[Douglas Gustafson guest writes. Doug is Chairman of HomesNOW! Not Later, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization operating in Bellingham and Whatcom County. HomesNOW operates Unity Village, the first tiny home community for homeless individuals in Bellingham. Doug is also a small business owner providing community IT support and has lived in Bellingham since 2006.]
HomesNOW currently manages Unity Village (20 homes soon to be 22) and Swift Haven (25 homes), the first two tiny home communities to exist in Bellingham. Our goal is to end homelessness, one person at a time. Swift Haven became operational in only two weeks because the county, city, and HomesNOW worked together where appropriate to accomplish a concrete and achievable goal, in a very short time, on a shoestring budget. It can be done again, if the city and county agree it’s important to move quickly and house more people. Using our approach, HomesNOW currently has around a 45% rehousing rate. Our transition to long-term housing rate is rising and we have no paid staff. Nearly 70 people have come through our program since we set up our first tent encampment, Winter Haven, in early 2019. Since moving exclusively to tiny homes, that number has continued to rise.
A new tiny home village called Gardenview Village, which will house 30 - 50 people, is being established by the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and Road2Home. They are set to open in late spring and will be the third tiny home village in Bellingham. Gardenview is estimating costs of somewhere between $500,000 - $1,000,000/year to operate. The main reason for these costs is 24/7 paid staff to act as case managers for individual residents (seven staff members to start).
By contrast, villages managed by HomesNOW are resident managed, in other words, the people who live there are the ones who manage and run it. The tiny home villages managed by HomesNOW cost around $18,000/year to operate, with Unity Village incurring all those expenses, due to utility costs. Swift Haven costs nothing to operate because we do not pay the utilities at that site. Our resident-manager model allows individuals to maintain their autonomy and work together with other residents to improve everybody's situation. At the same time, we are reducing the number of tents seen around town as a result.
At the last City of Bellingham Committee of the Whole meeting, Tara Sundin, the economic development manager for Bellingham, made the argument that tiny homes are shelter, not housing. The basic definition of housing is any shelter, lodging, or dwelling place, it’s a place where people live. A tiny home is basic, but also fits the definition of housing. Having your own unit, and privacy, is very different from sleeping at a congregate shelter in a big room with 150 people where you don't have your own space, no privacy, and you are required to vacate during certain parts of the day. This does not get people out of survival mode, no matter how “good” the shelter is. By contrast, tiny homes do get people out of survival mode, making it easier to move forward and get an enhanced quality of life. HomesNOW provides emergency housing, which is shelter, but it’s also transitional housing as long-term units become available.
Later in the meeting, City Council member Pinky Vargas commented that $1,000,000 for a temporary shelter for LIHI/Road2Home was a lot of money, and that the price tag for HomesNOW to set up Unity Village and Swift Haven was not anywhere near that amount.
Planning Director Rick Sepler responded that Swift Haven cost around $200,000 to set up. He noted the provision of the tiny homes; site improvements, such as sewer and electrical; and in-kind work, such as that provided by city employees. Sepler was including the regular wages of public works employees in setting up the infrastructure for the site. However, these workers would have been paid whether they were doing this task or another task. The tiny houses themselves were paid for by Whatcom County, through emergency COVID funds, which means the city did not pay for the buildings. Interestingly, Sepler did not mention operational costs. HomesNOW Villages have zero operating costs, since we have residents acting as staff at our villages, and nobody at HomesNOW is paid. So, as HomesNOW scales up with more villages, there will not be any increased operational costs.
Sepler did mention that HomesNOW does not have on-site case management, but this is not necessarily the case. HomesNOW does not have 24/7 on-site case management employed by us, but when services or options are needed, case management is handled on-demand. This allows us to remain flexible in helping find services without micro-managing the lives of residents, overburdening the taxpayers, or inefficiently managing our time. It's simply easier and more efficient to have someone available on-demand, with regular visits as needed. It's practical to do it this way, because one case worker can handle multiple sites or help other agencies with the same services, thus increasing needed services while keeping costs low.
