Small size, big impact

Magnolia Lutheran Church volunteers build tiny house

At first glance, it may not look like much.

But for at least one person, the finished product of a project by volunteers from the Magnolia Lutheran Church will make a world of difference.

Earlier this month, a small crew wrapped up construction on an 8-by-12 tiny house, destined for one of the Low Income Housing Institute’s sites around the city.

John Valiton chairs the church’s social action committee, and said the idea to build one, “just took off.” It didn’t take long to raise well beyond the $2,500 needed for materials.

They also found a group of volunteers that had both the time and know-how to help, and a willingness to start the day after Christmas, with snow still on the ground.

Among that group was Chris Backman — a painting contractor by trade — and a longtime member of the church, dating all the way back to Sunday school in the 1950s.

“I think it’s important if you can give back in any way, shape or form to the community that you can see fit,” he said.

Casey French also wanted to give back. It was a far cry from where he was just months ago.

In July, French was shot four times and in his words, “wasn’t supposed to make it.” He has the scars to prove it, including one just above his eye as he turned from the first shot, and another on his back where a bullet just missed his spine.

He spent more than 50 days in the intensive care unit at Harborview, and was released after three months in the hospital.

“The doctors never knew if I was going to live or die that day, or the next day,” he said.

But after months of recovery — with French noting he’s “never had to work so hard to get back into shape,” — he was hard at work with members of a congregation that supported him.

“A lot of people were there from this church praying for me,” he said.

The crew was also able to avoid — for the most part — wet and windy weather typical of late December, that could have added days, if not weeks to the timeline of a project.

“We lucked out,” Valiton said.

At the same time, that kind of weather was part of the reason to build a tiny house in the first place.

“I feel anyone who’s out there every night with no roof over their heads,” French said, “so it’s nice to be able to build something and try to help out, make people’s lives a little better and a little easier.”

Bradford Gerber, who coordinates LIHI’s Tiny House program, said there’s been great support from Seattle’s faith community. Each of the seven tiny house villages has a number of homes built by churches in a similar fashion, but students groups, and those in pre-apprenticeship programs and technical schools have put together most.

As far as the advantages of tiny homes themselves — along with protection from the elements — Gerber said part of it is simply giving someone a door that locks.

“When we talk with residents, the locking door stands out as what makes a tiny house as impactful as it is,” he said.

Being able to leave possessions behind while going to work, without the concern they’d be gone at day’s end, adds a sense of security. 

“It goes a long way to establishing normalcy,” he said.

But Gerber is quick to note that tiny houses are not a permanent housing solution. The key, he said, is what comes next.

“We base our success on how many people we move into permanent housing from the villages and encampments,” he said.

Over the past two years, more than 300 people have made that move, a figure Gerber said outperforms almost any other shelter in the city. That’s in part because residents are encouraged to make use of case management services, and seek out resources, even without a firm timeline to move on.

Meanwhile, there’s been increasing talk — including a goal set by now-Mayor Jenny Durkan during last year’s campaign — to build 1,000 more tiny homes throughout the city. 

“That’s kind of the number we’re looking at and planning for,” he said. “What that timeline would look like, we’re not sure.”

For now, though, they’ve added at least one.

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