Rex Holbein started a Facebook page that has become a thriving nonprofit called Facing Homelessness. Among other things, Facing Homelessness reaches out to local homeowners and places ADUs in their back yards to help house homeless people in their communities. There’s more to it than that and I hope you stick around for my conversation with Rex as we talk about the causes of homelessness, the way that society looks past homeless people, and what we can all do about it.
In This Episode:
- Say “hello” and see what happens
- Are people really willing to let strangers live in their yards?
- How BLOCK homes are built and funded
- Matching clients with the right property
- Who owns what and why
- Using water, power, and sewer systems as educational tools
Links and Resources:
- The International Living Future Institute
- Bruce Parker’s interview about ADUs in Seattle
Founder at Facing Homelessness / Principal at BLOCK Architects / Co-founder of the BLOCK Project
A Seattle native, Rex ran a successful residential architectural firm for 30 years. In 2010, after befriending several men experiencing homelessness along the Fremont Canal, Rex started a Facebook page to raise awareness for those living unsheltered through the sharing of photos and personal stories. Today, that Facebook page has over 50,000 followers, becoming a thriving and inspirational non-profit, Facing Homelessness. In 2017 Rex started a new chapter that combines both architecture and community outreach in starting a socially-focused architecture firm, BLOCK Architects, with his daughter Jenn LaFreniere. This year he began a new Facebook page titled ‘You Know Me Now' exploring individual stories as a means for bringing the community together. It is scheduled to become a podcast in 2022.
This Week's Sponsor:
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Portrait of two BLOCK Home Residents by Miranda Sheh
The homes are connected to the grid but run on solar power
The BLOCK Project is funded by donations
The parts of the homes are built in the Block shop
They can be assembled at the site in around four hours
Wood paneling wears well, meaning a BLOCK home can last for years and years
Houses are built and assembled by volunteers
The BLOCK Project has had no trouble finding yards for these homes!
Rex Hohlbein 0:00
We'll go through that same transition where people that feel very privileged to own property, and I know that's tapping into a much larger conversation of understanding one's privilege in this society today. Owning land is becoming an increasingly incredible privilege.
Ethan Waldman 0:18
Welcome to the Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast, the show where you learn how to plan, build and live the tiny lifestyle. I'm your host, Ethan Waldman, and this is episode 194. With Rex Hohlbein. Rex started a Facebook page that has become a thriving nonprofit called Facing Homelessness. Among other things, Facing Homelessness reaches out to local homeowners and places ADUs in their backyards to help house homeless people in their communities. There's more to it than that. And I hope you stick around for my conversation with Rex, as we talk about the causes of homelessness, the way that society looks past homeless people, and what we can all do about it. It's a really great conversation.
I want to tell you about something that I think will be super helpful as you plan, design and build your tiny house. Tiny House Decisions is the guide that I wish I had when I was building my tiny house. It comes in three different packages to help you on your unique Tiny House journey. And if you're struggling to just figure out the systems for your tiny house, you know, like how you're going to heat it, how you're going to plumb it. You know what construction technique are you going to use like SIPs or stick framing or steel framing? Tiny House Decisions will take you through all these processes systematically and help you come up with a design that works for you. Right now I'm offering 20% off any package of Tiny House Decisions for listeners of the show. You can head over to thetinyhouse.net/THD to learn more and use the coupon code tiny at checkout for 20% off any package. Again, that's thetinyhouse.net/THD and use the coupon code tiny for 20% off.
Alright, Rex Holbein is the founder at Facing Homelessness, Principal at BLOCK Architects, and the co founder of the BLOCK Project. A Seattle native, Rex ran a successful residential architecture firm for 30 years. In 2010, after befriending several men experiencing homelessness along the Fremont Canal, Rex started a Facebook page to raise awareness for those living unsheltered through the sharing of photos and personal stories. Today, that Facebook page has over 50,000 followers, becoming a thriving and inspirational nonprofit Facing Homelessness. In 2017, Rex started a new chapter that combines both architecture and community outreach in starting a socially focused architecture firm, BLOCK Architects, with his daughter, Jenn LaFreniere. This year he began a new Facebook page titled 'You Know Me Now' exploring individual stories as a means for bringing the community together. It is scheduled to become a podcast in 2022. Rex Holbein, welcome to the show.
