Until the entire community feels that it is no longer acceptable to have people who are homeless, we will never be able to solve the issue. At least that’s what Rex Hohlbein, one of the founders of The BLOCK Project, believes.
The Seattle-based project puts tiny, sustainable BLOCK Homes into backyards of residential lots to house homeless people. But it’s not just a housing project.
“This is a community-building project first and a housing project second,” Hohlbein said. “We want people to tap into the joy of getting to know your neighbors and sharing.”
Hohlbein is also the founding and creative director of Facing Homelessness, the community-building nonprofit that encourages people to “just say hello” to folks living on the streets. He and his daughter Jenn LaFreniere, both architects who always dreamed of opening a firm together, founded BLOCK Architects. The project is founded and originated by BLOCK Architects, but managed by Facing Homelessness.
Their aim is to have a tiny home in the backyard of one single-family lot on every residentially zoned block within Seattle. Hohlbein says he hopes that not only will the BLOCK resident and host family have a relationship, but the whole neighborhood will get involved. He speaks idealistically in lofty terms that invokes inspiration about what a community can do and has the detailed game plan and connections to back it up.
So far, two residents and five host families have signed up for the program; the first home should be move-in ready by June 1.
One of the pioneers will be Real Change board member and vendor Shelly Cohen. He’s part of the 600 Club of vendors, which means he sells more than 600 papers in a month. Shelly sells at the PCC in Bothell Canyon Park, in addition to his work as a crossing guard for Seattle Public Schools. It’s difficult not to return a smile when you see his ear-to-ear grin, and Hohlbein, who has known him for two years through Facing Homelessness, knew he would be a great fit.
Cohen’s story in the project is unique, because he is giving up his Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) subsidized low-income apartment for the much smaller footprint. He says some of his friends and family think he’s mashugana — crazy — but he is eager to build a new community and share his positivity with them.
“I’m so excited about it, it’s just, it truly is a real change in my life in a positive way,” Cohen said. “Yeah, I’m giving up moving from a ‘regular’ apartment, but this is a step up for me, a step forward.”
He’s met his host family twice now. It consists of Nathan Feuerborn, his wife Sonja, their 8-year-old son Ocean and their 6-year-old daughter Skaista. An exclamatory greeting and smile from Skaista at the door set their relationships off on the right footing, and Cohen says his heart melted.
Nathan found out about the project through his volunteer work with Facing Homelessness. As a homeowner in the Central District with a decent-sized backyard, he was immediately interested.
He hoped to have a resident who would work well with them and be able to communicate through any difficulties with consideration. Thus far, Cohen has done so, opening up about his type 1 diabetes and other health issues. Nathan, a mental health counselor, and Sonja, a physician, say they feel equipped to offer the support he may need, but trust the experience will be mutually beneficial.
“We’re excited to expand our family, we’re excited to just have the access to his wisdom and what all his life has taught him,” Nathan said. “We have been given so much and it’s easy to open our backyard and our lives to somebody.”
There has been a lot of debate in Seattle over small homes. Ultimately, the BLOCK homes are completely legal in residentially zoned areas, and thus far there hasn’t been any pushback. However, it is important to Hohlbein that host families talk to the neighbors about the project, make sure they feel comfortable and invite them to be involved.
For participants like Cohen, who already have housing, that interaction is important. Cohen hasn’t yet given notice to SHA, but if he does and the Feuerborns need to end the relationship for some reason, he and participants like him would be in dire straits. Cohen and other BLOCK residents that lose housing through the program would be at the top of the BLOCK list, Holbein said. There are no guarantees, but the relationship between BLOCK participant and host is different from the usual landlord-tenant relationship, Hohlbein said.
“Shelly is going into this with eyes wide open,” said Hohlbein.
“Most landlord-tenant relationships are based on money. This relationship is based on love,” he said.
The BLOCK Homes differ from Tiny Home Villages in a couple of ways. The homes in the villages are typically just a bedroom, while the BLOCK Homes have a bathroom, kitchen and sleeping area in 109 square feet. While Tiny Home Villages offer a sequestered community, BLOCK encourages social inclusion and cross-class innovation to make use of all the talents and resources everyone can bring to the task of ending homelessness.
With a goal of being completely off grid, through solar panels, a greywater system and a composting toilet, they will leave very little impact on the land. Hohlbein says this green model elevates residents to a mode of living that society is slowly moving toward.
Residents are welcome to stay as long as they need to, and no upfront costs for either party makes the program accessible. Though the details are still being worked out, Hohlbein estimates residents will pay a sliding scale in rent, 30 percent of their income, which will be divided among the host family, a maintenance program and reinvestment into building new homes. In this way, they hope the program will become self sufficient.
To start, all of the materials and labor, from design, construction and even a custom matchmaking app, have been donated.
Once the program gains traction and there are homes on the ground, Hohlbein expects the paradigm to shift from people viewing their backyards as private sanctuaries to vehicles of social good. Facing Homelessness’s Managing Director Sara Vander Zanden and Community Director Sarah Steilen are shaping how the community will be tied into bringing on this shift.
That goodness is already starting to take root.
“My stress has gone down remarkably since I’ve been anticipating this exciting move in my life,” Cohen said. “I haven’t felt this good, probably, in decades.”
Real Change Reporter Ashley Archibald contributed to this story.