will soon be a bigger, better version of LIHI’s original safe lot.
“The goal of Salmon Bay Village is to enable vehicle residents to leave their deteriorating and unsafe RVs and to make a successful move into permanent housing,” LIHI Executive Director Sharon Lee said in a May 12 press release announcing the site selection.
A couple months later, on June 15, Donna Limberger, a LIHI site manager who runs several tiny home villages in north Seattle, walked the length of the narrow site, which sits on the west side of 15th Avenue West, just south of the Ballard Bridge, pointing out where everything will go. In the background, construction workers crawled in and out of a long trench, installing piping for the lot’s hygiene trailer, which will allow residents to shower and use laundry machines.
A patch of dirt on the site’s southern tip will be mostly RV parking, Limberger said, ending in a cluster of 10 tiny homes in the middle and more RV parking on the north side. The carwash hutches will go, but their side panels, which feature Warhol-esque henry murals of a cartoon character repeated in different color schemes, will stay.
So will the pale pink coffee stand, known for the two towering palm trees next to it. Limberger said she’s not sure exactly how they’ll use it, but that it will likely be part of the site’s kitchen facilities.
Crucially, the lot will provide access to electricity so residents can charge personal devices, have safe heat in their vehicles and operate medical devices. LIHI will also provide pump-out service for RVs with bathrooms in them, although it plans to offer adequate restroom facilities so people don’t have to use their onboard ones.
As the organization does with all of its tiny home villages, LIHI did community outreach, gathering feedback and ideas from the neighborhood. One question that came up a lot, Limberger said, was why the tiny homes would be included. That, she said, is all about trust.
As a former vehicle resident herself — she moved out of a vehicle and got sober thanks to a LIHI tiny home village — she pointed out that it’s really hard to give up a car or RV. LIHI does plan to decommission RVs in the lot when their owners make it to permanent housing, but Limberger said that it is expected that people will need some time to trust their permanent housing will be permanent. The tiny homes are there to help people make a transition back to indoor life without requiring that they immediately ditch their RV.
“They need this step in between. They need this reassurance in between. And so, it’s just a really important part for them,” Limberger said.
Having a place to go where they don’t have to give up their RV, Limberger said, will be a game changer when it comes to doing outreach to RV residents. Many people don’t accept offers of shelter when they’re swept because they would have to give up their RVs.
“[Vehicle residents] do have the mindset of, ‘This is mine; this is the last thing I have. I have to have it.’ So we, as staff, want to build that trust, that relationship, that safe space for them so that they realize it is okay to let it go and move on to the next step,” Limberger said.
The site should be open by late August or early September, she said, which will be something of a relief for everyone involved. As an earlier Real Change article outlined, LIHI’s issues in finding a location with the $1.9 million in funding from the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) meant the money went unused for far longer than planned.
In that article, Lee said, “Well, the difficulty is finding a site that has utilities and that would be flat and large enough and also would not be overly expensive.”
Even when LIHI identified such sites, Lee reported, landlords were hesitant to rent to a site serving homeless people. LIHI finally found a sympathetic landlord in Seattle Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder. At a rate of $0.40 per square foot, leasing the lot will only cost LIHI about $1,250 per month, plus some non-rent expenses.
In a Puget Sound Business Journal article on the site’s selection, Gilder said in a statement, “Homelessness is not going to disappear from Seattle without communities engaging, as we all know. Given the recent struggle to keep this vacant lot safe from illegal encampment, I am glad to partner with LIHI to help address homelessness while maintaining the safety of the Interbay community.”
LIHI will have its usual 24/7 security on site, as well as case management, Limberger said, but it’s also trying something new there: on-site mental health care. The camp will have a dedicated mental health professional who keeps the same hours as the case management staff.
As opening day approaches, LIHI is working to have residents ready to move in immediately. Limberger said LIHI already had around 20 candidates lined up for the RV lot. The organization has partnered with the U Heights Center’s vehicle outreach team, led by “the two Jens,” as Limberger jokingly referred to Jenn Adams and Jen Manlief. Adams is a former vehicle resident who specifically works to help that population access housing and services.
“They are a great outreach source because they have been working with these folks for a while, so they know pretty much [everybody] in RVs everywhere,” she said.
Funding for this lot came from KCRHA, which will also be administering funding for another RV lot, too. The authority has a request for proposals out. LIHI is submitting a bid, Lee confirmed, and hopes to use its experience in siting this lot to get a second one up and running as soon as possible.
The city of Seattle’s One Seattle Homelessness Action Plan dashboard page lists 320 RVs that have been verified as being used as residences as of March 2023. The need, Limberger said, is there. For her part, she was thrilled to be involved in fulfilling it.
“I’m just super excited,” she said. “I was really excited when I found out I was going to get to be the program manager over this particular site because, like I said, my lived experience kind of makes this one special to me.”
Read more of the June 21-27, 2023 issue.