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Nickelsville Homeless Encampment approved through Seattle Interim Use Policy

2826 Northwest Market Street, Seattle, WA, USA

Building Type




William Mills | City of Seattle, Construction & Inspection

Sharon Lee | developer
William Mills | approving-official
Tulalip Tribes | builder
Youthcare | builder
Sarah Smith | builder

Ballard Nickelsville is one of the first two transitional homeless encampments to be permitted on City-owned land through Seattle’s innovative ‘Transitional Encampment as an Interim Use’ policy, which also added specific regulations for their approval and operation to the Seattle Land Use Code. The encampment, which consists of five Tiny Homes, 18 tents, and a communal kitchen and donation tent, serves roughly 28 of Seattle’s homeless at any given time.

Ballard’s homeless encampment was the first of three projects initially approved by the City to use Seattle’s Ordinance 124747: ‘Transitional Encampment as an Interim Use’ (Seattle Municipal Code 23.42.056). These innovative land-use code regulations allows transitional homeless encampments (i.e. tent cities/tiny home villages) to legally exist on approved City owned, private, and/or educational institution land in any zone for up to one year with the possibility of a 12 month extension.

The approval process for the Ballard encampment involved following the prescriptive path outlined in the code, which includes Community Outreach standards, Operation standards, and Location/Site standards. Based on the location requirements, Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections reviewed approximately 135 vacant city-owned lots of which three were initially chosen, one of them being the site at Ballard. While there was concern about the transitional encampment’s location raised by the larger Ballard community, Type I approvals are not subject to formal appeal processes under the Land Use Code, and therefore the site went on to be issued a Type I Master Use permit with Nickelsville as its Operator and LIHI as the case manager.

The five tiny homes that exist on the site were able to bypass building permits due to their size, being under 120 sq ft., and the remaining 18 tent shelters and shared community spaces similarly did not need specific approval.

Code Requirement Compliance Path
Seattle Municipal Code (SMC) 23.42.056:“Transitional Encampment as an Interim Use” LIHI and Nickelsville followed the prescriptive path for establishing a ‘transitional encampment’ as outlined in SMC 23.42.056. This included complying with Community Outreach, Operation, and Location standards.
Square Footage: 9468ft2

In 2014, Seattle’s mayor, Ed Murray, called for an Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homelessness to gather information and evaluate the effectiveness of certain methods already in use that could be employed to better remediate the growing homelessness epidemic. The group recommended (among other things) allowing non-religious landholding institutions (private, city-owned) be permitted to host temporary tent encampments to serve homeless individuals.

In March of 2015, Seattle’s City Council adopted Ordinance 124747 which effectively outlined the requirements for these transitional encampments. Due to the Ballard site’s proximity to residential and commercial stakeholders, the requirements for community outreach were of critical importance. To ensure nearby stakeholders have input, requirements included: holding a public information meeting inviting all local residents and businesses to attend prior to permit approval; and, creating a Community Advisory Committee to reflect, revise, and document encampment successes and failures.

The ordinance also contains operational and location/site-based criteria that the city felt would provide enough social and physical structure to foster a successful emergency housing facility while also situating the encampment so that opportunity for mobility and security were maintained for both homeless occupants and those in the surrounding community. Some of the more noteworthy requirements include:

  • Requires encampment operators to have past experience managing and operating shelters, low-income housing, or encampments serving low-income, homeless or indigent persons;
  • Requires encampments to meet the same health, safety, and inspection requirements that have been established for encampments on sites owned or controlled by religious organizations, including a maximum limit of 100 encampment occupants on any one site;
  • Requires that the operator obtain and maintain liability insurance;
  • Be located at least 25 feet from any residentially-zoned lot unless screened by vegetation or fencing;
  • Be owned by the City or a private party;
  • Be located on a site that is at least 5,000 square feet in area or larger and provides a minimum of 100 square feet of land per occupant;
  • Be located within one-half mile of a transit stop;
  • Be located at least one mile from any other legally-established transitional encampment use.

