Residents from two of Bellingham’s tiny home villages — Unity Village in Fairhaven and Swift Haven in the Puget neighborhood — are apprehensive about their impending relocation, required by the City of Bellingham in the next 12 months due to expanding city services and expiring permits.
The villages, operated by HomesNow!, provide emergency shelter for about 50 residents who would otherwise be homeless. The facilities offer tiny homes equipped with a bed, a table, electrical outlets and porches. Residents share kitchen, dining and shower areas.
Relocation efforts, underway for more than a year, have kept residents on edge while they wait for city staff to identify a possible relocation site for the communities.
“It sort of feels like the security we have is being ripped away again,” Unity Village resident Tina Hayes said Thursday, July 13. “We’re losing that sense of stability, and without stability, how do we move forward?”
Hayes called moving “traumatic” for residents, many of whom found their first sense of stability in the tiny home village located near the Post Point Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Now, staff have identified a possible location for both villages: a recently acquired city property along Meridian Street in the Cordata neighborhood. The property, located at 4447 Meridian St., was recently purchased by the city to convert the space into connector trails. Remaining land on the property, though, could serve as the ideal space for the tiny home villages, with easy access to hospitals, emergency services and public transit, as well as stores and Whatcom Community College, staff said.
HomesNow! Chairman Doug Gustafson is apprehensive about the location, though, and said concentrating property on the edge of town isn’t ideal for the residents.
“We’re grateful and happy there is a site to exist at, and that’s great,” Gustafson said from a picnic table inside Unity Village on Thursday. “But it isn’t ideal. It’s a lot of money and effort to move, and we want [the villages] to be seen.”
The city is still reviewing the site on the Guide, conducting surveys of the space and evaluating the habitat before they commit to putting tiny homes there when the villages are required to move at the end of March 2024.
“What happens if the survey finds out we can only fit 30 homes there?” Gustafson wondered. “The process is moving really fast, and we’ll know more in a couple of weeks.”
The area, staff wrote, is “well suited” for temporary tiny home villages.
“The site is unencumbered, can be used in the future for permanent affordable housing and ensures a stable location for both villages for as long as their use permits allow,” the city’s Deputy Finance Director Forrest Longman wrote in a memo. “Staff identified the recently purchased property at Meridian as the best suited for siting both tiny home villages.”
Longman wrote the staff evaluated several public and private properties to use as relocation spaces, but all had challenges like wetlands or limited facilities.
The new site, too, will come with some upgrades for the tiny home villages, Gustafson said, including actual bathrooms; the current villages rely on mobile bathrooms and portable toilets.
Even so, Gustafson pushed back on the idea of relocation, and said the new site should be used for additional tiny homes to help house the county’s growing homeless population.
Current county estimates indicate more than 1,000 people are homeless, though that number is likely an undercount.
“The demand is really, really high,” Gustafson said. “This could be used to add 50 new homes, not used as a relocation. We could get 50 more people off the street.”
Both villages have to relocate in the next year, with Swift Haven’s current permits expiring March 31, 2024, and construction at Post Point pushing Unity Village out of the parking lot next summer.
Gustafson said they’ve seen some “not-in-my-backyard” pushback, but he expects that to subside when residents realize the villages are generally safe, clean and quiet, as it did when the group launched Unity Village in 2019 and Swift Haven in 2021.
Residents compared moving both villages to one site to existing Bellingham shelters like the 200-bed Basecamp: too cramped to function without disagreements or other issues.
“People grow and prosper in smaller groups,” Hayes said. “How do we make sure every resident gets along when there’s that many people? People here are disabled, ill, in recovery, and smaller capacity just works a lot better.”
Shannon Taggart, a 63-year-old resident of Unity Village, was living in her car while fighting colon cancer before she moved into her tiny home last year.
“I wouldn’t mind moving, but I don’t know about having two villages together,” she said Thursday. “Is there enough room for all of us?”