HomesNOW is laser-focused on housing, and yes, a tiny home is housing. An apartment complex is not expected to manage the mental health or social services of the tenants who live there. They are simply expected to provide a stable apartment complex where the tenants are not disrupting each other, the property, or the surrounding neighborhood. Services for mental health, addiction, domestic violence, and other areas, are very important, but those services always seem to be in short supply for both the housed and unhoused. We need to look at the picture from another angle: we have a dysfunctional and inadequate housing system, not dysfunctional and inadequate people.
Later in the meeting, council member Michael Lilliquist said that because of the intensive case management model implemented by LIHI, he was willing to sign off on the high cost. He implied that because HomesNOW does not have an intensive case management approach, people don't move on to long-term housing. This is simply not the case. Just to remind you, since we've been in operation with our first tent encampment in January of 2019, we've seen 70 people come through our program. Of those, 45% have found long-term housing, and that number is rising.
Popular belief seems to be that moving people into so-called permanent housing is the best result for everyone. Yet, that may not always be the case. For example, let's say you're on disability or a fixed income of $700/mo. If you are able to obtain long-term, subsidized housing, HUD automatically charges 30% of that $700 for rent, in accordance with their definition of a fair rate. That leaves you $490. Then, you need to pay all bills, as well as all your expenses for food and any other necessities. This leaves you with very little money and, realistically, not enough to live on. In contrast, at a tiny home village, your monthly costs for housing and utilities might be near-zero, and suddenly that $700 goes a lot further than it did under the “goal” of so-called permanent housing.
The community support found at a self-managed village environment, including regular donations of food, supplies, and other goods, helps connect residents with more opportunities over time. There is a sense of community and people helping each other achieve results. You don't typically have that in an apartment complex. Some people thrive in a community living situation, others would rather be alone in managing their affairs. Tiny home living is not an inferior level of housing, it's just different. It works well for some people, and not as well for others, depending on who they are. Sometimes, the proffered long-term housing is worse than living in a tiny home village. For example, being offered a long-term motel room in a high crime or high drug use area, might be a dangerous step down in standard of living compared to a tiny home village. Some of our past residents have been offered long-term housing that feels like a downgrade from their tiny home village.
At a community meeting on Thursday, March 11th hosted by LIHI and Road2Home, Tara Sundin (economic development manager for COB), Melissa Bird (president of Road2Home), and representatives from LIHI answered questions. One attendee asked about the cost to set up Gardenview, the new tiny home village, and why LIHI had been selected as a partner, when the price tag was so high. Sundin responded that LIHI was selected because they had a paid staff model. Melissa Bird from Road2Home said a village could not be operated safely in the neighborhood without paid staff, and that $500,000 - $1,000,000 per year is what it costs to safely operate a shelter. She echoed similar statements made by Tara Sundin at the last Committee of the Whole meeting.
I would argue that HomesNOW is currently operating two tiny home communities in Bellingham at a fraction of the cost, and that both locations are very safe. Swift Haven is in the same neighborhood Gardenview Village will be. We haven't needed paid staff to keep the villages safe. We know it works because it's already working. There's nothing inherently wrong with paid staff in a model that is different from HomesNOW, but I take issue with the assertion that a village won’t be safe without paid staff. Furthermore, if there are going to be more villages managed by LIHI/R2H in the future, the city will need to scale up financial capital to keep up with those financial requirements. That scaling-up will quickly become a drain on taxpayers, resulting in increased property and sales taxes, and an increase in rent prices, which in turn, will increase homelessness for more people in the long-run. And the cycle continues. By contrast, regardless of the number of villages that are set up by HomesNOW, operational costs remain near-zero.
Later in the meeting, Debbie Chantrell, the lead community ally for Road2Home, said that in her experience, allowing residents to run their own village takes away their ability to focus on their own lives and prevents them from moving forward. She even asserted this was the reason for starting Road2Home.
At HomesNOW villages, helping in a staff capacity is 100% volunteer; residents are not required to help. Those who volunteer find it helps them move forward faster. It's empowering to participate in running the place you live, rather than having an outside volunteer or staff member run things for you. Resident staff duties such as site-manager can also be included on a resume and help residents find meaningful work that moves them out of poverty. When villagers are part of the decision-making process, they gain a sense of ownership and a stake in the operations and policies of the village, which stabilizes the village further.
