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Does Your Code Provide Homelessness Solutions?

February 23, 2017 by Oskar Rey
Category: Homelessness

Does Your Code Provide Homelessness Solutions?

“Sometimes it's easy to walk by because we know we can't change someone's whole life in a single afternoon. But what we fail to realize it that simple kindness can go a long way toward encouraging someone who is stuck in a desolate place.” ― Mike Yankoski

Homelessness has been prevalent in our region for some time, but in recent years there has been a clear increase in the number of homeless. This can be readily observed, and has been confirmed in various reports and statistical measurements. For example, the 2016 One Night Count in King County showed 4,505 homeless people, a 19 percent increase over 2015.

There are a lot of policy options for alleviating homelessness and the lack of affordable housing. MRSC has just released its Homelessness and Housing Toolkit for Cities, which contains 18 examples of tools and actions that have been used in response to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing. However, in some jurisdictions, existing codes can present unintended barriers to providing remedies for homelessness. This blog will summarize a few common issues that can arise.

Is Your Zoning Code Clear With Respect to Use and Process?

Many jurisdictions have adopted regulations governing temporary homeless encampments, which are intended to provide emergency housing for relatively short periods of time. However, some regulations are not as clear with respect to other types of uses that address homelessness.

Do your regulations define what constitutes a permanent shelter, as opposed to one that moves to a different location every 90 days? Do your regulations define what constitutes transitional housing? Day centers are important since many overnight shelters are not open during the daytime. Do your regulations define a use that includes day centers?

Are your regulations clear about which zones allow these uses and what process applies to permit applications to site such facilities? Clear regulations will help an applicant and concerned citizens understand the land use permitting and streamline the process by which such facilities may be reviewed and approved.

Do Your Regulations Allow for Use of Recreational Vehicles and Tiny Houses?

Most jurisdictions have regulations that limit the storage and use of recreational vehicles (RVs). Such regulations often restrict the size of RVs stored in residential zone and prohibit the use of RVs as residences. However, some cities (Ocean Shores, for example) allows for the use of RVs as residences, subject to conditions. See Ocean Shores Municipal Code Ch. 17.25. This type of regulation potentially provides legal housing options for those who reside in RVs, and may alleviate the problem of long term parking in rights of way.

Tiny houses are another potential tool for addressing homelessness. Tiny houses usually are between 70 and 200 square feet in size and are intended to provide transitional housing for the homeless. They typically have insulation and electrical wiring, but no bathroom or cooking facilities (although they are provided nearby). MRSC recently wrote about tiny houses as an option for addressing homelessness and provided examples of situations in which tiny house projects have been successfully implemented.

Should Your Jurisdiction Require Affordable Housing?

A major cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing in this region. There are legal limitations on the ability of cities and counties to require a developer to provide affordable housing in connection with new development. However, RCW 36.70A.540 allows GMA cities and counties to require a certain amount of affordable housing in connection with an upzone of the affected properties. MRSC addressed this topic in detail in a recent blog post

If your jurisdiction is considering increasing residential density in any of its multi-family zones, it should consider whether to require affordable housing in connection with that process. Since compliance with RCW 36.70A.540 is critical, you should consult with your legal counsel prior to doing so.


Just as there is no single cause of homelessness, there is not a universal remedy—the solutions will be multi-faceted. The tools identified in this post are intended to spur discussion and identify instances in which existing codes cause impediments to housing solutions.

For more information about other homelessness issues, please see the MRSC Homelessness topic page. Do you have additional suggestions that I have not addressed in this post? If so, I would love to hear about them in the comments below or at!

About Oskar Rey

Oskar Rey has practiced municipal law since 1995 and served as Assistant City Attorney for the City of Kirkland from 2005 to 2016, where he worked on a wide range of municipal topics, including land use, public records, and public works. Oskar is a life-long resident of Washington and graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 1992.



"4,505 represents the number of people who were unsheltered in King County on January 29, 2016. If you add the number of people living in emergency shelters (3,200) and transitional housing (2,983), the number of people who were homeless in King County that night was 10,668. State-wide, the number of people who were unsheltered on January 29, 2016 was 8,474, with an additional 6,752 people living in emergency shelters, 5,576 people living in transitional housing and 42 people in safe haven, for a total of 20,844. These figures represent the homeless count on a single night. If you look over a broader period of time, the number of people experiencing homelessness increases. For example, the Washington Department of Commerce indicates that in the year 2016, 98,535 people were served by a housing assistance program in Washington state in 2016. If anyone would like links to the statistics cited in this comment, please email me at"

Oskar Rey on Mar 9, 2017 3:00 PM

"Prevalent? 4,500 out of 7,000,000 is prevalent? It may be many things, including unnecessary given the relatively small number of people affected, but it certainly isn't prevalent."

Eric Nelson on Mar 9, 2017 11:04 AM

"We aren't aware of a single authoritative source offering current comparisons of homelessness rates in developed countries though we hope you found the links we sent via email useful. For questions about specific policies, you may want to use our inquiry service by visiting: or contacting us directly at (206) 625-1300."

Leah LaCivita on Feb 27, 2017 9:17 PM

"I have also noticed the rising tide of visible homelessness in our region. As you say, there are multiple reasons why this is happening, do you know of any studies comparing rates of homelessness in the US to other wealthy developed countries?"

Michael MacSems on Feb 24, 2017 5:01 PM

4 comments on Does Your Code Provide Homelessness Solutions?


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