Rex Hohlbein 3:18
Thank you for having me, Ethan. Glad to be here.
Ethan Waldman 3:21
Yeah, you're very welcome. Glad to have you. So I'm curious, you know, in 2010, befriending several men experiencing homelessness. What prompted that? Because I think that so many of us just kind of walk by homeless people and never think to find out who they are, what their stories are.
Rex Hohlbein 3:45
Yeah. You know, I moved my architecture office to a location that was near the Ship Canal in Seattle in the Fremont neighborhood. And there was a bench, a covered bench, just down below my office, and I was taking lunches there, watching the boats go by watching the birds, all of that, and there were people that were living homeless there. And truth is, it was it was just very organic. Just, you know, a hello and, and a, "What are you doing today? How's it going?" And those hellos turned into friendships and those friendships turned into stories. And yeah, it really just pulled me in. And I think it's one of the things, one of the primary messages that grew out of the nonprofit is to just say, Hello, you know, to just begin. You won't know until you until you start, right, if this is going to be someone that you just happen to meet today and said hello to or potentially your best friend.
Ethan Waldman 4:50
Yeah, yeah. And it's it's it's a reminder that all kinds of people experience homelessness, and you really can't know what their story is unless you talk to them.
Rex Hohlbein 5:01
Absolutely. The other thing that I would mention is that, since you brought up that, you know, their story, the thing that's really interesting is that, without exception, when you talk to people that are homeless, that are outside struggling, and you learn about their story, you, you instantly move from the large overwhelming issue of homelessness, down to the personal. And you understand in that moment, "Wow, this person is homeless because of..." And it's not because they chose to be homeless; it's because some event knocked them off their path. And then that opens your compassion, that opens your understanding in a way that statistics and and kind of larger overviews of the issue of homelessness just can't.
Ethan Waldman 5:48
Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, as somebody who has been involved in residential housing for a long time, and I'm sure, as an architect, you tend to work - I'm guessing - with kind of people on the higher end people who can afford to hire an architect to design a new home or an addition for them. Were you bored with that? Were you feeling like you wanted to kind of turn your expertise towards a different audience?
Rex Hohlbein 6:17
That's a great question. No, I wasn't bored with it. To be honest, architecture changed my life when I was about 20 years old. Falling in love with the design process. You know, when I graduated, I was it was confounding to me why every single person didn't hire an architect. It was like 'architecture is gonna save the world'. So no, I think what happened for me is that the people that I will meet, was meeting, were so compelling to me, and the things that they were going through were so compelling. It, it basically displaced and replaced architecture. And I, I'm, I'm an architecture geek. I love architecture, I'm grateful to have had this career. But the beauty of person, when you come close to it, is an especially when people are in need, is so profound.
And and I will say this, too, is that I think we, I think we do a lot of things in life to inform our own journey. And certainly architecture and the design process has informed my life. But I don't think anywhere near how I've been informed by the lessons and the bits and pieces of friendship and, and insights that I've gained from people that are outside. So there's just, there's a selfish part to it too, right. Like I, it makes me want more than I understand. I think maybe myself.
Ethan Waldman 7:45
Yeah. Is there anything that you can - this is kind of a random question, - like, think of that you've learned from someone experiencing homelessness that that informed a design that you worked on?
Rex Hohlbein 8:01
Hmmm, design? But I've never been asked that question. That's a good one. I, I don't, I'm gonna just start by saying, I don't think so. Maybe I'll find the yes in this response. But, you know, there are many types of architects, architectures, this marriage between engineering and art. So you have architects that are very far on the one side of engineering, and you have those that are very artsy, and then you have everything in between. And I would say that, um, you know, if I was to categorize myself, I'm more of a humanist, artsy architect, you know, it's, I firmly believe that we do architecture for people. And it's more of a heart thing than a intellectual thing. Obviously, you still need the intellectual part to make the building standard up into functions directly.
Ethan Waldman 8:53
Rex Hohlbein 8:53
So I think, you know, what, what I learned by meeting people outside, again, are very human things. And so I think those were in line with how I felt about architecture as well, about serving people first, you know, that that's why we do everything.
