A perimeter fence around Licton Springs Village.

Image: Anne Dennon

At the end of March, Licton Springs Village—the first tiny house village in Seattle to allow alcohol and drug use—will close. When news broke in September of the village’s impending closure, many drew the shortest line between two points: The low-barrier encampment, located near Northgate on a historically high crime stretch of Aurora Avenue, had been a failure.

But according to the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), which owns the Licton Springs property, the village was a success. It provided safe, private abodes for people experiencing homelessness by accepting those who couldn’t meet the sobriety requirements of other shelters. It also accepted individuals without personal ID and worked to get their identification cards issued—a major hurdle to receiving other services. Licton Springs met the needs of Seattleites who had nowhere else to turn, but its closure was fated from the beginning—permits allow tiny house villages to run for just two years.

To even be eligible for a second year, villages have to prove they’re capable of transitioning residents to permanent housing at an acceptable rate. Licton Springs earned a second year, but its exit rates were lower than other villages. The city wants shelter stays to last fewer than 90 days; the majority of Licton Springs residents stayed for over a year. And at the start of March, with less than a month of operation left, there were still 27 residents at Licton Springs—over a third of the village’s size at its peak. That’s either a low exit rate or a high retention rate, depending on data interpretation.

Those who experience chronic homelessness frequently aren't “housing ready.” That is, they are actively struggling with the addiction or mental health issues that put or keep them on the street. And, unlike many shelters, that’s precisely the demographic Licton Springs served, so it isn’t clear that an exit rate is the best gauge of success. By that measuring stick, all tiny house villages come in second to enhanced shelters, which place a greater emphasis on casework. Increased capacity at enhanced shelters partly explains why Licton Springs wasn’t relocated like two other tiny house villages, Interbay Safe Harbor Village and Nickelsville North Lake.

The requirement that villages move or close after two years guarantees that they serve as “transitional” housing, per city ordinance. Josh Castle, director of advocacy and community engagement for LIHI, says there’s a push from housing activists for the city council to update that ordinance: “It's three years old now… It needs to be dusted off and looked at again.” 

In three years' time, Seattle has experienced growing pains in both housing and homelessness response. At last year’s public forum on the proposed closure of Licton Springs, one of its residents rebutted a comment from a housed neighbor calling the tiny houses shacks. “It's not a shack. It's a home. It's a door that shuts and locks.” And after two years of use, the houses are still in good shape, says special projects manager for LIHI’s Tiny House Program, Bradford Gerber. But in the two-block radius surrounding Licton Springs, there was an increase of trespassing and trash.

At the crux of Seattle's real estate and poverty issues, affordable housing forces everyone to look at the city landscape differently. Once the last of the tiny houses are wheeled away, the Licton Springs lot will sit empty, fenced, and secured. Then, in 2021, ground will break for the construction of a mixed-use building with workforce affordable housing—118 units for those making 30, 50, and 60 percent of median area income (currently about $85,000 in King County). According to a UW study on Licton Springs Village, 95 percent of residents would have readily left if permanent housing—like the kind that will sprout up from the former encampment—became available.

In the meantime, community builders like Aurora Licton Urban Village want to see more services for unhoused people and fewer needles on the street, maybe an uptick in local coffee shops, too. A North Seattle fixture since 2011, Aurora Commons, a nearby community space for unsheltered folk, will outlast Licton Springs, offering laundry and showers, books and hot coffee. 

At a recent community meeting for Licton Springs, Elizabeth Dahl, the executive director of Aurora Commons, talked about what they’ll do if not every resident is out on time. She suggested they continue their monthly meetings. Though the city has ordered Licton Springs to pack up, some things will remain constant. "I'm going to be here," says Dahl.

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