Seattle Commits to $12 Million in Modular Housing for the Homeless

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Homeless encampments like the ones pictured above are a common sight in Seattle. A new initiative aims to house at-risk individuals in factory-built modular shelters and permanent homes. (Photo: David Lee/Flickr)

Green prefab construction has long found a welcome home in Seattle. But will the Emerald City also embrace modular housing that's specifically designed for those with nowhere else to turn?

The top brass in King County — Washington state's most populous county with over 2 million residents and a homeless population that stretches north of 12,000 on any given night — is confident that modular housing of the emergency and transitional variety can be embraced ... and make a significant positive impact on the lives of hundreds of people.

As the Seattle Times reports, it's been nearly two years since officials first entertained the idea of using modular building as a method of alleviating a mounting homelessness crisis that's been in self-declared "emergency" mode since 2015. Now, the county is ready to move forward with a $12 million pilot program that will eventually yield three housing projects for individuals experiencing and transitioning out of homelessness.

Although two of the projects have secured build sites and are anticipated to be ready by next summer, there's still plenty of bureaucratic red tape, zoning squabbles and local pushback to wade through yet.

The first project, a pet-friendly 24/7 shelter located on a county-owned parcel in Seattle's industrial Interbay neighborhood and operated by Catholic Community Services, will boast nine modular dorm units and a "campus-like layout." As the Times details, this particular project has been in the works for a while now but hasn't benefitted from abnormally high turnover in the mayor's office. The second, a permanent supportive housing hub with 80 to 100 studio and one-bedroom apartments and around-the-clock on-site care, is planned for Shoreline, a small city just north of Seattle. Collectively, these two sites will house an estimated 170 people.

Modular homeless shelter illustration, Seattle
A new start, modular-style: An illustration of a pet-friendly prefab homeless shelter planned for Seattle's Interbay neighborhood. (Photo: King County)

A new start, modular-style: An illustration of a pet-friendly prefab homeless shelter planned for Seattle's Interbay neighborhood. (Image courtesy King County)

A smaller third site, which will feature fully permitted and self-contained "modular micro dwelling units" clustered around a central courtyard, will house another 25 residents in a yet-to-be-determined locale. Emphasizing long-term living arrangements and behavioral health, this facility will be operated by the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC.)

Funding for all three facilities is coming from county coffers along with a mix of other sources.

Supportive housing for 200 people may not seem like a lot when considering how prevalent homelessness in affordable housing-strapped Seattle really is. It's a full-on epidemic. These three modular projects, however, serve as more or less a test-run — once they're up and running and shown to be viable, it's reasonable to think that additional similar housing could come soon thereafter ... and post haste.

And that's the beauty of factory-built housing. Modular construction offers greater speed, efficiency and, in many cases, affordability, compared to traditional stick-built construction. Prefab homes are also inherently versatile: they can be stacked, moved, rearranged and repositioned as need be.

In a press release, King County Executive Dow Constantine emphasizes the speed factor as well as the need for open minds:

"To tackle the housing crisis, we need to explore different options to get people housed quickly," he says. "Modular housing has shown great promise, and may play a key part in our regional response. To be successful, we will need everyone — local jurisdictions, neighbors, and community partners — to help us take this approach to scale and give people secure and stable places to live."

Modular micro-dwellings for the homeless, Seattle
Assembled locally, modular micro-dwellings for individuals transitioning out of homeless can be stacked, rearranged or moved entirely if need be. (Photo: King County)

Locally built modular micro-dwellings for individuals transitioning out of homeless can be stacked, rearranged or moved entirely. (Image courtesy King County)

Keeping things local

Despite the delay in getting things off the ground, Seattle, as mentioned, is a prefab-friendly town, even though this is the city's inaugural foray into affordable modular building by order of the King County Department of Community and Human Services. In other words, this is the first time in Seattle that modular homes will be used directly to combat homelessness. (The city has implemented several other housing ideas, including increasingly popular tiny house villages, which have been found to be potentially problematic in terms of maintaining federal funding for homelessness.)

"We're looking at every smart opportunity there is, but we have got to make some decisions and move faster," City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw explains to the Seattle Times. "Modular housing may not be a silver bullet, but if we couple it with other solutions, it could make for some silver buckshot."

Because of prefab's proliferation across the Seattle area and the Pacific Northwest in general, it was easy for King County to keep things local-ish. The builder contracted for the congregate-style shelter in Seattle and the currently site-less cluster of micro-dwellings to the tune of $4.5 million is Whitley Evergreen, an established modular construction firm based in neighboring Snohomish County.

The designer of these two projects comes from a bit further afield: Portland, Oregon. In fact, architect Stuart Emmons is also a former city council candidate in Portland who made alleviating homelessness a top priority in his 2016 and 2018 primary campaigns.

As the Portland Tribune explains, Emmons has worked with Whitley Evergreen on previous projects and believes that building locally is key for time-sensitive modular housing projects like the ones in the works for King County. He points out that the main reason another modular homeless housing project to be funded in part by Seattle billionaire Paul Allen was ultimately scrapped was because the units were to be built in a Chinese factory and then shipped to Seattle.

"It was tabled due to cost overruns," he tells the Tribune. "They were flying regulators from Olympia to Shanghai to inspect the modules, it wasn't working."

The Emmons-designed units are designed to be moveable with the potential to be "popped apart like Legos and moved to another part of the city" explains the Tribune. Owned and operated by the Community Psychiatric Clinic, the transitional housing units at the much larger project in Shoreline, which does not involve Emmons or Whitley Evergreen and will be built on land donated by the city, will be fixed to a concrete foundation and therefore be a permanent facility that cannot be disassembled and relocated.

"Shoreline is doing its part to tackle the regional housing crisis," says Mayor Will Hall. "We continue to work with our partners on better and cheaper ways to provide housing for those in our community and in our region who are most in need."

Can prefab save the day?

Outside of Seattle, cities including London, Honolulu and Vancouver, B.C., have turned to modular building when tackling homelessness while other cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles mull the possibilities of prefab.

Earlier this summer, the New York Times published an extensive article detailing how prefab building, an industry once dominated by high-end single-family homes bedecked out in high-tech bells and whistles, is now focused more and more on taking on denser, bigger, taller and, most importantly, more affordable project in cities where reasonably priced apartment units are far and few between.

As is the case with the projects underway in Seattle, housing schemes in which funding is limited and the timeline is urgent further expand the quick 'n' cheap potential of multi-unit modular construction. Seattle City Council Member Jeanne Kohl-Welles calls it an "innovative, cost effective and timely solution" to the city's affordable housing crisis.

But as County Executive Constantine elaborates to the Seattle Times, local municipalities need to "be sold" on the idea that modular housing for the homeless is the most effective approach before they commit to anything that could potentially involve zoning tweaks and drawn-out permitting headaches.

"We have to show that the strategy can work," he explains. "If we're able to do that, we're ready to beg, rent or borrow a site even for three to five years to help fill the need."