After a turbulent and acrimonious two years on the Seattle City Light-owned lot off NE Northlake Way, just north of Ivar’s, the Northlake Tiny House Village will be emptied and de-commissioned as of December 31.
In a letter addressed to Sharon Lee, the executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI, the city-recognized managers of the village), and delivered to the village and the Northlake Community Advisory Council (on which I serve), Adrienne Easter, Manager of Homeless Investments for the City of Seattle Human Services Department (HSD), wrote that the “The City of Seattle will not be renewing the contract for Northlake Village in 2020 and will end the contract for Northlake Village per the current contract date of December 31, 2019.”
Before I go any further, I want to be clear: by “turbulent and acrimonious”, I am referring only to relationship between the city, LIHI and the village. The village and its residents have resided with peace and respect in the Wallingford community throughout. The closest businesses to the village, Dunn Lumber and Ivar’s, have both been supportive of the village, and I’ve heard nothing but positive reactions about Wallingford residents’ interactions with the villagers (sometimes called “Nickelodeons”).
The decision comes after months of deadlock between HSD and LIHI on one side, and Nickelsville and the village residents on the other. For the past several months, the residents of the community, led by the Nickelsville staff, have padlocked the gates and refused LIHI staff entry to the village, and have declined repeated requests from HSD staff to visit the village.
When originally chartered by HSD, the tiny house village that now resides at Northlake (previously Ballard) was to be operated by LIHI and managed by Nickelsville, a small non-profit staffed by activists and veterans of the battles around homeless encampments that began under Mayor Greg Nickels. Within that, the village was to follow a “self-management” model, electing staff (e.g., Head of Security, Community Relations) from the residents. Camp residents were required to attend weekly camp meetings at which votes on key decisions were held and to abide by a no drugs, no alcohol, no violence on premises policy.
Nickelsville, a 501(c)3, has only one part-time paid staff member and three volunteer staff members. While it nominally has a board, in the two years I have worked with them and witnessed the escalations and battles they’ve waged with the city and with LIHI, I have never heard any mention of board involvement or guidance. LIHI is a much larger organization, which owns and/or manages over 2,200 housing units at 60 sites in six counties, as well as the Urban Rest Stop hygiene facilities.
One bone of contention between the organizations has been “bars”, the temporary or permanent ejection of residents for rule infractions. Nickelsville advocated for a resident-led process that allowed for the village to eject people immediately for rule-breaking infractions. LIHI and HSD were concerned that residents may have been ejected for improper reasons, and were being put out on the street without shelter, sometimes late at night.
Honestly, though, this is just one tiny drop in the bucket of their disagreements. Both organizations have been trading charges and counter-charges for as long as I have been involved. Nickelsville has accused LIHI case managers of misconduct. LIHI has accused Nickelsville of refusal to allow exterminators to enter to perform bedbug control. Nickelsville has accused LIHI of failure to provide promised hygiene supplies. LIHI has accused Nickelsville of ejecting residents for political reasons.
Back and forth it has gone, until finally, on March 29, 2019, LIHI delivered a letter informing all involved that, with HSD’s blessing, it was severing its relationship with Nickelsville and would operate the Northlake village without their involvement. Nickelsville staff were ordered to turn over all documents and equipment related to the village and to vacate the premises.
It’s unclear what LIHI thought the response to this would be, but needless to say, it didn’t go over well. Nickelsville staff, on-site and close to the residents, supported and encouraged the residents in resisting Nickelsville’s removal from management. The residents padlocked the gate and issued angry declarations, insisting that LIHI staff was not allowed on-site at the village they were chartered by the city to operate.
For months, this deadlock held. Despite having its staff barred from the village itself, LIHI continued to deliver basic supplies, paid for utilities (from funding provided by HSD) and offered to coordinate bedbug extermination. For the earlier period of the dispute, LIHI continued to provide case management services, offering to help residents find permanent housing, employment and other necessities. However, after several angry confrontations with residents, LIHI’s case manager, Will Uhlig, refused to return (although he continued to work with a small number of residents offsite). Will was himself a replacement for Shelby Henkel, who was made unwelcome by the residents last year.
Finally, at the September 2019 meeting of Northlake Villages Community Advisory Council (CAC), HSD made clear that if LIHI and HSD were not allowed to come onsite to the village and talk directly to the residents by October 7, they should expect the village to be closed. Nickelsville and the villagers stock response was that they would meet with HSD but not with LIHI present, and only at a third location, not the village itself.
The village residents said at that meeting that a vote was scheduled for the following Monday to decide whether to allow HSD and LIHI to come on-site, but by this Tuesday, October 29th, they had still not relented, and HSD dropped the axe.Northlake termination
In crafting the letter, HSD frames the decision as a termination of their contract with LIHI, noting that “per the original performance improvement plan, Northlake Village is out of compliance and needed to correct the following items required by contract…”, but also makes clear that the failure of LIHI to meet contractual obligations was “due to Nickelsville’s interference”.
On Tuesday night, LIHI, HSD, Nickelsville, the CAC and village residents met at the monthly public CAC meeting, held in the library of the John Stanford School. Summarizing a letter that she had delivered earlier that day, Adrienne Easter reported
We’ve made the decision that we will not be moved forward with the contract in 2020 for Northlake. And what that means is that the city will be working with LIHI in the next couple of weeks…we have scheduled where we’re going to come out the village, on Monday, November 4th at 1:30 PM, and that will be city staff to answer any questions for residents and housing options and next steps, and we will be working with LIHI on next steps so we can make sure that the residents in the village have those next steps.