Ethan Waldman 9:10
Rex Hohlbein 9:11
And I think the insights have been many, you know, like, first ones come to my mind, or, you know, you think of life as there's right and wrong, and there's a truth. Right?
Ethan Waldman 9:25
Rex Hohlbein 9:25
But I think when you start to meet people who are on the survival line, you begin to understand that there are many truths that in fact, each person holds their own truth. And that truth is impacted and affected by variables that are different for each and every one of us. So, that quickly leads into a conversation about judgment, and how we judge each other and you know what's fair and what's not fair to judge somebody on if somebody is starving and they steal some bread from the store. Is that wrong? Well, it's an easy answer to say, "Yes, that's wrong. Stealing's wrong." But there's a gray area that's attached to it, which is, how wrong is it when someone's starving when the system is so failed, that a person can't get food or shelter? Or medicine? So those begin you down a path of conversation and dialogue that
Ethan Waldman 10:18
Rex Hohlbein 10:18
that open yourself up as much as anything.
Ethan Waldman 10:21
Yeah. And so your your project, the BLOCK Project, kind of marries architecture and accessory dwelling units with people who are not facing homelessness in the community to help to house provide shelter and housing for people who are.
Rex Hohlbein 10:44
Ethan Waldman 10:45
Can you talk about, you know, the the genesis of that how it came to be and, and how it all works?
Rex Hohlbein 10:51
I can, yes. If I go back a little bit,
Ethan Waldman 10:53
Rex Hohlbein 10:54
You know, again, our eldest daughter, Jennifer LaFreniere, when she decided to become an architect, we made this little pact that she would graduate, she would work for other firms for five years, and then we would start a firm together. So she was on that path. She graduated, she started to work for Graham Baba Architects, a really great firm in town here. And then suddenly, I closed my practice down and started the nonprofit Facing Homelessness. And she looks over me and says, "What's up dad? You know, what about, what about our pact." And we began to meet every Friday morning for coffee to talk about that and talk about how we as architects can make a difference for the homeless.
Ethan Waldman 11:35
Rex Hohlbein 11:35
And we used, we used a lot of the feelings and principles that came out of Facing Homelessness is journey, which is we don't end homelessness, unless community gets involved, like radically involved. That's, that is just the bald truth of it. Right, it's going to take more than governments and take more than religion to take all of us. And so out of those conversations of involving community, we came up with this idea of you know, that, to involve oneself, they have to come closer. And so Just Say Hello Campaign is coming closer, that Facebook page was coming closer for people, the window of kindness that Facing Homelessness has was about coming closer. But the notion of actually bringing people that are homeless close to those that are homed in putting small homes in backyards, for those that are homeless. I don't know how we got past the radicalness of it. And, and that somehow, you know, create a belief that people would in fact, say yes, in my backyard. But we forged forward, we came up, we map this all out. And we presented it Facing Homelessness as a shared project. My daughter and I then at that point started BLOCK Architects, We would take care of the architecture, the building, the marketing, the branding, all of that permitting, and Facing Homelessness would take care of the community end of it, the legal, social services, fundraising. And, and we began, right. And in presenting that idea to consultants that were going to help us with it. The first block home, came from a woman at an engineering company that was going to help us with all of the building envelopes, heat loss issues, and such mechanical engineering. A woman after I get I was finished making a presentation, asking if their company would do pro bono services for the BLOCK Project. The principal stood up said "Yes, we want to do this. Another woman then stood up and said, "And I want a BLOCK home in my backyard." And and that began it.
Ethan Waldman 13:45
Rex Hohlbein 13:46
Ethan Waldman 13:47
Rex Hohlbein 13:48
That maybe made me tear up. Beyond. I couldn't stop crying.
Ethan Waldman 13:53
Rex Hohlbein 13:54
Such a beautiful moment.
Ethan Waldman 13:55
Well, I think that that you've tapped into kind of the power of story. Because I think that I'm sure there will be people who would step up to do this on an abstract level. But I think when you start reading the stories of individual people facing homelessness, and you see their humaneness and you feel empathy for that person, then it's a lot easier to say, "Yeah, I'd like to house somebody like that, in my backyard."
