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Tiny Houses as a Workable Option to House the Homeless

Tiny Houses as a Workable Option to House the Homeless

Homelessness is a serious problem facing numerous communities throughout Washington—and there are no easy solutions. As an alternative to having the homeless sleep in tents, some cities are starting to use “tiny houses” as shelters. For the purposes of this post, a “tiny house” is defined as a small structure (from 70—200 square feet in size) designed to provide temporary shelter for the homeless, usually with insulation and electrical wiring but without bathroom or cooking facilities (although they are provided nearby). Tiny homes are usually intended to be used as an interim step until permanent housing is found. These small structures are viewed as being a better option than having people sleep on the streets or in tents, especially during the cold and wet winter months.

You may be curious about who is actually using tiny houses to provide temporary shelter for the homeless. The answer is that a few communities throughout the U.S. are doing so, with some of the more notable examples being in the Pacific Northwest.

Tiny House Communities in Washington and Oregon

Dignity Village in Portland (OR) is a successful, tiny house community that was first started in 2001 and has been at its current, city-owned site in northeast Portland since 2004. It offers housing, food, bathrooms, a mailing address, and some job opportunities for nearly 60 homeless adults. Dignity Village operates as a nonprofit in partnership with the city, which provides the land and funding for a dedicated social worker to help the site’s residents. The city contracts with Dignity Village to manage the site and its operation, and it sees the village as a transitional housing option for a homeless person until a permanent residence is located, which is reflected in Dignity Village’s “two-year maximum stay” standard. It has been reported that Dignity Village was one of the models used for Seattle’s approach to tiny homes as one way to house the homeless.  

The Seattle-based nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) has been sponsoring tiny house “villages” in the city since late 2015/early 2016.  Currently, there are three LIHI-sponsored villages in the neighborhoods of Ballard, Othello, and the Central District. Each tiny house has electrical wiring, is moveable, and costs approximately $2,300 in materials and supplies. Each unit is 8 feet by 12 feet in size, has two windows and a lockable door, and is insulated. They are brought onto the site via flatbed truck and placed on pier blocks. Construction labor is donated by volunteers or local vocational training programs, according to Bradford Gerber, LIHI’s Essential Needs Coordinator. An LIHI village includes a kitchen tent, dining/community area, restrooms, shower facilities, and a security structure (with at least two people on security duty).  Like Portland’s Dignity Village, LIHI’s tiny house villages are self-managed, with residents having a voice on operational and management issues. The two villages on city-owned land (Ballard and Othello) will be allowed to occupy these sites for a maximum of two years before having to find a new location.

LIHI develops and manages permanent affordable housing sites (with over 2,000 dwelling units) but views these tiny house villages as a way to provide a safe and warm place for the homeless to live while transitioning to permanent housing. Given the success of the tiny house villages described above, the city recently requested LIHI establish two additional villages in the South Seattle and Licton Spring neighborhoods. Each village will contain 30-40 tiny houses and is scheduled to be operational by early spring, 2017.

Another example—Quixote Village in Olympia, which provides permanent, supportive housing for homeless adults through a site that contains 30 tiny houses and shared facilities—is discussed in 3 Innovative Local Approaches to Tackling Homelessness. 

How to Address Tiny House Villages in Your Zoning Code?

But how should your zoning code address tiny houses when used as transitional housing for the homeless? It’s a complicated question but there are some steps that a few cities have already taken. The Portland City Council adopted a resolution formally designating the Dignity Village site a campground that provides “transitional housing accommodations” for “persons who lack permanent shelter and cannot be placed in other low income housing.” Seattle created a new set of zoning provisions that allow transitional encampment as an interim use, with requirements related to several subjects, including location, community outreach, and operational issues. For other local governments, it will likely take adoption of similar development standards that provide for specific allowances or “exceptions” from zoning codes when tiny homes are used to house the homeless.

While the examples described in this blog post are from larger cities, the overall approach should be applicable for most cities, towns, and counties in Washington State. Tiny houses are not an “end all” solution, but they are a low-cost method for housing the homeless, at least on a temporary basis, and they are one approach that local governments should consider using when addressing homelessness in their communities.

If your community already uses tiny homes to house the homeless or is considering this option, please leave a comment below or contact me directly at

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Steve Butler

Steve joined MRSC in February 2015. He has been involved in most aspects of community planning for over 30 years, both in the public and private sectors. He received a B.A. from St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York) and a M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Steve has served as president of statewide planning associations in both Washington and Maine, and was elected to the American Institute of Certified Planner’s College of Fellows in 2008.