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Tuesday, June 6, 2023
June 6, 2023

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Seattle City councilmember announced a fundraising plan to double Seattle’s tiny houses. So, where are they?


SEATTLE — In January 2021, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis announced an ambitious goal to double the city’s tiny-house stock, calling the plan “It Takes a Village.”

He wanted to raise more than $15 million in public and private dollars to add 480 new tiny homes and create 12 new villages. Once off the ground, he estimated 720 people could be temporarily sheltered within 18 months of the program.

Lewis gave himself a hard deadline to get everything done: the end of 2021.

More than two years since its reveal and more than a year since its deadline, there’s little to show, other than social media posts promoting the effort and a webpage explaining the proposal on the city’s website. Zero new city-initiated tiny houses were built from the money Lewis said he raised.

While the project didn’t directly build any tiny house villages, it was wildly successful at helping to raise money for the Low Income Housing Institute — Seattle’s largest nonprofit provider of tiny houses. The villages are comprised of very small structures meant to shelter one homeless person and a minimal amount of belongings.

According to executive director Sharon Lee, the organization raised five times more money in 2021 — more than $2 million — after Lee appeared alongside Lewis during the It Takes a Village announcement. In 2020, the nonprofit raised $377,000 for their tiny houses.

Lee thinks that Lewis’s fundraising campaign came at a time when other politicians, like then-mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell, were amplifying tiny houses in the news. She also credits the controversy surrounding the funding of a tiny house village near the Rainier Beach light rail station for inspiring more people to donate to their cause.

“Councilmember Lewis’ It Takes a Village Campaign absolutely helped increase donations from foundations, businesses and individuals,” Lee told The Seattle Times via email.

As for Lewis’ plan, he said the $2.5 million he fundraised has been released back to funders to do with as they please.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is tracking whether officials made good on their homelessness promises. This year, more promises went broken than completed.

Where the breakdown in Lewis’ now-defunct project occurred depends on whom you ask.

Lewis blames former Mayor Jenny Durkan for the program’s dissolve, saying that her administration was resistant to accepting the private dollars he initially raised.

Lewis, who chairs the City Council’s homelessness committee, announced his vision early in the pandemic when city and county leaders were rethinking ways to shelter people and making large promises for how to do it.

Seeing open-room shelters as hotbeds for spreading disease, government leaders turned to options like tiny houses and motels as safer settings. At the same time, voters and business leaders were applying pressure to politicians to take more dramatic action to address the city’s rising unsheltered homeless population — and Lewis answered their call.

When he announced the plan in January 2021, he said he had $1 million in private commitments from Canadian developer Onni Group and wealthy individuals from Seattle’s business community.

Durkan said that to her recollection, she first learned of “It Takes a Village” from reading the news as several media organizations covered the announcement.

Within the first year, the initiative said it raised about $2.5 million in private dollars and Lewis’ Chief of Staff Jacob Thorpe also claimed another $2 million in state legislative dollars.

This $2 million, allocated to the city for tiny homes in the 2021 legislative session, went unused for a year before being folded into the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s budget. Then, Seattle Democratic state Rep. Frank Chopp rerouted it directly to the Low Income Housing Institute.

Lewis and his staff say that a city fund was created to accept the private dollars, but they held off on transferring the funds until Durkan confirmed that she intended to spend it — something they say they never received.

This is a common issue between the two branches of government. If the Seattle City Council sets aside money for a particular purpose, that doesn’t guarantee that the mayor will direct staff to spend the dollars accordingly or in a speedy manner.

Lewis claims that this happened throughout Durkan’s last year in office as her administration moved slowly to stand up homeless shelter sites the City Council funded.

But Durkan said in an interview that Lewis never notified her about the large private money he secured in 2021.

“And if he had ever called me and said, ‘I’ve got pledges for a few million bucks,’ I can promise you, we would have found a place to use them,'” Durkan said.

Of the two budgets Durkan helped form and approve in 2021, she said Lewis didn’t ask for the money to be included in either.

At the beginning of 2022, Thorpe told The Seattle Times that Lewis still had the $4.5 million in hand.

But it also wasn’t included in the 2022 budget when now-Mayor Harrell took office.

“I think Councilmember Lewis is very enthusiastic and hoped he could really get some things done,” Durkan said, “but without thinking through all the steps, I don’t think that there was a reasonable expectation that you would be able to build and maintain that many new tiny house villages in a year in an ongoing basis in the midst of financial difficulties.”

Lewis said that it’s not too late to enact his tiny-house vision. Lewis said he has shared parts of his plan with Harrell’s administration. He said a new version could re-emerge if Harrell showed support for the idea.

“I would like to see a bigger sense of urgency on this candidly,” Lewis said. “These partnerships, as far as I know, are still available.”

Separately from this effort, the city helped to fund the creation or expansion of three tiny house villages within city limits in 2021, all of which are operated by the Low Income Housing Institute.

Money for the sites was already allocated in the city’s 2021 budget before Lewis’ announcement. Lewis told The Seattle Times that he should be credited for these projects even though they were not funded by It Takes a Village dollars.

The Low Income Housing Institute opened a tiny house village in South Seattle last year after Seattle had transferred most of its homelessness operations to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Money from the authority and private donations made to the nonprofit eventually enabled that site to open.

Now, more than two years later, it appears the Low Income Housing Institute could be the biggest beneficiary of this effort.

In 2022, the organization raised even more for tiny houses than the year before, Lee said, collecting more than $2.6 million.