Home Building Curiosity: The BLOCK Project

March 24th, 2021

Dear Readers, 

With a majority of our previous Home Building Curiosities, I introduced noble home builders according to how they were meeting the five main principles that William and I are setting for ourselves: Passive House, Net Zero, Prefabrication, Small Footprint, and Healthy Living. For The BLOCK Project, I’m going to scratch all of that, and just jump straight into telling you how awesome they are.

The mission of Facing Homelessness, through The BLOCK Project, is to put a 128 square foot Living Building Challenge certified home on every residential block in Seattle~ and have someone experiencing homelessness live in it. 

I know I have said it multiple times (outside of this blog), but how they achieve this feat still continues to put me in a state of humbled ‘awe’: They do what they do by revealing the incredible capacity that we as humans have to love and to be loved. You can see this tremendous power of love in every stage of the home~ from how it started, to it becoming somebody’s safe haven.

Credit: “How Can I House Someone? The BLOCK Project!” Facing Homelessness, November 2020. https://vimeo.com/483782337

The Idea’s Beginning

About a decade ago, Rex Hohlbein began inviting people living on the street into his architecture office. He spoke with them. Shared cups of tea. Let them have a dry, safe place to hang out for the day while he made phone calls and worked on clients’ projects. He let them experience a sense of ‘normalcy.’ Most of all, he created a space where the reality of their equality was felt, and their humanity normalized.  

He saw some of them rise, and he saw some of them falter. And then he decided to share their stories. He began an initiative called Facing Homelessness which aimed to put names and lives to the faces on Seattle’s streets. He believed that those of us who live in a home, and have a stable sense of security, often walk by those on the street with a sense of despair. We see the pain, the loneliness…but we don’t know how to help. So, we keep walking. By sharing their stories, Rex hoped that it would break down that barrier and inspire those of us with homes, to at least say ‘hello’ to those of us who do not. Sometimes, to be recognized and acknowledged through the kindness of eye contact and a greeting can change someone’s life.  

From ‘Hello’ to Home

Love is what began the idea, and love is what turned the idea into a safe haven. Rex and his daughter and fellow architect, Jenn LaFreniere, began The BLOCK Project. But it went quickly from being just a father-daughter initiative, and into a city-wide community endeavor. Why? Because Love. That’s why. 

Various law firms, architects, construction companies, skilled laborers, engineers, and thousands of local residents have donated their time and effort to working with the City of Seattle to make these homes legal~ and it took eight years to do so. Because The BLOCK Homes have been defined as Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADUs), they are permissible on single-family lots at least 3,400 square feet in size. 

The homes themselves are all slightly different. Overall, they are each 128 square feet, meet a majority of Living Building Challenge standards, and cost about $75,000. But they are free to the newly housed person residing in them. They do not have to pay rent, or even utilities! The costs are covered by The BLOCK Project. How? Because Love. That’s how. 

Over 300 community volunteers build the homes. They build the homes through a process of prefabrication, so it is faster and easier to complete. Only one Block Home was built with a rainwater collection system and composting toilet. The rest, however, are hooked up to municipal sewer and water. Economically, the rainwater harvesting and composting systems were not feasible, so they switched their methods~ inhabitants of BLOCK Homes only really use an average of $1 for water a day. 

Each home is equipped with solar panels to provide electricity, and the homes themselves are set on pin foundations. So, they are relatively quick and easy to establish, and self-sufficient once inhabited. Costs for electrical utilities that the home itself is not able to generate (e.g. extra electricity was used in one month than the solar panels were able to produce) the hosts often volunteer to cover. However, if they are unable to, then The BLOCK Project covers those costs.

They also have a large group of Corporate Partners that continue to donate their products and services to The BLOCK Homes~ such as landscaping, windows (we all know how expensive those can get…), lumber, plumbing supplies, solar panels…and money.1  Thousands of supportive community members make up 75% of The BLOCK Project’s funding. The fact that seventy five percent of project costs are covered by individual donations, is a testament to the awareness and commitment of the community to lift up those who may be struggling. 

Who Hosts?

Whole communities who have had the courage to tap into their own incredible powers to love. That’s who. 

First, it takes one household on a block to say “Yes. I want to host a BLOCK Home in my backyard, and help develop a safe haven for someone in need of a shelter and an opportunity to heal.” That in itself does take courage. To open our own personal safe havens to others is not always an easy thing to do. It also takes a willingness to develop a relationship~ to be willing to interact with the person now living in the small house on the other side of your rose bush. Because they, too, are human. And to be seen and heard and recognized as real will aid in making them actually feel human again. To feel valued. To feel loved.  

