While the Seattle City Council considered passing legislation loosening rules on the construction of basement apartments and backyard cottages, the folks over at Facing Homelessness were waiting on pins and needles.
Facing Homelessness is markedly different than most organizations looking to end homelessness in Seattle, in part because their traditional strategy is very simple. They work to foster connections between housed and unhoused neighbors by encouraging people to literally “just say hello” and getting volunteers to hand out socks, sleeping bags and other items at their “window of kindness.”
But in 2017, Facing Homelessness launched a very direct way for homeowners to help homeless people in Seattle by saying an emphatic “yes in my backyard,” and on July 1, the Seattle City Council made that effort a lot easier.
The BLOCK Project asks homeowners to build a detached dwelling unit in their backyards and let a homeless person live there.
It’s a big request, but more than 100 households have expressed interest in building the units, said Sara Vander Zanden, executive director of Facing Homelessness.
“Our fingers were crossed the council would pass the legislation and they did,” Vander Zanden said. “That’s a huge win for the BLOCK Project. We’ve 100 or so families interested, but it’s been falsely promising because around 70 percent weren’t eligible because of the current zoning requirements.”
The new regulations allow an owner to have both an attached and detached dwelling unit (ADU and DADU, respectively) and reduces the minimum lot size from 4,000 square feet to 3,200. The legislation also expanded the size of DADUs to a maximum 800 square feet in some areas.
The BLOCK Project’s units are nowhere near that size, clocking in at 125 square feet. They’re designed to leave a small footprint in every way from their small size to their ecological efficiency. Every home has solar panels and comes with its own water heater. Homeowners supply access to their sewer and water infrastructure.
When all is said and done, BLOCK Project homes are held to a higher standard than LEED, an internationally recognized system for rating the ecological impact of buildings, Vander Zanden said.
“BLOCK homes are permanent housing. They’re designed by our partners, BLOCK Architects. The work that BLOCK Architects do outside of the BLOCK Project is high-end residential design,” Vander Zanden said.
“Yes, they’re small, beautifully designed and beautifully built, and that is important for the host, too, not just the resident,” she said.
By the end of 2019, the organization plans to have nine BLOCK homes built and occupied. BLOCK Project hopes to get another 12 built in 2020, said Bene Bicaba, BLOCK programs manager with Facing Homelessness.
Now, it’s a matter of finding willing volunteers. That’s complicated not just by the zoning requirements around DADUs, but also because the BLOCK Project doesn’t just want buy-in from the homeowner — they want it from the entire block.
Potential hosts have to talk to their neighbors and address their concerns before the tiny unit can be installed. New tenants are vetted by Facing Homelessness and meet with their landlords early on in the process to ensure that they can live well together. The homes are constructed with volunteer labor and Facing Homelessness signs a ground lease with the homeowner. Should they ever sell their home, the BLOCK home can be removed.
That’s a big commitment for people to help a virtual stranger, but homeowners have been willing to get involved, Bicaba said.
“We don’t have an incentive to get people to participate,” Bicaba said. “They believe it’s unacceptable that this continues and this is a reality in our city. They just want to help.”
Facing Homelessness works with Chief Seattle Club, Mary’s Place and the Community Psychiatric Clinic to find new tenants. Mary’s Place is partnering with the BLOCK Project to refer mothers, new mothers and mothers with young children to housing, said Linda Mitchell, spokesperson for Mary’s Place.
Already, one family involved in the organization’s Baby’s Best Start program has moved into one of the four occupied BLOCK houses, Mitchell said. A public health nurse comes by to check up on them, one of a variety of services that comes built into the BLOCK home project model.
“It’s so nice to have a community wrap their arms around a new mom and provide that support,” Mitchell said.
Facing Homelessness aims to build small houses on every city block
Innovative Living: Pacific Science Center exhibition features BLOCK home
Homeless Rights Advocacy Project releases six studies on solutions to homelessness
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
Read the full July 10 - 16 issue.
© 2019 Real Change. All rights reserved.| Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change and donate now to support independent, award-winning journalism.