Affordable Homes for the Houseless: Tent Cities in Washington State
March 1, 2015
In policy discussions “Affordable Housing” is generally understood to mean permanent residential units that are subsidized by either government or non-profit entities and provided to people based on a calculation of their household’s income. The web of sources and the timing of funding for construction and operation of these units are vastly complicated. Though hundreds of thousands of people are able to find housing through this system, the growing number of homeless people in our region and the country as a whole shows that the established system for the provision of subsidized permanent housing is far from adequate to ensure that all who need housing in the United States are able to find it.
Our understanding of what acceptable housing is has been arrived at through long-term processes of national economic development, social construction, the economic self-interest of individuals, and the development of legal frameworks. Housing units are defined as private, enclosed, secure areas within a permanent structure constructed by professional builders to conform to legal codes on plots of land that are leased or owned by a single household in areas that are zoned for residences. Residences that do not meet this standard are usually illegal and are scarce in the modern-day United States. However, this narrow definition does not include most of the places people lived for most of the history of our country nor does it probably include most of the places people call home around the world today, where communal, informal, unregulated, or self-built homes are common.
For various reasons a portion of the population of the United States does not live in housing that meets our narrow modern definition. The recent One Night Count found 3,772 people sleeping outside in King County on a January night, while 6,171 people occupied shelter beds for a total of 9,943 people homeless or 0.5% of the county population. This one-time count is very likely to have missed many homeless people sleeping outdoors because of their incentive to find well-hidden places to sleep. The count also does not record the thousands who temporarily sleep on couches of friends or family members, in cars, or double up in apartments with other families.
Of the unsheltered homeless population, some sleep in tents, in cars, on sidewalks, under bridges, or on park benches with only blankets or clothing for shelter. Others live in encampments. Encampments range from informal groupings illegally occupying vacant land to legal camps on religious sanctuaries or leased property. Some camps have even made the transition to permanent structures, scrambling ideas of what “homeless” and “housing” really mean. An encampment can alleviate some of the most difficult aspects of homelessness: vulnerability to theft and assault, social isolation, and lack of access to amenities. Encampments may often fail to provide the security, comfort, and safety of legally recognized modern housing. However, the best organized camps provide those qualities as well as benefits which can be absent in subsidized permanent housing: a supportive tight-knit community, participation in decision-making and camp administration, and the responsibility to perform service work for the good of the community.
It this paper I examine two case studies of well-established encampments, Tent City 3 in the Seattle area and Quixote Village in Olympia, and compare their strengths and weaknesses with the traditional affordable housing system especially as it deals with the very low income population.
Tent City 3
Tent City 3 is a homeless encampment created in 2000 by SHARE/WHEEL. SHARE and WHEEL are partner organizations that were formed in the early 1990’s to serve and advocate for homeless people in the Seattle area. Tent City 3 was founded on March 31, 2000, in anticipation of the annual closing of winter shelters on April 1st. The camp was invited to relocate to El Centro de la Raza and the camp made the move on July 16th. El Centro de la Raza applied for a six-month temporary use permit from the Seattle Department of Design, Construction and Land Use to host the encampment, but was denied the permit. This decision was appealed to the City Hearing Examiner, which upheld the decision. El Centro and SHARE/WHEEL then appealed the decision to the King County Superior Court, which ruled in their favor and negotiated a consent decree between the parties to create a formal framework for Tent City 3 to exist as a permanent, mobile encampment. The consent decree imposed a 90 day limit for Tent City 3 to occupy any one site. It also established requirements for notification of neighbors and a community meeting prior to setting up the camp, set a limit on the number of camp residents at 100 and prohibited minors from living in the camp as well as a number of other restrictions. As a result of the ruling, Tent City 3 claims to be the first legally recognized homeless encampment in the county. The consent decree expired in 2012 and the Seattle City Council adopted Ordinance 123729 which authorized the encampment to site at religious facilities and public institutions.
