Modular ‘tiny’ home villages to spread across Washington

The exterior of the tiny house in Carriage Houses NW’s production facility was … a nonprofit group developing a modular housing complex around Vancouver, … Modular units have been part of the affordable housing conversation in …

The exterior of the tiny house in Carriage Houses NW’s production facility was painted a pale green, the interior still the color of unfinished wood. The house was propped up, elevated from the floor of the warehouse. When the home is installed in Orting Veteran’s Village, it will be flush with the ground, explained Executive Director Jaycie Osterberg of nonprofit housing developer Quixote Communities as she toured the facility, shooting a video for her Facebook audience.

“Everything’s not set yet, so it’s still kind of bare bones,” Osterberg said as she entered the unit, giving people a glimpse at where a formerly homeless veteran will one day live. When the home is completed, it will have everything necessary for a comfortable existence except a kitchen — those facilities will be provided in a community room that will be constructed separately.

Orting Veteran’s Village will be a bit different from previous Quixote Communities projects, which have been constructed on site. Orting, by contrast, is a modular development, built in the Carriage Houses Northwest facility, transported to the site and installed right there.

The 35 tiny homes, each measuring roughly 176 square feet, will provide permanent supportive housing to homeless veterans, a population that has been swelling after years of targeted attempts to get them into housing. The homes are a bit different than the tiny houses Seattleites are familiar with. These units resemble manufactured homes because they cost roughly $30,000 to make and are designed as relatively inexpensive housing meant to last for decades.

Quixote Communities is one of several organizations vying for money through a Washington State Department of Commerce program for modular housing, an innovative model meant to help solve the state’s crushing affordable housing shortage.

Modular units are cheaper than “stick built” developments, which are constructed on site, and provide privacy while also allowing people to live in community and access services. Cost was a key factor in Quixote Communities’ decision to go the modular route, Osterberg said, but the villages also allow the nonprofit to offer low-barrier, permanent supportive housing with services.

“We cater to the folks who, for one reason or another, have one barrier or obstacle — or many — in the way of living independently,” Osterberg said. “We provide social services, a case manager, a program manager, and work to keep people housed.”

According to the Department of Commerce, organizations have requested $7 million to support modular housing construction, primarily in rural areas of Washington. The money hasn’t gone out the door yet; awards are expected in December, according to the department.

The money would be a game changer for C-Roots, a nonprofit group developing a modular housing complex around Vancouver, Washington, said Dan Whiteley, C-Roots board president. The organization is in the process of developing a 21-unit complex adjacent to an old railway line, paid for with some public funding from an affordable housing tax levied by the city of Vancouver and a construction loan.

But if they are able to inject money from state coffers, C-Roots will be able to hire an executive director and get started on more developments.

“The Commerce Modular fund is going to push our organization forward,” Whiteley said.

C-Roots’ tiny homes are built to “net zero” specifications, meaning that they had to pay extra to be effectively carbon neutral. The development is powered with solar panels and the residents will be mostly off the grid, Whiteley said.

That bumped up the cost by approximately 35 percent, lowering the overall number of people who will be housed through the project. But residents will have access to case management and pay between $600 and $750 per month in rent for their own space and access to a communal kitchen.

The units clock in at 300 square feet with an additional loft space that adds another 120 square feet. Drawers are built under the bed and open shelving units maximize the amount of space inside.

The C-Roots group is thinking about offering some units at market rate to provide steeper rent discounts for those who need it, Whiteley said.

People will be referred to the community through Sea Mar, a community health center that operates throughout Washington state and that will be the case management partner for the development.

Modular units have been part of the affordable housing conversation in King County for several years. In 2018, County Assessor John Wilson gave a presentation featuring housing built by Blokable at the final meeting of One Table, a group that was set up to launch a regional conversation about homelessness.

Since that meeting, a modular housing project called Eagle Village has opened to house formerly homeless members of the Native community as they access services, and a second project launched in Auburn.

Modular housing is not as cheap as Wilson had originally hoped, but it is relatively inexpensive and could be part of the affordable housing landscape, he said. Taking modular housing to scale could also create new jobs at a time when the impact of the coronavirus has forced millions out of work.

“Modular housing offers you an opportunity to build something that has some lasting durability to it,” Wilson said. “You can create a new workforce opportunity and you start to create a new community.”

Buy-in from community members is key and not always easy, as Osterberg discovered. It can be difficult to convince people to accept even small populations of formerly homeless individuals.

“A lot of people think that we want to have 30 Ted Bundys living next to them,” Osterberg said, describing how Quixote Communities had to redesign one of their developments so that the entrance and exit weren’t immediately across from an existing neighborhood.

Quixote Communities sited one development in the middle of an industrial area. The business community had safety concerns at the outset, but eventually bought into the concept when it turned out that having 30 more sets of eyes actually improved crime rates in the area.

“They want security just as much as someone living in their own house or apartment,” Osterberg said. “They became the security of the business park.”

Modular housing communities are, ultimately, communities. When Eagle Village opened in October 2019, it provided space for Indigenous people to exit homelessness and engage in culturally relevant practices like healing circles, support groups and drum circles, said Derrick Belgarde, the deputy director of Chief Seattle Club.

Eagle Village is considered “bridge housing,” getting people into shelter and off the streets, Belgarde said. People were able to get stable and heal after the trauma of homelessness, successfully curbing their substance use, although sobriety is not a requirement of the village’s harm reduction model.

The onset of the coronavirus was a setback for many because the social distancing measures resulted in isolation, but the villagers are still able to avoid the ravages of the virus while living in their personal, individual units.

“It was heartbreaking, with COVID coming, to see all of that traction we made fall apart, but we’re still hanging in there,” Belgarde said. “It’s about healing. It’s not just about getting someone housing or off the streets. It’s about healing the spirit.”

King County set up additional modular units to give people experiencing homelessness a way to quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic. The model could be part of the solution for after the pandemic ends, Wilson said.

“Coming out of COVID, let’s build a better King County,” he said. “Let’s figure out what these core issues that still exist are and what, given the awakening we all should have had from both COVID and the tragic killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, how do we then say, alright, let’s figure out how we move forward.”

Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.

Read more in the Oct. 14-20, 2020 issue.