Reno Looks to Seattle's Tiny Houses for Homeless Solution - KTVN Channel 2 - Reno Tahoe Sparks News, Weather, Video

Reno Looks to Seattle's Tiny Houses for Homeless Solution

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The City of Reno is looking to Seattle for some help dealing with our growing homeless population. A delegation of local leaders headed there on Friday to tour Seattle's tiny house villages, built over the last two years to provide transitional housing for some of the thousands of homeless in that city. Channel 2 got exclusive access to that tour, and in a two-part series, we'll show you what they found there, and what it would take to build a village in Reno.

Part I

The tiny, 8'x10' homes boast less than 120 square feet of living space, but for many, it's the first time in years they've had a roof over their heads.

"Before the camp, me and my husband were living under the West Seattle Bridge, for probably about a good two years," tiny home resident Charmaine Min said. "Going from that, to this, is like, you get some sense of normalcy again."

Seattle is struggling with rising rents and a growing population-- a combination that pushes more people onto the streets. Reno officials say that's the future for the Biggest Little City, without some major changes.

"Rents are starting to skyrocket," Volunteers of America Regional Director Pat Cashell said. "And if we don't do something about it, and starting looking outside the box, we are going to see our homeless population escalate more than it already has."

The growing homeless problem is what motivated the delegation from the City of Reno, Washoe County, Northern Nevada HOPES, and Volunteers of America (VOA). The VOA runs the Reno shelter.

The group toured two Seattle villages, peppering the tour guide with questions about costs and outcomes.

Seattle's villages are on public land, provided at no cost by the city. The city does the sanitation and trash pickup, but the rest of the costs come from fundraising.

The homes cost about $2,200 dollars each. Seattle's roughly 120 tiny homes were built by church groups, tribes, and high school building programs, and then donated. The residents staff the villages themselves. They take shifts doing security and clean-up, and any other jobs that need doing.

On this visit, we saw residents picking up litter, building shelves inside the houses, planting herb gardens, and painting some of the unfinished buildings.

For Min, that work has been the best part.

She spent eight years working in accounting before addiction and tough circumstances left her homeless. Now she's the official village bookkeeper.

"To do that, to actually do stuff here is like I have a job again pretty much, and it feels good," she said. "Working here as a bookkeeper as a volunteer position, I can also put that on my resume, saying that I did this, and I have character references. Not just being homeless, I made something of myself while I was homeless."

When it comes to getting an outside job or permanent housing, the residents get help from caseworkers. They also have access to community laundry facilities and showers. They can leave for interviews and lock their doors without wondering if their belongings will be there when they get back. The tiny homes are meant to be temporary; the hope is to keep residents for five to six months, with a maximum of two years.

Sharon Lee, the Executive Director of Seattle's Low-Income Housing Initiative (LIHI), pointed to the numbers as proof of success. She said in 2016 they housed 160 people in the villages. Of those, 103 went on to get employment, and 40 of them were reunited with their families and support systems.

Like shelters, there's no alcohol, drugs, violence or weapons allowed, but unlike shelters, couples can live together, people can keep their pets with them, and fathers aren't separated from their children.

It's a change Cashell said he wants to see in Reno.

"Everyone wants to get them off the river, wants to get them out of the alleyways and out front of their businesses," he said. "Well, we have to put them somewhere. And this is the best solution I've seen so far."

*Editor's Note: Originally we reported that each tiny home costs $1,200. The actual cost is $2,200. We apologize for the error.

Part II

If you listen to the head of Reno's homeless shelter tell it, tiny homes could be the solution to Reno's growing homeless problem.

Volunteers of America Regional Director Pat Cashell led a fact-finding mission to the tiny house villages in Seattle on Friday, joined by Reno Vice Mayor Neoma Jardon and a whole delegation of officials from Northern Nevada.

"I think it's incredible," Jardon said, during the tour of the village. "I want it. I want it for our community."

Reno has a homeless population is growing. The shelter is consistently full, and the city is looking at building overflow shelters. But after a tour of Seattle's tiny house villages, they may be shifting their vision.

"The key to this is that it's only temporary," Sharon Lee, Low Income Housing Institute Executive Director Sharon Lee said of the villages. "We don't want people staying here long-term."

In fact, Lee said they try to keep residents just five or six months, helping them with job applications, getting clean and sober, and finding permanent housing. The maximum stay is two years.

"One of the first people we moved off the street was a homeless veteran," Lee said. "He had been homeless for six years."

Lee said out of 160 people in the villages last year, 103 of them have gotten jobs. Forty of them have been reunited with family and friends.

"We are actually changing people's lives," she said. "It's been incredible."

Each village is run through a partnership between the city of Seattle and a low-income housing organization, using equal amounts of tax dollars and donations. The houses cost $2,200 each, but Seattle's were all built and donated by high school programs, church groups, and tribes. The city pays for sanitation and trash; donations pay for the rest; and the residents staff the village themselves.

All things considered, it's relatively inexpensive to run a village. To put it in perspective, one of these costs Seattle about $200,000 a year. The homeless shelter in Reno costs about $3 million a year.

But building a village in Reno still isn't a simple process.

"There's no public funds set aside for this type of activity," Reno Assistant City Manager Bill Thomas said.

Seattle has a dedicated property tax for low-income housing projects, which helps fund the villages. There's no such property tax in Reno. According to Thomas, they would need to find federal dollars or donations to pay for a tiny house village here. They would also have to work out zoning issues, and most importantly find a place to put them.

"We are going to have to go through a public process," Thomas said. "And in that public process I think we will get a real good sense of what the community thinks about this type of housing."

The Reno City Council is already considering four lots for overflow shelters, and Thomas said it's possible that one or more of those lots could be used for a tiny house village, or something similar. Right now, the lots under consideration are along the East Fourth Street corridor, north of the river.

"If we could get a location, get some of the basic infrastructure in place, I think we could put this together quickly," Jardon said. "And until we can do better, we should do something like this."

But they'll have to get the public on board. In Seattle, Lee acknowledged that they did have some push-back from neighbors, but a year or so in, they've had very few complaints.

Still, the list of hurdles city leaders will need to clear to build a tiny house village in the Biggest Little City is long. So how likely is it to happen?

"I think it is very possible," Jardon said. "I think with community collaboration and volunteerism and support we can, at the city, we can find ways to make this happen."

"I don't know why we can't do this tomorrow," Cashell said. "I don't know why we can't, and start getting these people off the streets. If it was a pipe dream, I wouldn't be here. I would hope it's a dream that can come true."

Cashell said if Reno could put up 40 tiny houses, which is a smaller village than those in Seattle, that would be enough to get every homeless veteran in Reno off the streets.

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