As of March 14, 2015 Tent City 3 was located at the Shoreline Free Methodist Church and had 84 residents. The camp consists of approximately eleven large community tents, housing the reception desk, the bookkeeping and camp advisor offices, the pantry, the kitchen, the computer room, the TV room, the donations room, a smoking area, and three dormitory tents for new arrivals in about one half of the camp area. The other half of the area is occupied by tents for individual residents or couples. SHARE/WHEEL pays for six Honey Buckets which lie at the center of the camp. A portable shower and sink trailer donated by the Episcopal diocese of Seattle is across the parking lot from the camp, hooked up to the church building’s electricity, sewer and water.
The camp is run by residents, with no paid staff on site. Meetings are held on Monday evenings to discuss camp business and relations with neighbors, elect camp members to the five-member executive committee and other administrative roles and committees, and to vote on camp actions and rules. The camp Code of Conduct prohibits drugs or alcohol use within the camp and lays out the rules for coexistence and cooperation in the camp. New arrivals are required to read to Code aloud to the executive committee member on duty, pass a screening for sex-offenders and arrest warrants, and are placed on a 30-day probation period in which they stay in one of the dormitory tents before receiving a private tent. Unlike shelters, Tent City 3 allows residents to keep some pets and allows couples to bunk together.
Tent City 3 provides a best-case example for a mobile tent encampment as a solution to the lack of affordable permanent housing. We should be careful not to assume that the positive qualities of Tent City 3 are common to all encampments. Rather, we should assume that the achievements of Tent City 3 are possible for other tent encampments given community support, leadership among the homeless, and government authorities that are not actively hostile to encampments.
Quixote Village in Olympia, WA, partially bridges the gap between traditional affordable housing and tent encampments. It began as a church-sponsored encampment called “Camp Quixote” in 2007 after Olympia police threatened to forcibly remove a small illegal encampment from city owned property. A coalition of churches adopted the encampment and began rotating hosting of the camp for 90 day periods. The church groups formed Panza, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to maintaining the encampment and its residents. The camp operated under rules which were adopted and enforced by its members.
Panza began working to create a more permanent location for the camp shortly after its creation. Ultimately the vision took shape for Quixote Village, a cluster of small cottages with a shared community building on publically owned land in an industrial zone. The village was constructed in 2013 with state, federal, county, city funding and tribal and private donations. With the creation of the village, the camp began undergoing structural changes that reflected its new status as a permanent affordable housing development. Residents now must pay 30% of their income (though very limited or nonexistent for most camp residents) for rent. A formal partnership with the local Housing Authority has been established providing section 8 vouchers for up to 25 of the units, and placing Quixote Village residents at the top of the list to receive section 8 vouchers once they leave the camp.
The “tiny home village” was built by contractors with public dollars; however camp residents were involved with the site design, with painting and landscaping of the cottages, and continue to participate in the maintenance of the village. Panza has transformed from a loose organization providing volunteers and securing hosts for the camp, to a legal role as landlord for the residents of the village.
Total construction costs of the village per unit came out to approximately $100,000. While this is vastly more than the costs of establishing a tent camp, it does compare favorably with costs for constructing new supportive housing units in the traditional manner. At 30 units per 2.17 acres, it also achieves a density greater than most neighborhoods in Seattle, despite consisting only of single-story structures.
In one important aspect Quixote Village remains a homeless encampment. The siting of Quixote Village on industrial land points to its ambiguous nature. Most residences are not allowed on industrial land, however in 2011 the City of Olympia modified its land use code to allow official county homeless camps in areas zoned Light Industrial. The modification of city code to explicitly allow encampments is a victory for camp advocates. However, an industrial site was chosen to neutralize NIMBY resistance to the village, which sets the complicated precedent of a two-tiered approach to housing with very-low income people potentially excluded from residential zones. The fact that Quixote Village resembles an affordable housing development in form and operation more than a homeless encampment further complicates matters.