Next, it takes a whole block. While the BLOCK home may be only going in one person’s backyard, that one person is part of a block. They are part of a community. And that whole community must first come together and discuss their feelings towards a BLOCK home being put on their block before that home can be placed. Any discomforts or uncertainties are engaged and respected. If, even after many discussions over the unknowns, any of those members of that block say, “No. I don’t want you hosting a BLOCK home in your backyard,” then the project stops there. 

The BLOCK Project does not want to make any person, any family, feel uncomfortable. Because if you feel uncomfortable, or are hesitant to have someone who was once experiencing homelessness live on your neighbor’s property…then the project won’t work. It takes a community to reintegrate someone who once felt on the outskirts of society. It takes ‘Hello!’s and ‘How are you?’s and smiles to make that someone feel heard. Communities can aid in one person’s healing, if it is a whole community invested in the act of love.  

Who is Hosted?

People in need of love, and once given that love, find the ability to tap into their own incredible capacities to give love. That’s who. <3

Unsheltered people must be referred to The BLOCK Project by one of the five social service agencies that they work with. Case managers screen individuals with whom they have long term relationships, and decide if they would be a good match for a BLOCK home. If they are indeed ready for independent living on a community block, then they go ahead and match them with volunteering hosts on the waitlist. After a couple of in-person meetings, if the hosts and the potential resident consent to the match, then a BLOCK home is placed in their backyard! The case managers continue to provide services even after placement in a home, and Facing Homelessness staff continue to be involved as well. This allows the “homeowner to simply act as a compassionate friend to their new neighbor.”2 

In the midst of COVID-19 and the resulting isolation and hardships that many BLOCK residents felt, Facing Homelessness social work interns developed a “Companionship Program.” Rather than asking the hosts to meet all of their resident’s needs, outside volunteers trained under the Companionship Program in trauma-informed care and offered an additional level of support for the BLOCK residents most in need. 

Can this be expanded??? Please.

I would love, love, love to see this happen here in our rural area of Central Pennsylvania. Being in a rural area, our seclusion and culture would provide unique barriers to providing homes to people and families experiencing homelessness. With our rolling fields and acres of woodlands, it is hard to see the reality of homelessness that does exist in our community. There may not be visible people bundled on benches, or sleeping under bridges…but those who are in need of a safe haven are still here. They, and their children, move from place to place. Couch to couch. Sometimes they stay in the same school district, sometimes they don’t. They flee abuse. They flee addiction. Education and nurturing become second place to survival. If the cycle is not broken, it continues. 

We live in an absolutely beautiful area. And I believe that we have beautiful people who live here. People who are strong. Who know the inspiration of what it is to feel loved, and have the power and strength to give love. Maybe we can see something similar to The BLOCK Project in our county someday…but instead of a ‘block’ project, it could be a Village Project! One home, certified to Living Building Challenge standards, large enough to house a family of five, in each ‘village.’ The home, as a structure, would give back to the environment more than it takes. The home, as a safe haven, would also give back…one hundred fold… to the community that gave it one open yard, and a dozen open hearts. 

Just some food for thought and warmth for your hearts,

Shelby Aldrich

P.S. check out these videos to learn more about The BLOCK Project and its beginnings with Facing Homelessness! 

Ending homelessness block by block | Rex Hohlbein & Jenn LaFreniere | TEDxSeattle – YouTube

Facing homelessness | Rex Hohlbein | TEDxRainier – YouTube

1. The BLOCK Project. “Our Team.” https://www.the-block-project.org/our-team. Accessed on 5 March 2021.

2. The BLOCK Project. Frequently Asked Questions, “What Inspires Homeowners to Host a BLOCK Home? What Incentives are You Providing?” https://www.the-block-project.org/faqs. Accessed on 5 March 2021. 

2 Comments

  1. Shelby and all at Sustaining Tree —

    What a beautiful and heartwarming piece you have written!! While I’ve been on the board of Facing Homelessness, and now serve as the Interim ED through this spring, I find myself nearly in tears reading your beautiful write up of what we’re doing. There is something so validating in having one’s work reflected back to them through the eyes of another. THANK YOU for writing something that reminds me of why I fell in love with Facing Homelessness in the first place.

    We celebrate and cheer you on in your endeavors to create more loving, equitable and accessible shelter for all who live in your community as well. We are one in our desires to see love work in tangible, life changing ways. Together we are Facing Homelessness. Blessings to you all!

    Reply
    • Sue! Thank YOU for allowing William and I to gain a better understanding of The BLOCK Project and for introducing us to how possible all of this is. And not only possible, but necessary! An individual who knows love, can help build a community in love. A community who knows love, can help build up an individual in love. It is all a circle. And we all have a part to play, no matter how small we each may feel.

      Sending joy, resilience, and serenity to all at Facing Homelessness!

      Reply

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© 2020 Sustaining Tree