Chantrell mentioned that finding housing is a full-time job. Finding housing is a full-time job primarily because there's literally not enough units available for people who need housing. If you have 1000 people looking, and only 50 units available, then it's a full time job. In that situation, you have to be on it every day, hoping you get one of those 50 units when there's a sea of people waiting for the same unit. We are basically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
If there is not enough long-term housing for people—which the city and other agencies have admitted for years—then it doesn't matter how intensive the case work is; there's simply not enough housing units available for people, and it's not their fault. Every year, we are told that enough units will come online in the next year or two, but it never seems to materialize fast enough. Until a whole bunch of affordable housing units become available, ones far below current market rate, then something deemed a temporary option, such as a tiny home village, ends up being a more long-term solution.
Many of the core group from Road2Home previously volunteered extensively with HomesNOW. Shortly after the construction of Unity Village, there were serious disagreements about which direction to take the organization. The biggest divisions were about how we managed things at HomesNOW. Were we making life too comfortable at the village? Should we be doing a paid-staff-model? Should we take government money? These issues caused a split between some of the volunteers, and we ended up going our separate ways. Road2Home has subsequently linked up with LIHI, a very large organization, which is the equivalent of "big business" for homeless shelters. LIHI currently manages over 2300 housing units and around 13 tiny home villages. In the meeting, they said they plan to open six more villages within the next six months. LIHI also owns millions of dollars of real-estate.
While LIHI is technically classified as a non-profit, there are individuals who profit greatly from operating it. Sharon Lee, LIHI's executive director, makes over $200,000/year. That one person’s salary is enough to construct two of their tiny home villages per year.
So while not technically classified as a business, it is understandable if people perceive it as such. A problem with many nonprofits is that too much of their funding goes to paid staff, and not toward the actual mission.
In the meeting, Theresa Hohman, the tiny house program manager from LIHI, echoed issues that Chantrell and Bird had mentioned about how people at the village get too comfortable with a resident managed approach. She identified issues that can arise, things like abuse of power, inequity within the village, favoritism toward certain individuals, and individuals being evicted unfairly.
I agree that issues involving abuse of power, inequity, and favoritism can occur in any organization, regardless of whether it’s an employment situation or a tiny home village, whether you have paid staff, volunteer staff, or resident staff. Just because somebody is paid, does not mean they are immune to those issues. There are similar scenarios at the workplace, in politics, and within legal policy-making. But it can be prevented through adequate checks and balances, and making sure there are open lines of communication between everyone, so that nobody is in a position to abuse their authority. Checks and balances are the reason we employ policies like having at least three resident managers of equal standing at each site, as well as ensuring major decisions are made by a majority vote of the whole village. We have found it works quite well. Villages can also vote to change the resident managers, which has occurred in the past with HomesNOW. Having the village make decisions as a whole gives everyone a stake in the outcome of their village and how it operates; this empowers everyone who lives there. That would definitely make me feel more comfortable if I were a resident.
After being on the streets, in a deeply uncomfortable situation, what is wrong with feeling comfortable in your own home? What's wrong with comfort? Why do we need to go out of our way to make life more difficult for people who have already been through so much? Is it just because we're trying to make them move along faster? Why can't they move at the pace that's right for them?
Our ability to scale up with more villages quickly is only limited by having land available and residents from previous villages who want to help manage new sites. When people finally find long-term housing, they need to be independent and be able to work with others in the overall community. This is the atmosphere we have, and promote, at Unity Village and Swift Haven. We are open to the public and welcome any individual or agency who wants to check us out, visit, and/or help residents where needed.
As with all organizations, issues pop up from time to time, but we've always been able to deal with them, move forward, and get stronger as an organization. We're ready to move quickly to set up additional villages. We are trying to get more people housed as quickly as possible and increase the standard of living as much as possible without being a drain on taxpayers. Let's work together to make that happen fast, so even more progress can be made on this vital issue