Comparison with Traditional Affordable Housing
Traditionally, most affordable housing projects consist of apartment buildings or town-house style single family buildings. Units with multiple bedrooms are often provided for families with children. All units include electricity, water and plumbing and are expected to be physically sound and secure from unwanted entry. Usually affordable housing units are designed to give residents substantial privacy and self-sufficiency, with private kitchens, bathrooms and living spaces. Plymouth Housing Group is unusual in constructing buildings for formerly homeless tenants that use shared kitchens and common areas to require greater interaction among residents and with on-site staff as well as to prevent the danger of kitchen accidents for residents.
Encampments differ from traditional affordable housing units significantly. Most obviously, they are usually built of collapsible tents. Private lavatory, cooking, and living facilities are not provided, and the tents are not secure from unwanted entry. In Tent City 3, all the private amenities that are provided in traditional affordable units are provided for communally. Residents use a shared kitchen tent, shared portable toilets, and have shared tents for relaxing or socializing. Safety is provided by 24 hour patrols by Tent City residents, with punishments and potential expulsion from the community for theft or crimes committed against other residents.
Permanent “villages” like Quixote Village offer a greater degree of privacy for residents and security from unwanted entry, however still encourage community and save costs by having communal kitchen, shower, and living facilities. Quixote Village cottages are 144 square feet and include small lavatories with a toilet and sink.
The footprint of homeless encampments is quite small compared to traditional affordable housing units. Tent City 3 houses up to 100 residents on about 1,500 square feet (1/30 acre). By comparison, Seattle Housing Authority’s new four-story Lake City Court project has 86 units on 2.8 acres. Quixote village is much less dense, with 30 units on 2.17 acres, but still achieves the same average density of SHA’s Highpoint development at about 14 units per acre. 
Length of tenure
There is variation in length of tenure for residents in traditional affordable housing units, however once residents receive a unit they often stay for many years. The households targeted for SHA’s “Stepping Forward” program currently stay in the SHA system for an average of eight years.
By comparison, the residents of homeless encampments usually stay for shorter periods of time. Although no time limits are imposed in any encampments I have studied, the inconvenience of living in an encampment likely serves as a strong encouragement for residents to find other options. Tent City 3 has a cap of 100 residents at any one time and claims that 800 different people live in the camp at some point during the year. Quixote Village, with only 30 units, had a 50% turnover of residents in 2014, its first year. At Dignity Village in Portland, OR it is estimated that ultimately about one third of residents enter into permanent or supportive housing while two thirds will leave the camp but continue to be homeless.
The organizational structure of homeless encampments contrasts sharply with that of traditional affordable housing providers. These providers, whether government entities or non-profits, usually have a high degree of control over rules, organizational practices, and development plans for their affordable housing properties. Residents may be consulted concerning future plans, however final decisions rest with administrators who are accountable to their boards of directors.
In contrast, most encampments have complex structures for self-government and a high degree of resident participation in the management of the camp. Participation in self-government helps Tent City 3 residents build organizational and interpersonal skills that help current and former residents get by in the outside world. Tent City 3 also functions as a charitable organization, receiving and distributing thousands of dollars worth of donations per year, and a political and advocacy organization. Quixote Village also elects its leaders, votes on rules and policies, and requires all residents to perform community service work to contribute to the operation of the camp.
Operating expenses for services that target the homeless are significant: shelters typically cost $10,000 annually per bed and transitional housing with services costs $20,000-24,000 per unit. Plymouth Housing Group is able to provide supporting housing for only $14,000 per unit per year. Tent City 3, by comparison, costs about $4,000-6,000 per month to operate, plus $2,500 for moving expenses and anywhere from $200-3,000 for temporary use permits every three months. Taken together these costs come to about $94,000 per year assuming high end costs for permitting and maintenance. With 84 residents at the time of my visit, Tent City 3 was providing safe places to sleep for a cost of about $1,200 annually per resident. However, Tent City 3 receives a substantial amount of donations, from the land they locate on, to hot meals, tents, clothes, food, discounts on bus tickets (from Metro), and bicycles. These donations, and the variable price of land depending on where the camp is located, make it difficult to do a straightforward price comparison, but it is clear that the camp is significantly cheaper to operate than shelters, transitional housing, or permanent supportive housing.
