Could tiny homes help ease homelessness in Whatcom County?

Walking to his cottage Dec. 23, 2014, Byron Thorp views his move to Quixote Village in Olympia as a literal life-saver, helping him to break away from a drug habit he’d battled in the past.
Walking to his cottage Dec. 23, 2014, Byron Thorp views his move to Quixote Village in Olympia as a literal life-saver, helping him to break away from a drug habit he’d battled in the past. The Olympian

Could tiny homes, or a community of them, be used to provide housing for people who are homeless in Whatcom County, like they do now in Olympia and Seattle?

It’s among the suggestions made by Western Washington University students in their Sustainable Design class, and the idea could become a reality in Bellingham in the coming years – provided changes are made and certain factors are in place.

The students’ reports were titled “The Tiny Housing Community Project,” which came out this year, and “Planning Homeless Settlement Communities,” which was completed in 2014.

“Tiny homes have great potential for providing affordable alternatives to rising housing costs, and there is evidence of growing demand for smaller spaces,” said Nicholas Zaferatos, who teaches Urban Planning and Sustainable Development at WWU’s Huxley College of the Environment. “The issue is we regulate against such alternative housing options. Regulations need to be reformed so we can promote greater housing diversity and get to affordability.”

The number of people without homes is an issue in the state – Washington is fifth in the nation when it comes to the rate of homelessness – and the rest of the West Coast.

A recent national study from low-income housing advocates revealed nowhere in Washington state can someone earning the minimum wage of $11 an hour afford housing, assuming people don’t spend more than 30 percent of their income on shelter.

Homelessness has been increasing in Whatcom County in recent years. About 719 people are without homes – a 10 percent increase over the previous year, according to a 2016 report.

That number is expected to increase by some 3 percent, according to results of the Point-in-time Count, the annual census of the homeless conducted in January.

As the county seat and the largest city, Bellingham is perhaps grappling with the issue the most.

The city is spending at least $300,000 to clean up homeless camps in parks and under bridges, and is trying to open an emergency homeless shelter for 200 people in a partnership with Lighthouse Mission Ministries.

The WWU students’ reports focused on housing options in Bellingham, and included interviews with government officials, advocates and the homeless.

“Planning Homeless Settlement Communities” delved into transitional housing options, in Bellingham, for people living in homeless encampments. And while it didn’t use the phrase “tiny homes,” the study looked at housing in small spaces that included existing RVs, old boats retrofitted into homes, micro homes and yurts.

“The Tiny Housing Community Project” studied a host of options for individuals and families who struggled to afford housing, including the homeless, in Bellingham. In the report, a tiny house was defined as a single-family dwelling unit on lots of 600 to 1,000 square feet.

Erecting tiny homes to shelter the homeless is an emerging idea.

The nonprofit HomesNOW! installed an 8-by-10-foot shelter, about the size of a small bedroom, on Lummi Nation property in June.

Meanwhile, the Quixote Village homeless community of tiny homes for 30 people in Olympia is spreading to Pierce and Mason counties to serve unsheltered veterans.

And in Seattle, a number of tiny-homes villages are helping to get people off the streets.

What about Bellingham?

“Tiny houses are a viable choice, but they have some limitations,” said Bellingham Planning Director Rick Sepler, who spoke with the students involved in the tiny homes community project.

The state’s current building codes make it difficult, Sepler noted.

“It is a long and involved process for a tiny home to be approved as a dwelling unit,” he said.

But there is interest at the state level to change the regulations and procedures, which could happen in 2018 or 2019.

“The city is monitoring these efforts and will consider amending our local codes after the regulations are revised,” Sepler said.

Zaferatos said city regulations would need to be changed to allow tiny homes on tiny lots, adding that bank financing could be a barrier, too “as it would represent a new untested product.”

Money to build Quixote Village, for example, came from federal, state and local dollars, as well as community donations.

For such projects, it helps to have donated land and services as well as communal areas, such as kitchens, showers and laundry facilities.

And while going smaller would drive down costs, tiny homes still would require hookups for water, sewer and electricity, Sepler said.

“If you’re going to make them into homes,” Sepler said, “they need to be treated in the same manner as homes.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Read the reports

Find projects from Western Washington University’s Sustainable Design students by going online to faculty.wwu.edu/zaferan/.

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