Rex Hohlbein 14:27
It's so true. You know, one of the hopes that my daughter and I had early on was to think of the BLOCK Project in the same progression that Uber and Airbnb went through. Right so I'm old enough to know that the idea of inviting strangers into your home to sleep in a bedroom in your house while you slept is preposterous, right? Like that's crazy making. But here we are today. We invite people Airbnb, people stay in their homes and everyone's happy In fact, closer for it. And the same with Uber, and we believe that the BLOCK Project will go through that same transition where people that feel very privileged to own property, and I know that we, that's tapping into a much larger conversation of understanding one's privilege in this society today.
Ethan Waldman 15:20
Rex Hohlbein 15:21
Is that owning land is becoming an increasingly incredible privilege. And that we can use that land, our backyard to do social good.
Ethan Waldman 15:32
So let's, let's talk about some of the nitty gritty about the BLOCK Project. So it sounds like BLOCK Architects handles the design and the permitting process. Who, you know, who pays for the house? Does the homeowner pay for the house? Or does the nonprofit pay for the house?
Rex Hohlbein 15:53
Great question. And I'm going to make a clarification. Okay. About a year ago, Jenn and I fulfilled kind of our initial design, and that was that eventually Facing Homelessness would take on all of the parts and pieces of the project. So okay, BLOCK Architects is no longer managing the design. All that permitting, all the all the architecture end of it, that is all now gone in house at Facing Homelessness, which is exciting.
Ethan Waldman 16:22
Rex Hohlbein 16:23
So the money that is raised for those homes is completely community built. All donations from our community. It's important to know too, that, you know, the cost of these homes is around $70,000. You can build, you know, there's a tiny house movement in Seattle with regards to providing villages, small villages, for those that are homeless, and those run around $2,500. I'm very grateful that those exists, there, they are a step above being in a tent. A tent is a step above being under a bridge. So a lot of the progression for the homeless are stair steps out of complete horrible situations. But, but these tiny homes that basically have a roof and walls and a door, are not meant to be an finish ending place.
Ethan Waldman 17:19
Rex Hohlbein 17:20
They're trapped, they're transitional. So one of the things that we love about the BLOCK home is that when they go in a backyard, they are the most forward, home on the block. They are designed specifically to be off-grid and, and non toxic. All the materials are sustainable. So this is a this is a model for future building. And this is one of the very central parts of what my daughter and I wanted to connect was the crisis of homelessness and the crisis of climate change, and to try to create the conversation that they are intricately connected, that as climate change worsens. So we'll homelessness and that we need to be addressing both of these issues the same.
Ethan Waldman 18:05
Yeah, absolutely. Can you talk a little bit more about the envelope of the building, like how it's how it's built, how it's insulated, and just the kind of how big roughly are these BLOCK homes?
Rex Hohlbein 18:19
Sure. So the homes are 125 square feet, usable space. And they are, they are insulated, well beyond the requirements of our local codes, the window and door or triple pane. As far as construction goes, our first model, which the first I think it was nine homes were built with took 4-6 months to build in a backyard. And, and you know, these homes include solar collectors and metal roof, and, you know, wood siding and covered porch. And so there is a lot to them. But we realized that to really scale up, we needed to be able to put them in backyards much faster. So there was a redesign, not so much in the aesthetic or the function of it, but in how it was built. So all of the walls, all the floors, roof ceiling, all the decking of the siding, the cabinetry, everything is panelized now, and it's built in the built in the BLOCK shop.
And this is the really beautiful part. We have taken the general contractor who was doing a lot of pro bono services, many general contractors in Seattle, but there was no there was a shelf life that these contractors can only give so much of their time and their resources. So we we moved it towards a model of all of the panels being built by volunteers, which means that there are jigs now for everything in the block shop so you can walk in there as a volunteer with no construction experience and take part in building panels that will be home for someone that is currently homeless. When those panels are finished, and they're put on a flatbed truck, they're assembled in the backyard in 4 days.
So the impact to the homeowner as well now is dramatically reduced. The cost has been reduced because all of the labor is provided by volunteers. And, and we've still held to this extremely high standard of construction and design and sustainability for these homes.
Ethan Waldman 20:33
Rex Hohlbein 20:35
We're super excited about it. Are you familiar with the International Living future Institute?