Asked by Nickelsville’s Marvin Futrell why this determination had come, when at the last CAC meeting they had been told that further deliberations were possible, Adrienne responded:
There has been no change. We informed people that we needed to have access to the village to meet with people inside the village as one of the pieces for the performance improvement plan, we were not allowed in the village, and we were very clear at the last two CAC meetings that one of the outcomes could be not moving forward with the village, and so that was the outcome.
Adrienne went on to clarify that all services, including utilities, delivery of hygiene and other supplies, bedbug extermination, etc, would continue through December 31, administered by LIHI.
The letter had been delivered prior to the meeting, so Nickelsville and the villagers were not surprised by announcement, but many residents were visibly shaken, angry and tearful. One resident asked if this meant they would be sent to “regular homeless shelters without our things” and others asked about what this meant for people with pets. Alex, an unemployed resident of Northlake described how he was “considered by the state to be an able bodied adult, so I don’t qualify for anything, how am I supposed to afford housing?”
You would be working with case managers, we will have case managers for all people in the village, working on what you identify as wanting for housing, which we want to be doing at all times in the villages, and which is one of the primary reasons that this happened with this village, and why we’re out of compliance, is because we don’t have the ability to have LIHI have case managers in there, full-time, moving people towards permanent housing.
Adrienne’s comment highlights one of the fundamental disconnects between HSD and Nickelsville: the purpose of the village. According to HSD, the village is meant to serve as temporary housing while residents work towards and are assisted in finding permanent housing. HSD has set a goal for their tiny house villages of 40% annual exit rate to permanent housing. The other tiny house villages (including those operated by LIHI) have achieved 30%.
Northlake, on the other hand, is stuck at around 10% exit rate to permanent housing, and Nickelsville and residents have resisted case worker attempts to move them on.
This is a difficult issue, and one that all parties have danced around from the beginning. In some ways, Northlake Village is a victim of its own success. They have managed to create community and to provide a (relatively) comfortable place to live for their residents. One resident at Tuesday’s meeting described how it was the best place he had lived in 15 years of being homeless. Another described how she had arrived traumatized, anxious and scared, but had “slowly emerged from my tiny house, made friends and met beautiful souls.”
Why would someone want to leave a community with support and purpose in a free (tiny) home in Wallingford, just to move to Section 8 housing in south Seattle?
On the other hand, if nobody leaves, all the other people in tents, waiting for a spot to open up where they can find time to heal have to keep waiting.
And all of this against the backdrop of a city dealing with skyrocketing homelessness, residential neighborhoods bristling at the encroachments of unsanctioned tent encampments, theft, drug abuse, public defecation, and all the human indignity that comes with these.
And I want to say that I recognize that, if you don’t have a job, you can’t afford a place to live. And if you can’t afford a place to live, a tent may be your only option. And if you wake up in a tent and have to defecate, public defecation may be your only option. It doesn’t make it acceptable for the neighborhood, it doesn’t make it any less disgusting, but I also don’t know what I would do differently if it were me waking up in a tent by I-5, and there were no public restrooms available.
I know that this is a bit of a tangent, because the Northlake Village has been precisely the obverse of the unsanctioned camps we see by I-5. It has been a respectful, clean and safe neighbor, which is exactly why its dissolution, and the dispersal of its residents into “other options” is such a tragedy.
So where does all this leave us?
Over the next two months, HSD and LIHI will work to empty the Northlake Village. It is unlikely to be successful by its deadline, because the case managers LIHI will deploy to manage the transition are deeply distrusted by the residents, and because the residents don’t want to leave.
So what happens on December 31, if there are still villagers there, holding out? When this question was put to Adrienne, she talked around it:
We will have information on timelines for you, we’re still working with LIHI on that, we want to make sure people in the village have that information, so we will be working…our next steps will be the Monday meeting so we can talk with people in the village about housing and moving people into alternative shelter, but by December 31 Northlake will be closed.
Nobody wants an ugly confrontation with the police forcibly removing people, but I have a hard time seeing the residents leaving any other way. The property the village sits on belongs to Seattle City Light, the “tiny houses” themselves belong to LIHI, and the city is paying for utilities and other basic necessities. It makes for a difficult impasse.
I learned from my fellow CAC member Ed Mast that HSD has submitted a budget to the City Council asking for $1.2M to shut down the Northlake and Georgetown villages, but that Kshama Sawant has introduced a counterproposal to spend those dollars, plus several million more, on opening up more tiny house villages rather than closing them down. City Council is deciding on the budget over the next month, with a scheduled final vote on November 25.
Many village residents may be holding out hope that Sawant’s proposal will save their community, but when Adrienne was asked whether the budget proposal might affect the outcome of the village, she said they were separate issues, and that the Northlake Village was being shut down for non-compliance, not for budgetary reasons.
Jami Fecher, the pastor at the Gift of Grace Church in Wallingford (and a fellow CAC member) has expressed a willingness to have the Gift of Grace church “sponsor” Nickelsville to manage the village on its existing site. This would provide the village with a legal entity that carried insurance to take the place of LIHI. However, the likelihood of the HSD agreeing to this change seems remote, at best.
The whole thing is sad. From my perspective, there have been ham-handed, short-sighted missteps and acts of poor faith on everyone’s part: LIHI, HSD, Nickelsville and even the residents. Unfortunately, when the dust settles, everyone at LIHI and HSD will still have a job, the Nickelsville staff will all have homes, and the Northlake Village residents will be back on the street.