The Tulalip Tribe Village of Hope: 17 tiny homes become permanent supportive housing
Christmas brought a new beginning for 17 families at the Tulalip Indian Reservation’s newly extended Village of Hope, when they moved into new tiny homes connected by walking paths near the southwest corner of the 22,000-acre reservation near Tulalip Bay.
The Washington State Department of Commerce provided nearly $2.5 million from the Housing Trust Fund in 2020 to build the 17 tiny homes for Tulalip elders, individuals and families with young children.
The project expands the Tulalip Homeless Shelter, which was created in the early 2000s. The transitional program included six cabins, a main community center for case managers, laundry facilities and kitchens. At the time, members of the tribe were allowed to stay for six months to a year; it quickly became apparent that people needed more time to overcome barriers and instability in housing.
“So a lot of them were staying about two years to be successful, and then COVID-19 hit, and the housing crises was creating a bigger waiting list,” said Teri Nelson, the executive director of tribal services. “It was harder to isolate and quarantine during the pandemic, so we started the process to expand.”
The idea was to replicate the same model as the other six homes. However, shared living spaces like kitchens or bathrooms weren’t going to work in the midst of an airborne pandemic. The design shifted to include bigger cabins with full-size bathrooms, personal kitchens and a larger community room.
With the bigger homes came a change in philosophy for the village.
“We were just experiencing that people would need more time to address several barriers in their lives,” Nelson said. “Some needed to work on credit repairs, finish some education, some criminal history that they are paying fines, and that takes a lot longer than the transition time would allow.”
In fact, by moving to a permanent supportive housing model, some people that lived in the cabins were able to buy their own home or find affordable rentals. Permanent supportive housing combines affordable housing assistance with community-based health care, treatment and employments services.
“The beautiful thing about supportive housing with no timeline is that a lot of people just naturally say ‘I will have the opportunity now to save money, make a goal, and we’re gonna buy our own house one day, and I’m going to work on my credit,’” Nelson reiterated. “It’s not even anything you have to require them to do. It’s just happening authentically for them.”
Building a community means keeping families in mind
When the idea to build more houses arose, there was a survey of community stakeholders who served members in need of housing. Surprisingly, there several families needed a place to reunify with their children, who were in the Beda?Chelh program (the Tulalip Tribe’s child protective services program). This presented a unique challenge.
“Most of my projects, you either serve families with children or you serve single adults. You usually don’t mix the two,” said Ginger Segel, principal at GS Consulting, an affordable housing and community facility project consulting agency. “And when I said ‘You want to serve chronically homeless single adults, are you sure you want to serve them alongside children?’”
That question was a foreign concept to the tribe, because people are seen as part of their community and should be welcomed into the village regardless of where they are in their individual journey.
“Homelessness affects all different types of situations,” Nelson explains. “You have some that have substance use issues and disorders, and then you have some that come on hard economic times like job loss and not enough income to find affordable housing in the area.”
This is especially true in tribal communities, where a recent study published by the Commerce estimates 29,279 (39.8%) American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) households in Washington are either overcrowded or cost-burdened (paying more than 30% of their monthly income on housing expenses). AIAN people make up less than 3.1% of the state’s population, yet they are 11.1% of the state’s population experiencing homelessness and 18.1% of the unsheltered homeless.
“In tribal communities, we experienced overcrowding living and people staying with relatives or couch surfing,” said Nelson. “We have huge waiting lists through our HUD (Housing and Urban Development) program. We needed to get a quick solution that didn’t cost a lot of money, but made a big impact to help those who were unsheltered in our community.”
Unique obstacles for tribal communities
The goal was moving people out of their cars and other places not fit for human habitation and into facilities with care managers. However, getting project funding was another challenge.
“Nobody but the tribe can own reservation land, which means the way you secure investments on tribal land is different,” Segel said. “For example, you can’t have a deed of trust, whereas if the owner defaults the land then goes to the state or some other lender.”
Despite this, GS Consulting worked with the tribe to secure funding through the Department of Commerce by creating a leasehold deed of trust where the improvements can go to the state. This way, the state could take over the lease if it had to but there was never a transfer of ownership.
In fact, a report produced for Commerce, which surveyed 18 tribal housing entities in Washington, found that trust land status and other land issues were the most cited barriers to homeownership. Although these barriers exist for funding, the Tulalip Tribe was successful.
As the new designs were created, there was a push to change the name from the Tulalip Homeless Shelter to something that represented the impact and work of what was happening. The Tulalip Village of Hope name reflected that vision. The design also includes a computer lab, a conference room and an area for children to play quietly during residential council meetings.
The conference room has already been used for classes like credit repair, banking and several self-improvement conferences. The room can be used for residents and employees, and there is a therapeutic room for onsite counseling or social work.
Plus, other members in the community volunteered to teach classes about weaving, canning and cooking.
“We’re very lucky to have had this opportunity,” said Nelson. “There are many potential solutions that can address homelessness. Permanent supportive housing is one, it’s lower barrier, and it can get really complex, but at least we have this one solution that can help incrementally one step at a time.”