Ethan Waldman 20:39
Rex Hohlbein 20:40
You everywhere you and everyone listening should be.
Ethan Waldman 20:44
Rex Hohlbein 20:45
Please check them out. I would even say, if you're having a down day, go to the International Living future Institute website, and just peruse through their website. It'll make you feel good about the world around us. And what we're trying to do to, to make it a more sustainable, beautiful place for everyone. But they have a building certification called the Living Building Challenge. And it is the most rigorous building standard is a standard for building in the world. And they've taken the block project on as a legacy project of now. And now the homes are designed to meet the Living Building Challenge.
Ethan Waldman 21:22
Rex Hohlbein 21:23
criteria. So it's, again, it's pointing to the importance of sustainability and what we can do in the construction industry to be more mindful of our earth.
Ethan Waldman 21:37
Wow. Well, that's a great recommendation. I will definitely check that out. I have heard of the Living Building Challenge. I think so. Yeah, maybe I missed who put it on. But yeah. In terms of the interior of the BLOCK house, is it? Is it like a studio apartment? Is it all one room? Or are there different spaces in there?
Rex Hohlbein 21:59
Well, again, it's 125 square feet. So it's primarily one room, when you come in the front door, and you're right away looking at the kitchenette in front of you and the right is a small seating area. And a bed that actually acts as a couch, it gets pushed underneath the wall shelving cabinetry. And then at night gets pulled out and, and becomes a bed. And just to the left of you when you walk in is the shower/toilet. So it's just an opening right there with a curtain that you can pull. So basically, basically, it's one room with a small area for the shower and the toilet. There is a covered porch out front and a small outdoor closet as well.
Ethan Waldman 22:42
Rex Hohlbein 22:44
The the entire interior also is wood. So, you know, one of the things as architects that are, it's important to us is that you select materials that look better with time, as opposed to begin to look like they're taking on, you know, blemishes and, and wear and tear.
Ethan Waldman 23:01
Rex Hohlbein 23:02
So you know, sheetrock if you put up a dent in it, it looks damaged. If you if you happen to put a dent in wood, it can look like character.
Ethan Waldman 23:10
Rex Hohlbein 23:11
You know, unless it's your Steinway piano, you know, other otherwise, otherwise, using materials that actually look more beautiful and and humanized over time is important.
Ethan Waldman 23:22
Yeah, absolutely. And also the sustainability of the materials, it is possible to source wood products that are sustainably created.
Kevin O'Brien 23:34
Absolutely. That's the future. We either get onto the program with that, or we run out of material.
Ethan Waldman 23:40
Right, now I interviewed Bruce Parker, who is an architect in Seattle, I believe, who specializes in in ADUs. And in that conversation, you know, we talked about how expensive it ends up being to place an ADU in your backyard, when it comes to all the permitting and other requirements. Has the BLOCK Project, you know, is the city making allowances for what you're doing? Or are you having to go through jump through all the same hoops as as anybody who wants to place an ADU?
Rex Hohlbein 24:20
So that's also a very good question. We have been shown unbelievable, I would start with the word "kindness", but help from the city. The city is very excited about this project. We have a template plan, you know, the all the homes are the same right now. And so we just basically get a blanket permit for that. We have not had our permits reduced in cost. We are pushing for that, you know.There there are a lot of things that the state and the city can do to limit or reduce the costs of processing a BLOCK home. But, but I would say all in all the city has has been extremely helpful in making this happen. You know, nothing to nothing but good things to say about Daniel Torgerson, you know, the director of the building department and city councilmen Michael Bryan and Sally Bagshaw, who are no longer city council people, but who played a big part in helping pave the way and open doors to the Health Department. And so all of it took a team effort. And we're very grateful for that. Daniel Straus, also, who is a city councilman now. So yeah.
Ethan Waldman 25:42
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So we've we've covered the philosophy behind it and the homes themselves. So I want to pivot to asking about how, how do you connect the future dwellers of these houses with with the houses like how is there a selection process? Is there a waiting list? How does it work for somebody to get to live in one of these?
