Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: A tiny approach to homelessness, with big potential for Pierce County

Panza board member Jill Severn, left, answers questions during a cottage tour as Quixote Village celebrated its 10th anniversary Feb. 7. Once a transitory tent camp for homeless adults, the village has grown into a community of 30 small cabins, a community building and a garden. It is overseen by the nonprofit organization Panza.
Panza board member Jill Severn, left, answers questions during a cottage tour as Quixote Village celebrated its 10th anniversary Feb. 7. Once a transitory tent camp for homeless adults, the village has grown into a community of 30 small cabins, a community building and a garden. It is overseen by the nonprofit organization Panza. sbloom@theolympian.com

“Is there somewhere that’s doing it better?”

So wondered the editor at one of our regular news meetings.

The topic that prompted the inquiry was one that’s come up in countless such routine gatherings, and — unfortunately — shows no sign of disappearing: Tacoma and Pierce County’s homelessness crisis.

Perhaps another way to pose the question would be this: Is another place trying things that Tacoma and Pierce County are not, things that are actually improving the lives of people experiencing homelessness and helping people find housing more often?

In other words, new approaches, outside-the-box approaches, approaches that go beyond the established ways that cities like Tacoma, and counties like Pierce, deal with homelessness.

Enter The Olympian’s Andy Hobbs and his reporting on Olympia’s Quixote Village.

Named after Miguel de Cervantes’ fictional knight, Quixote Village is a community of 30 144-square-foot, single-room cottages not far from South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia. Serving chronically homeless adults who pledge to live drug- and alcohol-free, the village evolved from a small tent encampment in downtown Olympia back in 2007. Now it’s 2.17-acre, $3.1 million nonprofit endeavor that has earned national and international recognition for its innovative tiny house approach.

In the world of tiny homes for the homeless, the dwellings at Quixote Village are fairly elaborate: They include a bed, a half-bathroom, a porch, and heating and electricity. A large community center has necessities like a kitchen and showers. The community offers mental health, addiction treatment and employment services. The project was paid for, in large part, with money from the state Department of Commerce’s Housing Trust Fund and federal Community Development Block Grant funding.

In the first year we had to really struggle to cope with being a major tourist destination for homeless advocates from all over the place.

Jill Severn, Panza board member

The key to making a project like this pencil out is finding land that’s available for donation, outside the urban core but still easily accessible by mass transit, according to Jill Severn, a board member for Panza, the nonprofit that helped build Quixote Village. Residents of Quixote Village agree to pay 30 percent of their monthly income toward rent, with vouchers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development making up the difference.

As Hobbs reported, Panza is working to build on the project’s success, with plans for two more Quixote-like villages in Orting and Shelton. Both locations are expected to serve homeless veterans.

“In the first year, we had to really struggle to cope with being a major tourist destination for homeless advocates from all over the place,” Severn told me this week. She said Panza also is working with groups in Yakima, Port Angeles, Walla Walla and Edmonds in hopes of duplicating Quixote Village’s success in those cities.

The beauty in Quixote Village’s blueprint — or, at least one of the beauties — is the cost. According to Severn, traditional studio apartments for low-income individuals typically run in the ballpark of $200,000, sometimes more. “There’s no way we can afford to build our way out of homelessness at that price,” she said.

At least not easily.

Meanwhile, the average cost of the 30 cottages at Quixote Village, thanks to donated land and reduced-price architectural and engineering services, was only $88,000 per unit.

But even that cost is misleading, because it factors in the price of the large community building that’s on the premises. The cottages alone were constructed for about $19,000 apiece.

Would such an approach work in Tacoma or Pierce County? That depends on one’s expectations. As Severn quickly acknowledged, Quixote Village has “not ended homelessness (in Olympia).”

“Thirty people is 30 people, you know?” she continued. “The homeless population in Olympia has continued to grow.”

But while Quixote Village hasn’t solved Olympia’s homeless problem, it certainly hasn’t hurt. “It’s wonderful to watch people lose that identity (as homeless),” Severn said of the impact stable housing, even of the tiny variety, can have. “It’s such a big identity change.”

Olympia is not alone in taking a stab at tiny houses. Seattle has dabbled in them during the last year as well, though dabbling might be overly generous. After proposing to spread some 1,000 minimalist 96-square-foot structures costing $2,200 each across the city, the Emerald City has followed through with only 28 so far.

Still, as The Seattle Times’ Danny Westneat detailed this week, those 28 structures have “generated incredible bang for the buck.”

In its first nine months, this one site, called Othello Village, served 300 homeless people and moved nearly a hundred of them ‘up and out,’ into real housing or more stable situations.

Danny Westneat of The Seattle Times

“In its first nine months, this one site, called Othello Village, served 300 homeless people and moved nearly a hundred of them ‘up and out,’ into real housing or more stable situations,” Westneat reports.

For Tacoma and Pierce County, there are potential lessons to learn in all of this — even steps to take, if city and county leaders are interested in getting creative.

Here’s a thought: We could create a hybrid of the Quixote Village and the Seattle approach, finding a way to build the structures for closer to $2,000 than $19,000. We could use a true housing-first model and make sure social services are available on-site.

Panza board members, like Severn, intend to lobby the state Legislature this session in hopes of creating an $18 million Housing Innovation Fund to help make more developments like Quixote Village possible.

If they succeed, Tacoma and Pierce County would be wise to consider taking advantage of it.

And even if they don’t succeed, it may well be time to give tiny houses some serious thought.

Because, yes, there are places doing it better than us.

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