Construction costs for Quixote Village were $3.05 million. Washington State contributed S1.5 million from the State housing trust fund, Thurston County sponsored a Community Block Development Grant for $699,000, the City of Olympia contributed $170,000 and $215,000 came from community donations. Each cottage cost about $20,000 to build, however when the cost of the community building is divided among the 30 units, the entire village was constructed for about $88,000 per unit, less than a third the cost of constructing a new subsidized unit in Seattle.
The original conception of public housing in the United States was to provide a haven for working class families who temporarily needed assistance to get back on their feet. Public housing was seen as a venue to develop human capital with social programs and explore efficient and sometimes architecturally adventurous building forms to achieve optimal outcomes for citizens at a low cost. Homeless encampments today perform many of these functions. They allow people a chance to arrest financial catastrophe by offering a free, safe, supportive place to live and sleep. Encampment residents tend to stay part of the camp for a relatively short period of time, although it is unknown how many are able to return to market-rate housing or subsidized housing. Encampments also provide a social benefit to residents, which helps blunt the isolation, vulnerability, and lack of agency that are some of the most pernicious aspects of extreme poverty and homelessness. Quixote Village and Dignity Village have also challenged designers and architects to create communities that are cheap, healthy, and environmentally friendly.
Given the low costs and clear benefits of well-run encampments compared to unsheltered and even sheltered homeless life, city governments should pursue increasing the number of homeless encampments as part of the larger affordable housing system. These encampments might only be pursued on a “temporary” basis, until sufficient funding is available or permanent structures or new shelters. Quixote Village and Dignity Village offer models for gradual transition from temporary to permanent structures, all at 1/3 the cost of constructing subsidized apartments. In the meantime these camps will still be cheaper to operate than shelters.
On March 30, 2015 the Seattle City Council will vote on legislation that would authorize up to three new homeless encampments in the City of Seattle, simplify permitting and place requirements on accessibility and data collection. If passed, this legislation is a powerful recognition of the 15 years of success of homeless encampments in the Puget Sound area and a major victory for supporters and residents of encampments.
The small size of current successful encampments in cities in the Pacific Northwest raises some doubts about how large a role such encampments could play in the regional homelessness prevention system. While there are about 6000 homeless people staying in shelters on a given night in Seattle, and 3000 unsheltered individuals, Tent City 3 and future authorized camps in Seattle are capped at 100 residents each. Likewise, it remains to be seen to what extent the charitable donations that sustain Tent City 3 can be scaled up to serve many more camp residents. These costs could be borne by the City, at considerable cost savings compared to creating new overnight shelters. There is also a lack of information about the health and well-being effects of living in encampments vs. shelters or the street. Hopefully a move by the city to expand its involvement with encampments will help spur this research.
Homeless encampments have long been an ignored and maligned feature of the national failure to provide formal affordable housing to all who need it. In an era of shrinking federal and state funding for affordable housing, perhaps it is time to end the harmful delusion that we are immune from the need for economical informal housing solutions and instead go about ensuring that our informal housing is safe, sanitary, and beneficial for those who have nowhere else to go.
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 History - SHARE / WHEEL. (n.d.). Retrieved March 15, 2015, from http://www.sharewheel.org/Home/history
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 Site visit to Tent City 3, 3/15/15
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 Site visit to Tent City 3 at Shoreline Free Methodist Church, 3/15/15
 Ransom, Tim. "Interview with Director of Panza." Telephone interview. 10 Mar. 2015.
 Herring, Christopher, Lauren Trato, Katherine Streit, Lindsey Merritt, Micheal Stoops, and Neil J. Donovan. Tent Cities in America: A Pacific Coast Report. Rep. N.p.: National Coalition for the Homeless, n.d. Web.
 Site visit to Tent City 3 at Shoreline Free Methodist Church, 3/15/15