Rex Hohlbein 27:51
Right. So there's, there are a number of agencies that we work with that have case managers. So when a resident is selected, they have to, at a minimum be with that case manager for 6 months. So that provides a certain amount of vetting. And vetting isn't actually even the way that that I tend to think of it or I think even Facing Homelessness thinks about it, it's an opportunity for the case manager to really understand who this person is, and what their needs are. You know, one of the integral things that Jenn and I talked about early on was that this is not a landlord-tenant relationship that we're setting up. These are friendships, right? So the person is living in the primary home, the person that lives in the BLOCK home, everything we're doing is to try to set those two people up as equals. Right? Like to take away their - for instance, the resident doesn't pay rent. So there is no talk about rental problems. It's almost always centered around a disagreement on on money.
Ethan Waldman 28:59
Rex Hohlbein 28:59
So we are we are not creating a hierarchy there. And you know, you owe me kind of a situation. So all of the effort is put into matchmaking. We've it's kind of a, you know, cuid.com thing that we used to laugh about, you know, like we're really trying to set up a connection between people that we feel, and that they feel would would have success. And that has to this, to this day, we have 14 homes in backyards at this time. And that's been the case every time is that people really are enjoying each other. And some people are more gregarious, and others are wanting to keep themselves but the thing that's important is that they're enjoying each other's company on this on the property. So case managers are a big part of it. And then the matchmaking that Facing Homelessness does is a is an integral important part of it as well.
Ethan Waldman 29:55
Right. And is there like is there a lease for a particular amount of time?
Rex Hohlbein 30:00
So there, there is a year that is informally, you know, is signed, but it's there is no term on the BLOCK home. And that was also a very important part of, of the agreement is that, you know, often people say, "Oh, you can be in here for a year." And then they get kicked out, and they're back on the street. So one of the things that we've identified is that we can't prescribe or even begin to know when someone's going to heal from whatever it is that brought them to homelessness. So let's say the BLOCK home says, "Hey, we're going to give you a year inside and then you're back out on your own. Hopefully, by then you will find another place." Let's say their healing took place at 15 months.
Ethan Waldman 30:44
Rex Hohlbein 30:44
Well, if they're out on the street at 12 months, we've we never really got there. So what we believe, what Facing Homelessness believes is that being that the homes are only 125 square feet, that people will self select out, at some point, when that person has integrated and gotten their legs underneath them, and created new opportunities for them, settled their biorhythms down and decided for themselves that they can move on, then that's the right time to move. So the homeowners know, when they open this backyard, their backyard to someone who's homeless, that they're basically saying, "Hey, we really like you. And go ahead and stay here as long as you'd like."
Ethan Waldman 31:30
Right. Wow. That's, I mean, it's just wonderful.
Rex Hohlbein 31:35
I'll throw in, too, because just, just me saying that just Yeah. wells up healthy emotions. Yeah. About about who the host families are. You know that I'm a firm believer that we're all good people. And yeah, we have bad days. And some people can do some bad things. But generally, we're all good people. And the host families are another level of good. They are they are really the most remarkable people I've met in my life. It's It's astounding. Oh, that common thread moves through all of all the families that have said yes to a BLOCK home in their backyard. And it's, it's very inspiring to be around them and see them act on their compassion.
Ethan Waldman 32:20
Yeah. And ultimately, does the home owner own the BLOCK house?
Rex Hohlbein 32:29
No, the home ownership is retained by Facing Homelessness.
Ethan Waldman 32:32
Rex Hohlbein 32:33
And how it is put in the backyard is through a ground lease. So Facing Homelessness, in the end, the owner of the property owners sign a ground lease. And the reason that we went down this path is we tried to come up with and this is, you know, thing, thanks to all the pro bono legal work that was done is that we didn't want to increase the property value by putting a home back there, because then their property taxes would go up. And Seattle has some pretty stiff property taxes already.
Ethan Waldman 33:03
Rex Hohlbein 33:04
So by doing a ground lease, you are not actually making an improvement to the land. And therefore, the owners don't increase don't have an increased tax burden.
Ethan Waldman 33:16
Yeah, and I think that's smart, too. Because, you know, if a homeowner at some point was like, oh, you know, I just, the person just moved out of the BLOCK house. I'd like to Airbnb it for a while and make some money. It's, but it's not really there to Airbnb.
