Four years ago, the owners of a small single-family house in Seattle decided to volunteer the use of their backyard for something new: They let a nonprofit build a tiny sustainable home in the yard and helped a man who had been homeless for a decade move in, rent-free. He still lives there, having built a close relationship with the homeowners. And 11 other homeowners have followed, in a small but growing program called the Block Project.
“The community has to get involved if we’re going to end homelessness,” says Rex Hohlbein, an architect whose career slowly transitioned to tackling homelessness after befriending an unhoused artist in front of his architecture studio, and who eventually started the Block Project. “It’s way too complicated to just have a government program. It’s really a whole shift in how a community acts and moves forward addressing the needs of the most vulnerable.”
Hohlbein launched a nonprofit called Facing Homelessness in 2013, and then, along with his daughter, architect Jenn LaFreniere, came up with a somewhat radical idea. If it’s hard to build supportive affordable housing in a city like Seattle, where land is expensive and large construction projects can take years, why not ask local residents to share their backyards directly? The city already had zoning laws that allowed “accessory dwelling units,” or backyard houses. As the concept of using backyard houses for homeless housing progressed, the city planning department helped provide support to make it as simple as possible for people to build.
The program isn’t intended for everyone experiencing homelessness. Someone with severe mental health issues would be better off in another setting that offers more services, for example. But for others, it’s a way to have stable housing and connect with neighbors in an area where they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to live.
Case managers from the agency that referred each resident continue to work with them after they move in. Staff members from Facing Homelessness provide additional support on goals that participants set for themselves, from job training to setting up healthy habits, and the nonprofit also connects residents with volunteers from the neighborhood to build relationships. Homeowners aren’t asked to do anything other than be good neighbors. People quickly responded to the idea.
The tiny houses, at only 125 square feet, have kitchen areas, bathrooms, a sleeping area, and a small covered front porch. They’re designed to the strict sustainability standards of the Living Building Challenge, with features like solar power and rainwater capture and purification. “It was important that we didn’t just provide a home that was meeting shelter needs, but that it would be this advanced home,” Hohlbein says. “In fact, it would be the most forward home on the block.” He wanted, he says, to give the new residents the chance to share something with their neighbors, helping teach others how their houses might be retrofitted.
When a homeowner applies to participate, Facing Homelessness evaluates the yard to see if it meets the city’s permitting requirements for a backyard home, and then interviews the homeowners. To avoid raising the homeowners’ property tax, the nonprofit retains ownership of the tiny house and leases a portion of the backyard for free in five-year stints, with the hope that the homeowner will continue to renew.
Agencies refer unhoused people who they believe would be a good fit for the program, and Facing Homelessness serves as a matchmaker. The nonprofit also meets with neighbors to help allay fears that may be based on stereotypes about homelessness. The homeowner acting as a host can also be an advocate, drawing on their own relationships with neighbors to help make the case for the housing.
There’s no expectation that someone living in one of the tiny homes will have to continue to search for other housing. “It’s important to note that we see this as long-term housing,” says Jennifer Tee, deputy director of Facing Homelessness. (Hohlbein and his daughter are no longer leading the project, though they are still involved.) “We understand that a lot of people who are moving into these homes are experiencing some form of trauma, be it from homelessness or from previous experiences. We really want this to be a stable environment, so somebody isn’t thinking, ‘Oh, no, I have to move in a year,’ or ‘I have to move in two years.'”
In the case of the first tiny home that was built, the resident was 74 when he moved in. Holhbein says that he has become so close to the homeowners that it’s possible he may live there for the rest of his life.
The project’s initial dwellings were built through volunteer labor in participants’ backyards, but because contractors had busy schedules, the process took months. Last year, Facing Homelessness designed a new system of panels that could be built in a workshop and then popped together on-site within days to form walls, the roof, cabinets, and the rest of the basic structure.
“Everything is built in the Block shop through the use of jigs, which allows volunteers to come and build the panels without any construction knowledge,” Hohlbein says. The nonprofit works with local plumbers and electricians to set up utilities, and provides basic furnishings, including a bed frame and mattress, fold-up desk, fridge, and hot plate. A “Welcome Home Kit” fundraised with the community offers other essential items like curtains, pots and pans, silverware, bedding, cleaning supplies, and shampoo.
The program has grown solely through word of mouth so far, says Tee, though the nonprofit now plans to recruit new homeowners. Hohlbein believes that the idea will become more mainstream. “Airbnb, the idea of a complete stranger staying in your house while you’re sleeping—that’s crazy,” he says. “I’m old enough to know the time before Airbnb, and that thought was just ludicrous. And now nobody thinks about it. So we believe that the same kind of cultural shift will happen with the Block Project.”
Though the original vision was to install a tiny house on every block—which could create enough housing for almost every person experiencing homelessness in the city—the nonprofit plans to grow slowly. “We’re scaling at the pace of community,” Tee says. “We want to make sure that every time you place a resident, we have all the capacity we need to support that resident.”