New lawsuit aims to close down Seattle tiny home village

SEATTLE — Controversy is again surrounding the new South Lake Union tiny house village that just opened at the end of October.

The group Safe Seattle, which calls itself a grassroots watchdog group, is suing the city of Seattle as well as the Low Income Housing Institute, which is the organization that runs the city's tiny village encampments.

LIHI is also firing back.

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The lawsuit focuses on the camp at 801 Aloha Street and says it wants the South Lake Union location to be shut down, at least for now.

“This is the last resort for us,” said David Preston of Safe Seattle.

The complaint accuses LIHI of not having have proper permits.

But at the heart of the issue, Preston said he doesn’t believe the LIHI-run tiny house system helps enough residents, and he said the villages have a negative impact on their neighborhoods.

“I’ve seen with my own eyes that the quality of life deteriorates around these shack villages over time,” Preston said.

He cited the Licton Springs tiny village on North Aurora.

That camp will be closing next year after data showed residents were not being placed into permanent housing as quickly as hoped and that crime doubled  in the neighborhood over one year.

But LIHI said other villages - like the Othello Village in Rainier Valley - have been much more successful.

“We have examples where villages have actually reduced the crime,” said Sharon Lee, LIHI’s executive director.

KIRO 7 talked with LIHI at the True Hope village in the Central District, and the organization connected KIRO 7’s Deedee Sun with several residents there who said living there has helped turn their lives around.

“It has brought stability into my life that hasn’t been there for a while,” said Deanne Hunter, a tiny village resident.

Another resident, Kenyatta Webb, has lived there for three months.

“Me and my son, who is 15, before we got here we were sleeping in our truck back there. So I’m glad we got a chance to come here before it got cold like this, because it’s cold,” Webb said.

He said his case worker at True Hope already helped him find a job and he’s moving into permanent housing.

As for the legal allegations, Safe Seattle accuses LIHI of violating certain city ordinances.

“We claim that LIHI did not fill out the proper paperwork, they did not submit the operations plan to the city as they had agreed to do under their contract,” Preston said.

The suit says become legal, or shut down.

The text reads, “The Court should order LIHI to prepare and file the ‘Encampment Operations Plan’ required by SMC 23.42.56C and terminate or prohibit operation of the encampment until the plan is filed and determined to be sufficient under the law.”

LIHI said it’s already operating within the rules.

“He has the facts totally wrong. We do have a permit to operate. He alleges from what I read that we don’t have a management plan or operation plan. That is totally false,” Lee said.

“We have copies of the plan and the city has copies of the plan. We would not be able to open our doors without a management or operations plan,” Lee said.

Safe Seattle said what it really wants is more community input on the decisions made surrounding homelessness.

“What are are you hoping to accomplish with this suit?” KIRO7’s Deedee Sun asked Preston.

“If LIHI sits down with us and offers a better way, if they offer to start talking with us, and the city brings us and the neighborhoods into this process, that would be a step forward. That would be a good compromise,” Preston said.

“If they continue to stonewall us, I’d say we’re just going to push forward with this suit and we’re going to try to make LIHI follow the law. I believe that LIHI cannot follow the law and continue operating these shack villages so they’ll be forced to close,” Preston said.

LIHI said the claims of the lawsuit have no basis but if a judge rules in favor of Safe Seattle, that ruling could impact all LIHI-run tiny house villages.

The city of Seattle was also sued over the SLU tiny village in June before it opened. That lawsuit claimed in part that the community didn't get enough notice. A judge ruled in favor of LIHI in that case.


By Carolyn Ossorio, MyNorthwest.com

A grassroots watchdog group is suing the City of Seattle over its use of tiny home villages to combat homelessness, with the hope of ending the shelter program altogether.

Safe Seattle filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court on December 4. It is suing the city and the Low Income Housing Institute “for operating these tiny house villages without proper permitting and without doing the things they need to do to run what are, in fact, assisted living facilities,” said David Preston, with Safe Seattle.

In response to the homelessness crisis, Seattle has started a handful of tiny house villages around the city. The tiny homes are small spaces with beds, heating, access to water, showers, and bathrooms. They also are aimed at getting people into permanent housing. The city contracts with LIHI to operate the villages.

Safe Seattle promotes itself as a non-profit watchdog for Seattle’s public safety and government accountability. The group is now suing the city and LIHI in an effort to shut the newest tiny home village in South Lake Union. Preston and Safe Seattle say that the villages violate residential zoning codes.

“We’re are asking them to provide their operations plan as they agreed to do in the their contract with the City of Seattle, and have not done,” he said. “We are asking them to get permits for these structures they are housing people in, and we are asking them to do all the necessary requirements to ensure they are providing adequate standard of care to the people living in these tiny houses.”

Preston argues that he had previously tried other avenues to influence city policy around shelters, but those efforts were not fruitful and he did not receive adequate responses from leaders. The lawsuit is his latest such attempt. He claims that LIHI does not move people off the street and into permanent housing. Rather, it acts like a “warehouse for poor people,” creating a revenue stream for its organizers.

“After years of going back-and-forth with them and getting nothing, I decided to ramp it up a little bit and take legal action to stop them from expanding this network of shack villages until they can do it right,” he said.

“They told us that there would only be three (such villages), and this was just an experimental program and we were going to take a good hard look at it before we moved forward,” Preston said. “And now we got, what, nine or 10 of these things? And not one of them has proven its worth.”

“They are spread around the City of Seattle,” he said. “There is one in my Highland Park neighborhood called Camp Second Chance, there’s one in the Northlake neighborhood, there’s one in the Licton Springs neighborhood off North Aurora, and there’s one in the Whittier Heights neighborhood in North Ballard, and there are a few more.”

Preston argues that squatter camps tend to pop up nearby the tiny home villages, too.

The Safe Seattle lawsuit focuses on shutting down the Aloha Street tiny village in South Lake Union, but Preston hopes it will tip the scales against other low-barrier villages until the city can provide a better plan for homelessness.