Kent City Council decision halts tiny home village proposal

Council members want staff in next two years to take citywide look at transitional housing

Tiny homes for the homeless such as these were proposed to be built in Kent. COURTESY PHOTO, Low Income Housing Institute

Tiny homes for the homeless such as these were proposed to be built in Kent. COURTESY PHOTO, Low Income Housing Institute

It could take up to two years or more before any tiny home villages for the homeless come to Kent.

The Kent City Council voted 7-0 on Tuesday, May 3 to direct city staff to review transitional housing as part of the comprehensive plan with a potential update for the council to consider in 2024. That decision shuts down plans by Seattle-based nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute to open a village this summer.

“I strongly believe we need to look at a citywide approach,” said Council President Bill Boyce, who proposed the motion approved by the council. “We have nothing against tiny homes but it’s about the process. We will follow the process, and make it part of the comprehensive plan to present to the council. …We do care about the homeless but we are going to do it the right way before we move forward.”

The city’s comprehensive plan is a document used by staff and elected officials in making long-term decisions about implementing development regulations for future neighborhoods or specific development master plans. The council wants staff to look at all forms of transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, indoor emergency shelters and indoor emergency homes.

Residents packed the Council Chambers to speak in favor and against a proposal first raised at an informational council workshop April 5. During that workshop, Low Income Housing Institute staff announced plans to build 28 tiny homes this summer on property owned by St. James Episcopal Church, 24447 94th Ave. S.

That led to residents speaking for and against the tiny home village at the council meeting later that night as well as at the April 19 and May 3 council meetings. Boyce said the council also received numerous emails about the issue.

The initial May 3 council agenda included an other business item for the council to consider whether to direct staff to prepare a zoning code amendment that would allow tiny home villages in Kent, and if so, in which zoning districts.

About 30 people spoke May 3 about the tiny home village proposal prior to the council’s vote.

Sally Ross, vice president of the Wildberry Homeowners Association, told the council that the neighborhood is just 11 blocks from the proposed site.

“Our homeowners believe zoning is not right for this project and oppose a code amendment,” Ross said. “There are seven developments of million dollar homes within one mile of the site, north along 94th Avenue. …We are not being elitist but are protecting our property values and the safety of our residents.”

The opposition of nearby residents persuaded the council to pause any action that would allow the project to move forward this year.

“I support the proposal by Council President Boyce,” said Councilmember Zandria Michaud. “I support making it part of the comprehensive plan and with proper public outreach and amble notice to residents. …This particular project I cannot support it without residents support.”

Pat Gray, who helped the Kent Homelessness Partnership Effort (KentHOPE) and Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission open a women’s shelter in 2013, told the council it should support the tiny home village.

“About 11 years ago a citizens group tried to establish services for the homelessness and met with great opposition,”Gray said. “We were denied four buildings. Finally, we used our own building.”

Gray said the shelter, 9009 Canyon Dr., has helped transition 775 women out of homelessness since it opened eight years ago.

“Tiny homes provide housing for people who need a chance to get on their feet,” Gray said. “Why are we opposed? Why do we generalize and fear when we have assurance from LIHI (Low Income Housing Institute) that it will be well run? Why do we worry about us when should be concerned about them (the homeless)?”

Low Income Housing Institute operates 16 tiny home villages in Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and Bellingham. The group’s staff said King County grants, donations and volunteer help would cover the costs of the Kent project, with no financial obligation from the city.

“St. James (church) has given us an opportunity to reach out and say ‘we are there for you, let us help you,’” Gray said.

Councilmember Satwinder Kaur said she volunteers at KentHOPE’s shelter and she appreciated the efforts of St. James Episcopal and Low Income Housing Institute to set up a place for the homeless. But she agreed the council should delay a decision.

“Tiny homes are a great concept, but we definitely need to look at the whole picture,” Kaur said. “This was supposed to be an informational session (at the workshop). We need to look at the whole process and address homelessness in our long-term plan.”

Councilmember Marli Larimer said she supported the project, but the opposition of nearby neighborhoods led her to support the motion proposed by Boyce.

“In some ways we are pushing the problem out two years, but I see it as our only path forward to start addressing unsheltered residents in Kent,” Larimer said.

Larimer said the tiny home village would be better than current options for the homeless.

“It’s safer and more humane than what we have today in our community with a lack of options for people who live in tent encampments, vehicles, along trails and greenbelts,” Larimer said.

Based on other projects, the tiny village homes are 8 feet by 12 feet with a bed, heat, a light, electricity and a locking door. Residents must follow a code of conduct (including no drugs or alcohol) and work with a case manager to find permanent housing. The village would feature community kitchen and restroom facilities, on-site showers and laundry, a counseling office and a 24/7 welcome/security hut where donations of food, clothing and hygiene items can be dropped off. Entry to the complex would be through one gate.

Councilmember Brenda Fincher brought up the idea at a council retreat to invite Low Income Housing Institute to a workshop to explain what they can offer to the homeless.

“I still stand by it as a good idea,” said Fincher, who has visited other tiny home villages and came away impressed with the screening process to keep out those with drug or drinking problems.

But Fincher agreed the council needs to look at the larger picture.

“It’s not ideal, but I support the motion because I strongly believe it should be part of our comprehensive plan,” Fincher said.

Fincher, however, wants something done sooner than 2024 to help provide shelter for the homeless.

“I don’t want to wait two years,” she said.

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