Last year, my visionary architect friend Rex Hohlbein and his architect daughter Jenn LaFreniere left their jobs and created the Block Project. Thanks to their vision, Seattle homeowners are now saying, “YES in my backyard!” to solve homelessness.
The BLOCK Project is more than your typical low income housing effort to move people out of homelessness. It is a unique community-building program connecting people to people and putting roofs over heads.
Jenn and Rex started with the idea of inviting the broader community to help solve and end homelessness by building a BLOCK Home “in the backyard of one single-family lot on every residentially zoned block within the City of Seattle.” The Block Project Web Site explains more about how this project originated and the impact it has already had, for the better.
People who want a backyard BLOCK Home are called host families. Host families go through a vetting process, and following a thorough review, they join a database for residents to match with those in need.
The BLOCK Project is managed by the non-profit Facing Homelessness and all hosted residents come through a case-management process operated by partnering organizations. Case management is provided currently by Chief Seattle Club, Mary’s Place, Sophia Way, and the Community Psychiatric Clinic.
When the case-manager has a client who meets the BLOCK Home qualifications, they go through the database of host families to look for a match between host and resident. This is the beginning of an intentional process of finding a good fit between host and resident. In the future, this will be aided by a match-making app designed for BLOCK Project.
This past weekend I visited one of the first BLOCK Homes in action. A compassionate couple living on Beacon Hill opened their back yard to having a detached, 125 square foot home where their garden used to be, and opened their hearts and neighborhood to a formerly homeless man. This couple showed me that We The People can collectively end homelessness in our city and region.
These host homeowners met their partner tenant at the Chief Seattle Club. They chose each other and he has since become a part of their family. When I asked how long they expected him to live in his new home in their backyard they answered, “As long as he wants. Forever, we hope. It’s the best thing we have ever done with our backyard.”
The BLOCK Home has been thoughtfully designed to be off-grid and self-sufficient. Each home has its own kitchen, shower, toilet, sleeping area, and solar-panels sufficient to heat and light the house — even in the gray days of Seattle winters, the home is warm.
The BLOCK Project is both progressive and sustainable. Not only is each home designed to be self-sufficient, discharging gray water though a self-composting toilet, the design is currently permitted so long as it is hooked up to the sewer through the host property.
The home is respectful. It is warm, dry, complete, and comes equipped with an inviting covered front porch to share with friends. Here’s the truly progressive idea: it brings the neighborhood together, encouraging economic integration and heartfelt social inclusion.
In the instance of the Beacon Hill home, people have donated their time and materials, and the out of pocket costs are estimated to be about $30,000 for this first one. Professionals from Turner Construction, Herrara, and many others have donated their time to help design and construct the prototype.
While I was visiting with Rex and the homeowners, a general contractor showed up with metal door sweeps. Rex smiled his beatific smile and said this contractor– like many others — was working pro bono. He was improving the outside storage closet where the solar batteries are currently stored. The next generation of units will move the batteries to the back of the home creating more storage space.
I asked how many people were in line to be hosts, offering to make their backyards available. Rex said over 75 homeowners have expressed interest. Home owners see how they can make a difference for individuals and for our community. They see how they can make space and provide a hand up, repairing years of emotional and social isolation.
Costs? Rex says the true cost of an installed unit is at about $90K, but actual costs, with all the donations of material and labor came in about $28K for the first one. He expects the typical cost to be around $30K.
What’s needed to catalyze this movement? Sustainable grant sources and matching funds. The first five units have been paid for through community funds, but the next thousand could be paid for through City and County grants with private matching funds. The homeowner provides the land while the government and/or private sector provides the matching funds to build the homes.
The hosts with whom I spoke yesterday said, “Yes, in my backyard.” They also said the neighborhood has been wonderful, and this project has restored their faith in their fellow human beings.