Sustainability in Cohousing

Tiny House Village Shelters for the Homeless

A Tiny House maintained for the homeless by the Low Income Housing Institute

An example of a tiny house maintained by the Low Income Housing Institute to serve as temporary housing for the homeless.

Tiny House Village Shelters for the Homeless are built and maintained by the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) in the State of Washington.  LIHI works in partnership with the City of Seattle, faith communities, and building trade organizations throughout the state, to provide Tiny House Village shelters for the homeless. Residents are placed by referral only through the City of Seattle’s Navigation Team and REACH. At this writing, LIHI maintains 12 Tiny House Villages in Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia. And the practice is spreading across the nation, especially in the Western states that have the highest rates of homelessness.

As in other villages, the LIHI Tiny House shelters are intended as replacements for tents, not permanent residences. They have been described as one step up from pre-fab sheds. But they are definitely better than tent cities and sleeping behind dumpsters. They are safer, weatherproof, and lockable, and hygiene facilities are available. LIHI also prefers them because they allow residents “to reclaim their dignity and get on a path to housing in a supportive village environment.”

The individual houses are minimally developed with shared facilities onsite. Each tiny house has electricity, an overhead light, and a heater.  The shared facilities have kitchens, restrooms, showers, and laundry. Each LIHI village has a counseling office and a place where donations of food, clothing, and hygiene items can be left.

In other states, the villages and houses vary. Some have toilets. Some charge rent and are intended to be long term housing options. Some villages are self-governed.

But Is It Cohousing?

In a word, no. In two words, not exactly. The tiny house villages have received wide attention as a new solution for homelessness. Erroneously, they are often portrayed as new homes in villages. Instead, most like the LIHI houses, are temporary. Homeless people stay only long enough to stabilize and receive counseling, usually less than six months. They then receive appropriate, long term housing elsewhere. While the villages may function as an opportunity to begin establishing social connections, this is limited because most of the villages are transitory.

The value of cohousing is that it is a village of long term residents. People who grow through life together and learn what it takes to be supportive neighbors and lend a hand in need. And how to have fun together. And work together to manage the common buildings and grounds.

On the whole, the villages for the homeless are not managed by the residents. This is a major difference but since the villages are transitory, this may be the best option. People are not in residence long enough to learn how to manage a village and need the energy to focus on their personal stability. An onsite counselor and other city services provide various kinds of help. Like all such services run by institutions, there are many restrictions beyond the control of the residents or the counselor related to state law and institutional practices.

Learning from Tiny House Villages for Low Income Cohousing

I haven’t visited the communities—only seen documentaries, books, and magazine articles. There are many things, however, I think can be gained for low-income cohousing—the opportunity to learn from these experiments. For one thing, they are a different place to start when thinking about what is absolutely necessary. Rather than thinking down from a 3Br-2.5Ba-2CarG-Pool, they provide the opportunity to think up. “Here I have a bed, a light, a lock on the door, and a heater. What more is necessary for me to be content?”

In addition to thinking about what is minimally necessary to upgrade the inside, there are some interesting features outside that might be useful in keeping infrastructure costs low. Some of the houses are built on platforms like large decks. I wonder if this might help with laying and maintaining utilities and plumbing pipes below the houses in crawl spaces. It would be similar to building a foundation but as one structure serving several houses, it might be less expensive. The raised deck would provide a dry space on land that is wet or has heavy snow in the winter. Shovel the snow and it becomes a dry play area all winter. This extends the indoor space. And a tent can be raised for temporary guests.

The villages are usually built on vacant land belonging to the city so there are no land purchase costs, and probably no leasing fees. This has led to villages being moved or torn down in some cases when a new use is found for the land. Avoiding the unpredictability of using land when the village doesn’t have long-term control is important to encouraging personal commitment. Aside from uncontrollable events including tornados and locust swarms, a sense of permanence is fundamental to feeling secure.

The ability to put 3-5 homes on an irregularly shaped piece of land that has been vacant and useless is an opportunity that may allow a village to build inexpensively in an urban area.

The estimate for building a tiny house in the LIHI communities in Seattle is $2,500 with volunteer labor. To build a village may involve putting together a barn-raising crew that is experienced. Building a village of 10 houses could be done one house at a time, upgrading the homes in waves. “Now we all have insulated walls and a roof.” Next is the common house with hygiene facilities and a kitchen. Or first the common house and then the houses. The common house could then provide onsite housing for the building crew.

Studying the increasing number and variety of these villages could provide rich information about tiny houses in communities. We know a lot about how to build individual tiny houses, but how do we build 10 plus a small common house? How do we self-finance over time?

Related: Tiny House Villages in Seattle: Lessons Learned

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