Using Geocortex land-use mapping software and the above criteria, Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections reviewed approximately 135 city owned sites and 475 privately owned sites with potential for hosting the encampments. The city identified three pilot sites: City Light Interbay, City Light 6th Avenue South (SoDo), and Market Substation in Ballard. The Ballard location was met with considerable initial concern from business owners and the surrounding public, however the City ultimately approved the project.

On November 21, 2015, the Ballard encampment had their moving-in work party where volunteers came out to help build tent platforms, assemble community spaces, and situate the five tiny homes donated by such organizations as Tulalip Tribe, Sawhorse Revolution, and Youthbuild. In February of 2016, the required Community Advisory Committee had their first meeting and has since been keeping monthly and yearly data collection information on their website.

Seattle’s homeless had been growing in number since the housing crisis of 2008. The One Night Count in 2015, the year this project was approved, indicated over 2,800 people were experiencing homelessness in Seattle, a 42% increase from 5 years prior. These figures plus the growing number of deaths/injuries incurred to homeless persons due to simple lack of shelter (i.e. safety), motivated the City (Mayor Murray among many other officials) to take the steps necessary to provide housing as quickly and as cost effectively as possible.

As one city document makes note, “the City’s focus on solutions for people who are homeless should be a roof-overhead and services to connect individuals with a pathway towards long-term housing, however, the current capacity of our housing and homeless services continuum cannot meet the needs of all those who are homeless and, as an alternative, tent encampments can offer a sense of safety and community while seeking longer term housing options”. This statement seems to indicate that the motivation behind the encampments (Ballard included) was to provide safety and community quickly, cheaply, and temporarily as more long-term affordable housing was/is being built.

Seattle-based community design group, Environmental Works, worked with LIHI and Nickelsville to render the site’s layout. The Ballard site plan includes: 16 10’X10’ tent platforms; two 12’X10’ tent platforms; five 8’X12’ tiny homes; two grills; a security booth; three portable restrooms (1 ADA and 2 standard); a dumpster; a 8’X12’ pantry/donation tent; and a 12’X25’ communal kitchen tent. The five tiny homes line NW Market St and provide a visual buffer from the interior of the camp while the surrounding sides are fenced with a mesh screening material for privacy. The site was chosen for its adherence to the locational criteria outlined in Ordinance 124747. Most of the physical infrastructure was assembled and/or brought to the site during move-in day, November 21, 2015. The five tiny homes were designed, built, and donated by Tulalip Tribe, Sawhorse Revolution, and Youthbuild. As of February 2017, the Ballard Rotary Club donated solar panels which now supply each tent and tiny home with 4 hours of lighting and phone charging capabilities.

The startup budget to build the site (tent platforms, etc.) came to roughly $17,000 of which the City provided $7,600. The operating budget for Ballard Nickelsville during the 2016 year equated to roughly $142,500 (see itemized list of expenses). Although designed for 50 residents, the encampment averaged around 28 occupants per month. This comes out to be about $14 dollars per occupant per day. While the number being served barely makes a dent in the projected total of homeless individuals existing in Seattle/King County (3,770 counted in 2015), the fact is clear that these encampments (albeit small-scale) provide those in need with emergency shelter, safety, and in many cases opportunity to utilize the social services available at these camps with relatively minimal financial capital. To get a sense of comparable housing initiatives for the homeless and the costs associated with them in Seattle at this time, view here (scroll to the bottom).

Metrics of success can be gleaned from the Community Advisory Committee’s monthly data collection. Over the course of 2016, 77 different people found sanctuary at the encampment. Of these 77, roughly 20% exited into stable housing, while the remaining 80% either went back onto the streets, into another form of transitional housing, or their whereabouts remain unknown.

Sharon Lee
Executive Director


William Mills
Zoning Reviewer


Tulalip Tribes




Sarah Smith
Program Director