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Tiny home vs county: Effort to help homeless runs afoul of regulations

Kate Soderberg owns a small home in Port Orchard, and works as a social worker on a fixed income.

Three years ago she started renting out an RV slip on her property. As it turned out, there were a lot of people who jumped at the chance to rent that space. That’s largely driven by a massive homeless crisis in Kitsap County. It’s had many living in the Port Orchard Walmart parking lot, or in parks.

“[It] brought in an additional $300 income for me, as well as helps people that are indigent, low income, or very poor,” she described. “That includes electricity, water, internet, trash, and washer and dryer. So it’s a win/win for all parties.

Are tiny home villages in Seattle a long-term solution?

That is until the county got involved, after a former tenant sent a complaint to code enforcement.

“Here in Kitsap County, the code is that they don’t allow for people to live in RVs, trailers, or tiny homes,” Soderberg said. “So if an individual lives in that, the county will allow a short term situation under a permit call the ‘Transitional Housing Accommodation.’ And so an individual is allowed to live in a tiny home/RV/trailer on somebody’s land for six months with an approved permit.”

According to the county, this code enacted in 2013 was meant to help the homeless. But Soderberg says a permit costs $230 dollars, requires a site plan, and for code enforcement to come out and assess the property — all for a tiny house. It’s also only a one-time-only permit, and there are other hoops a renter must jump through.

“During that time period, they need to be participating in services with the community with the idea of securing more permanent housing,” she noted. “That, as I understand, can be extended an additional six months if needed. But during that time period, they still need to be working with social services in securing alternative housing.”

Tiny house, big impact

Blake has been renting Soderberg’s RV space since March. Before that, he was homeless for three months. Having the opportunity to live in a tiny house has helped him get his life back on track.

“Now he owns this tiny home,” Soderberg said. “He’s in the process of making mortgage payments. He’s only living here temporarily, he plans to move his tiny home to some land. But in order to get the permit, he has to go to the Kitsap County Housing Solutions and participate in homeless services, even though he would tell you that he’s not homeless.”

“I’m not homeless now,” Blake concurred.

But that wasn’t the case five months ago. From January to March, he was couch surfing and living in his car in the Walmart parking lot after he got a DUI, and his life spiraled out of control.

Now, because he’s been able to rent Kate’s space for $300 a month, living in a tiny house, he’s on track with his mandatory drug and alcohol treatment, paying his child support and court fines, and working full time.

“I don’t want to try and say that I’m any more or less qualified or deserving than the next person,” Blake said. “But if you are trying and you’re making an actual effort to change your life and to make things better, you should be allowed to. Especially because I’m not taking any government assistance right now. I’m doing this all on my own.”

Blake’s outlined what it’s been like for him since he became homeless, working with Housing Solutions, and now dealing with the county on this new code enforcement situation.

“They don’t really care,” he described. “They just want (the tiny house) to go away. They don’t care where it goes, but they don’t want it to be here. And they won’t do anything to fix it either. I don’t believe in a handout, I believe in a hand up.”

Ironically, the county’s program to help the homeless like Blake will probably be the catalyst that disrupts his living situation, Soderberg points out. According to her, he’ll do what everyone else in the county is doing: Hide, by moving their tiny house, or RV/trailer to another spot.

“In the meantime, I’ve now lost a tenant, and if I follow what the code enforcement says, I can’t have another one because I had my one bite of the apple according to them. My one blessing.”

Kitsap County codes

Soderberg said after numerous calls and emails questioning the permit, the code enforcement agent she was working with blocked her email address.

She escalated the situation up to County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido and after eight calls she finally got a call back.

“Garrido presents the permit as something they’re doing to help the homeless situation. If they can get into a trailer or something it’s a place to land, and this is what they’re doing to help remedy the homeless situation. So you have a global aggregate policy theory. And then you have the code officers going, ‘Shame on you, we’ll let you do it for six months, maybe a year, but don’t ever do it again.'”

Soderberg says to be fair, the Director of Community Development, Jeff Rimack, gave her three months to come up with the money to pay for the permit fee.

“I suppose it could have been worse as they were initially saying he had to unplug and disconnect water and return to living in the park if I didn’t pay for the permit in the allotted time. They could have cited me after an initial notice. So, I want to be fair.”

In an email to Soderberg, Rimack writes, “I regret that you feel you are being bullied or held for ransom because that is not our intent, nor is it our intent to place a person back on the street. Our only intent in this situation is to resolve the violation within the parameters allowed by KCC. I understand the situation is a difficult one and that is why I am trying to work with you by allowing time to save the money for the permit. I hope this helps to further explain our constraints around addressing this matter while affording some time to address the matter.”

Remembering the Infamous Kitsap Ferry Riot of 1987

Soderberg believes the county’s intentions with the transitional permit were good in the sense that it was their first foray into addressing the increasing homeless problem in Kitsap County. Upon it’s adoption in 2013 they didn’t fully realize people — which includes people who don’t consider themselves homeless — would chose to live in tiny homes as a long term plan.

“So if you have somebody who bought their own land and put a tiny home on it, under this transitional permit — because they have to get a permit — they would have to go to Housing Solutions after they bought their land for a temporary, one time only permit.”

Since the airing of this story on Seattle’s Morning News a KIRO Radio listener has come forward to pay for the permit fee:

The guy living in the tiny house really struck a chord with me. I think it’s just a sad, bureaucratic situation. Instead of allowing people to help each other, they’re just trying to hit her hard for being generous with other people. It’s not like she’s making a mint off of the individuals living there. She’s really providing a service and helping people who need just a little assistance and that’s really something that resonates with me.

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