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Tiny houses offer big benefit to Seattle’s homeless

Homelessness in Seattle might not grab the national headlines as it does in cities like New York and Los Angeles, but the city has the third-largest homeless population in the country, behind those other two metropolises. Seattle-based MIT alumna Sharon Lee has found one inventive solution to the crisis—tiny houses.

Lee graduated from MIT in 1981 with degrees in architecture and city planning. She founded the Seattle-based Low Income Housing Institute in 1991 to provide a range of supportive service programs that allow residents to maintain stable housing and increase self-sufficiency.

The micro-dwellings measure 8 x 12 feet and are fully heated and electrified. Each cluster of 16 homes—seven clusters have been built across the city—is located on open land or in an unused parking lot. Each cluster is set up to be its own village with a communal kitchen and bathroom facilities. The city funds the utilities as well as full-time social workers and case managers to support the residents. Volunteers—many from trade organizations and schools—build the homes, which cost about $2,500 each to construct.

A catalyst for turning lives around

Because the tiny homes are under 120-square-feet, they aren’t considered a dwelling and can be built and made operational quickly with a relative minimum of red tape. “If you want to build a [traditional] building, it takes a year to get financing, a year to get permits, and a year to year-and-a-half to build,” Lee notes. “In the meantime, people are literally dying on the streets.”

Designed as a temporary solution, the homes have proven to be an effective vehicle for turning lives around. In the last two years, nearly 2,000 members of Seattle’s 10,000+ homeless citizens have taken advantage of the tiny house communities, and 300+ residents have moved on to permanent housing. More than 250 have gained employment. “It’s not a perfect solution,” Lee emphasizes. “It’s a crisis response.”

At LIHI, Lee oversees a staff of 140 engaged in housing development, management, advocacy, and support services. Her team has developed more than 4,500 units of housing, including tiny homes. In addition to recognition for its humanitarian impact, the organization’s efforts have won several local and national awards for design excellence and environmental sustainability.

“It is very emotional,” says Lee. “When we offer people a tiny house, they may have been on the street for four years and they finally move into a place that’s heated and where they can stay, and they’re just overwhelmed. Then they find that they can get their life together. They can address their health care, their mental health, and their employment situation because they can be stable.”

Read the story in the Slice of MIT blog.

Residents and staff discuss the benefits of tiny home villages.