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Housing Pierce County's unsheltered shouldn't be so complicated

By Maureen Howard

Dignity City columnist

My grandfather followed his older brothers from Ontario, Canada to northeastern Minnesota and the lumber town where he would find work, marry, raise children and live out his life. That lumber town of about 8,000 people, Cloquet, burned to the ground in October 1918 in what a local newspaper called “a Seething Holocaust.” Four hundred fifty three people died, lumber mills were destroyed, an estimated 12,000 people from Cloquet and surrounding towns were homeless. My family lived and worked in Cloquet in 1918.

We have few family stories of the Cloquet Fire but we have public records. Within two weeks, surviving lumber companies resumed production and furnished $175 of rough lumber to each of their employees and others and allowed them to build their “houses” and help their neighbors on company time. These “houses” were 1918 “tiny houses” — 12 by 16 feet for small families and 12 by 20 feet for larger ones. One month after the fire, there were 250 such homes completed in Cloquet.

It’s more than 100 years later in another lumber town and we can’t seem to figure out how to build safe shelters quickly. We don’t actually even have to literally “build” the housing we need in Pierce County for those 3,300 people we know are living unsheltered; we could go down to the local RV dealers and purchase 1,000 RVs and immediately provide safe shelter.

To be sure, we talk a lot about housing — how we don’t have enough, how we have to focus on the “missing middle,” how zoning changes will fix our housing crisis, how to make transit-oriented development equitable, how more tax credits, more property tax exemptions will actually yield more housing affordable to poor people, how we need another study, more legislation or less legislation. Everyone talks about housing. Everyone has a favorite model.

Models are good but many models are difficult to actually live in. Community land trusts hold the land but require agreement on policy as well as day-to-to day living. Same with co-housing. Or housing cooperatives. Do people holding down two jobs have time to raise their children, care for their parents, maintain a relationship and engage in collaborative decision making? Perhaps they do and perhaps we’re once again not asking the right question? Would people already sharing housing or even encampments want to keep living in these time-demanding personally intensive models? I think some would because they already are; they’re just doing it without the security of ownership or a lease or even actual housing. They are living in the shadows. For instance, more people may be living in an apartment than appear on the lease, perhaps with an understanding landlord; or they’re in a self-managed encampment responsible for their own security and safety.

And while people with housing and housing choices talk, the women with their children remain in their cars; a man freezes to death in public view in my county’s largest city; school children leave their schools “because we can’t afford the rent anymore.”

Housing just isn’t that complicated. You count the number of units and commit to creating and preserving enough units to ensure permanent housing for every single person and household irrespective of their income, their social status, their household composition, their individual needs.

Housing requires land, design, construction materials and permits. If it’s already built, it just requires the money for acquisition and maybe rehab. If housing the poor were an income-generating activity, you can be sure we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Money for housing people who are poor, no matter how we dress up their poverty with words such as “low wealth” or “modest means” or “Medicaid eligible” or any combination of “area median income,” is meaningless if you are actually living on $800 per month in federal benefits or making $15 per hour for a varying numbers of hours per week. It ought not to cost us money to get or use the money we need for housing. Specialized housing funding sources are expensive in the time and specialized services they required — attorneys, CPAs, some projects have six or seven funding sources each with its own accountability requirements. We ought to be able to do what any housing developer does — take a funding request showing site control, zoning compliance, development and management capacity to a public funding source and get the zero-percent loan that enables them to begin building. Then get the on-going grant commitment that ensures safe and permanent operation irrespective of projected rental income. Secure the loan against the property; make it due on sale.

One thousand RVs, 8 by 25 feet, or 200 square feet, at $25,000 each equals $25 million. Yes, there would be land costs, on-going RV park operating costs, services for people who need them, for whenever they need them and as long as they need them. Yes, it would mean thinking differently about how we provide safe shelter; how we provide immediate housing. People could own the RVs; they could go where they could find work. They could live in their RV while they built a home.

And yes, 1,000 households would have today’s equivalent of those 1918 Cloquet fire shelters. By 1921, my mother could grow up in a modest Craftsman home in Cloquet, much like the one my daughter would grow up in when we moved to Tacoma.

Ideas? Contact me at

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