A group of local stakeholders with an interest in creating more low-income housing on Grays Harbor traveled to Seattle last week to meet with Sharon Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute and discuss the potential for projects in Aberdeen and Hoquiam.
The Low Income Housing Institute’s board of directors recently voted to pursue developing low-income apartments in the Aberdeen/Hoquiam area. The first step is finding an affordable piece of land where the building can be constructed. Lee and her staff has been looking for that property since the board decided the area was a good location for the institute’s latest project.
Businessman Tim Quigg, a Grays Harbor native who now lives in Tacoma but has been working on homeless issues the past few years, organized the meeting and tour of housing currently being used in Seattle that could be used on the Harbor. At the meeting were Quigg, Coastal Community Action Program CEO Craig Dublanko, County Commissioner Randy Ross, Cassie Lentz, housing resource coordinator for Grays Harbor County Public Health and Social Services, and Dave Murnen, executive director of NeighborWorks.
The group first met with Lee in her 2nd Avenue office in downtown Seattle, not far from Pike Place Market. There, she stood before a wall covered with photographs of the many properties her institute has built, primarily in King County, but also in Pierce and Thurston counties. Some of them cater to low-income seniors, some to veterans, others for homeless families and working singles.
The property she said most matched her vision for a low-income development in Grays Harbor County is Billy Frank Jr. Place in downtown Olympia. The building is scheduled to open in June and is located along State Street near the downtown transit mall. It features 43 units, including studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments and targets members of the general homeless population, homeless young adults, veterans and disabled individuals.
Lee stressed the importance of placing such a development near transportation, parks, schools and shopping. The group discussed with Lee two pieces of property that could be suitable — one in Aberdeen, one in Hoquiam.
The Aberdeen location is near the police station and transit terminal on the corner of North H Street and East Market Street. It was the Hoquiam property, however, the intrigued Lee and many of the local contingent. This parcel of land is across the street from Hoquiam City Hall and, according to Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay, is owned by the county.
The Low Income Housing Institute is actively looking for a location with the assistance of representatives from area social service agencies, Shay and Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson, among others. If a suitable site can be found, and local support is sufficient to sustain the facility after it’s built, the institute staff would use its knowledge of funding sources to secure money for the project.
The tour included a “tiny house” village on the edge of a residential area just off the corner of 22nd Avenue and East Union in Seattle. What was once a vacant lot between two homes is now lined with 15 tiny homes, most brightly painted and all nicely maintained. At the entrance sits a security booth, where each resident takes shifts to make sure visitors sign in and the residents are safe.
That’s where you’ll find Lily, one of a handful who calls this village home as they look to transition from homelessness to self-sufficiency. She’s 23 years old and, when asked how she came to live in the village, said softly, “I found myself in a sticky situation.” When a violent living situation forced her onto the streets, she was told of the village by the people at a local mission. She has been living there ever since with her dog Pluto, and has been working as a waitress for a year now. “It’s a safe place to stay while I get my life together,” she said.
Another resident, Alan, lives here with his wife. Their story is sadly common. With rising housing costs in King County, many residents are living paycheck to paycheck, and any hiccup like illness or the loss of a job can quickly result in homelessness. Alan and his wife lived in their car for a month or two before finding out about the village. He is now working as an Uber driver and courier as they try to transition back out of the cycle of homelessness.
These tiny villages are just that: transitional housing. The goal is to give residents a safe, secure place to live where they have access to showers, toilets, and amenities that gives them hope that they can indeed climb out of the situation they have found themselves in, often through no fault of their own.
“Last year we moved 161 people into more longterm housing from the tiny house villages,” said Lee.
The next stop was Ernestine Anderson Place on South Jackson. The five-story building was constructed in 2012 and caters to vulnerable senior residents. There are 60 units in the building, plus a large common area and a computer lab. The building is named in honor of jazz singer Ernestine Anderson, an international star from Seattle’s Central Area and graduate of Garfield High. The lobby is filled with autographed copies of some of the more than 30 albums she recorded in her 50-plus year career, during which she was nominated for a Grammy four times and performed at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. She died in March of 2016 at the age of 87.
Directly next door to Ernestine Anderson Place is Abbey Lincoln Court, also named for a famed jazz singer. This complex is similar in size to its neighbor and caters to a wider variety of people, including families, singles and more. This building offers similar amenities and incorporates a large rooftop garden.
The last stop on the tour was another tiny house village, this one on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. This village sits adjacent to a gas station and is larger than the one visited earlier. It is located right on a light rail station and is close to shopping, and has a shower and bathroom trailer heated by propane. Called Othello village, it was erected on property owned by the Low Income Housing Institute but is managed by Nickelsville, a homeless advocacy group that manages several camps in the Seattle area.
Every person in every tiny house village has a job. A resident named Sean at the Othello Village, who has been involved with homeless camps for 25 years, served as the camp tour guide, the task he was given by camp managers. Sean’s job is to show guests around the camp and give a brief history of the facility. Commissioner Ross asked him, “What is the biggest challenge to managing a facility like this?”
Sean looked skyward for a moment before answering, “Perception.” He said people who have never visited a tiny house village often has preconceived notions as to what they look like, and the people who live there. The reality is the residents of these villages must abide to the no drugs, no alcohol rules. Some of the camps are self-referred, meaning it’s the residents who find suitable people to become their neighbors. The facilities are clean, everyone has a job, and there is zero tolerance for rule breakers.
Quigg has scheduled another tour of housing sites for the homeless for June 6.