Construction on a new tiny home pilot project for people experiencing homelessness is underway, and a Western alumnus has been chosen to be its first resident.
One of the tiny homes, comprised of one single studio, has been partially assembled on an industrial lot north of Squalicum Creek. It’s the latest development in a community of tiny homes to be built in the spring by homeless nonprofit HomesNOW! Not Later and the Heritage Company Building Contractors.
HomesNOW! President Jim Peterson, along with Technical Director Doug Gustafson have started projects to feed and house the homeless community in Whatcom County.
The group also protested against homeless encampment sweeps by the city and camped out in front of City Hall in the fall.
Last summer, HomesNOW!, with the help of many volunteers, built two tiny homes on Lummi Nation, one of which currently houses a mother and her child.
Since then, the duo have made an effort to be vocal at community meetings about the project and their dream to end homelessness in Whatcom County.
“To me, HomesNOW! is an empowerment group that wants to empower the homeless to help themselves, give them the safe stability they need,” Peterson said.
During a County Council meeting on Feb. 13, Peterson invited Von Emeth Ochoa, a Western alumnus and the first resident chosen to live in the tiny home project, to speak support of the project.
Peterson, who experienced homelessness for 17 years, said he wanted people whose lives depend on a low-cost housing options to have their voices and hardships heard by the council.
Though employed, finding permanent housing has been a process of uncertainty and grief for Ochoa. When Peterson told him that he would be the first person to live in the home, he was excited at the opportunity to live in one place for an extended amount of time.
“I was shocked, because nothing’s ever promised – there's no guarantees. To have someone just say ‘yes’ is great,” Ochoa said.
After graduating from Western in 2010 with a Fairhaven concentration in music, dance, storytelling and tech, Ochoa fell into extreme medical debt after a vehicle accident that left him chronically fatigued and in pain. Since then, he’s relied on friends to house him on an irregular basis, he said.
“There's nothing permanent about any of this – everything is circumstantial,” Ochoa said.
Though construction on the tiny homes has made headway, Peterson said Home!NOW still faces hurdles in the project’s completion. One roadblock is finding a piece of land for the tiny home’s permanent location.
During the County Council meeting on Feb. 13, the council voted 7-0 to support the pilot project and look for a path forward in zoning, building codes and acquiring property.
“The county has amazed me,” Peterson said. “They have taken time to go down to Tent City in Seattle and to the tiny homes out in Lummi. They met with us privately and reached out to us.”
Peterson said he and other supporters of HomesNOW! have met with Whatcom County Councilmembers seeking to acquire a plot of land for the project, but nothing has been decided.
Peterson is concerned the project will not move forward if they cannot obtain a land and utility permits by summer. He said the Heritage Building Company Contractors will be occupied with other projects in fall.
“When it comes summer, [the contractors] are not going to have the time,” Peterson said.
Jay Parther, owner of Heritage Building Company Contractors, said he has dealt with the city and county about permitting on a daily basis. He said his company can help out with with the negotiation process once they find land.
“That is the trick right there in pursuing this venture. Once the land is procured ... that’s the biggest hurdle of them all,” Parther said. “There’s a lot of red tape. It’s just a matter at getting that one piece that they will agree too.”
Once HomesNOW! acquires land, Peterson’s goal is to have construction started by the beginning of May and fully operational by the summer. A total of six 10-by-10 tiny homes will be built for six people in to live in, according to the pilot project construction plan. A service building in the center will also be constructed to provide bathrooms and showers to its residents transitioning out of homelessness.
“We want them to get stable and move on with their lives. Part of that fight is to build housing here,” Peterson said.
What’s next? Peterson said his eyes are set on an office space for his nonprofit and fundraising for the first two homes, which cost about $5,000 all together, according to the HomesNOW!'s website. He said he is going to continue to communicate with the County Council. If that stalls, he is going to talk to Lummi Nation about having the project built there.
Peterson said he has invested his time in seeing this project through, even if there are roadblocks.
“We just want to house them, to make sure they don't freeze,” Peterson said.