Rex Hohlbein 33:34
Yeah. And I, you know, you're familiar with the Seattle market. It's
Ethan Waldman 33:39
Rex Hohlbein 33:40
The real estate market is bonkers. That's a perfect word. There's a lot of other words, but bonkers, does it. And yeah, and this is another thing that I think points to the host families of what they are knowingly passing over, right, like they are. They know that they could put a home back there and gain a lot of income. And they're, they're forfeiting that. And that's, you know, again, in this world of in America, property rights, you know, smart land, you know, people have strong feelings about
Ethan Waldman 34:19
Rex Hohlbein 34:20
Yeah, exactly. Stay off the grass, whatever.
Ethan Waldman 34:24
Rex Hohlbein 34:26
It's just, they crossed through so many barriers that just make me you know, really quite frankly.
Ethan Waldman 34:38
So, you mentioned before that, you know, in order to scale you needed to look at changing the design of how they're built. What, you know, what, if any plans do you have is to scale and how, how big do you want this tiny thing to get?
Rex Hohlbein 34:58
So, going back again to Jenn and I, when we first started talking about it, our tagline or our our goal, or end goal was A BLOCK Home on Every Block. And if we do that we provide enough housing to end homelessness. And it's important to know that, you know, not every person that's homeless is suited for BLOCK home. There are people that have very, you know, intense mental health issues, or people that have anger management issues, and such. And that's part of the vetting and getting to know the person and making the right match. Because we also want this to be successful, we want, we want to ensure success as much as we can. And that basically has a lot to do with, you know, closing the gaps in the safety net. So you really, you really begin to walk with that person all the way through to recovery, and where they are looking back and saying, "Wow, I got my life back." Right? So I think, kind of lost track of what your question was.
Ethan Waldman 36:09
It was about the scaling.
Rex Hohlbein 36:13
The problem with talking about things that are so emotional for you is that you start going down a path. But the scaling, the scaling of a person, a BLOCK home on every block, to us is beautiful, because it answers again, to the mission of Facing Homelessness.
Ethan Waldman 36:30
Rex Hohlbein 36:31
And that is really to, to involve all of us.
Ethan Waldman 36:35
Rex Hohlbein 36:35
So the byproduct is housing people. But the goal is to get every single person to be involved in to come up with their own solutions, because it's not just about money. It's about the creative brain power of the smart heart, it's in all of us. So to scale to accomplish a BLOCK home on every block. One of them was the issue of building and Facing Homelessness now has that solved with the BLOCK shop, we can really it's just funds with enough funds, those homes can be built at a fairly rapid pace. The other one is hosts, we have yet to do host recruitment. All of the hosts have come to Facing Homelessness organically, and just kind people saying, wow, you know. The third BLOCK home was put in the backyard of two people who are I think he was 81. And she was 79. You know, and, and we've all learned so much from Lex and Marian. They're just unbelievable human beings and, and went through the war had stories about being housed when they were in need, and transfers to this moment. And I think that's those kind of individual stories are on both sides, right of the house and the unhoused.
Ethan Waldman 38:01
Rex Hohlbein 38:02
We do to step forward. So I think, for Facing Homelessness, our next real push is host recruitment. You know, we as management is, is is being added to layers Facing Homelessness has its own social workers now in to walk alongside of the case managers within the agencies. So I think COVID Interestingly enough, which slowed the progress down, I think was a good thing. It's hard to find silver linings for COVID. But one of the one of the good things, I think that happened for the Block Project is a good time to settle into all the little parts and pieces that needed to be in place for a project that, you know, deals with people who are living vulnerable eyes and have almost certainly large degrees of trauma and PTSD and yeah, and, and real needs. Did I answer the scaling question?
Ethan Waldman 39:02
Yeah, totally. I'm like, I think that it's just a really simple and direct idea rather than putting money toward some elaborate program or, or building temporary shelters just saying, like, let's just put nice small homes in willing people's backyards, and, and house homeless people, you know, individually, one at a time. And I could just see this taking off and being a model for other cities because there are a lot of, you know, other cities where the housing market is bonkers. And there is a big problem with homelessness.
Rex Hohlbein 39:47
Well, I'm glad you put that, you know, in those words, because one of the big issues that every city has not just Seattle is that land is a premium. Yeah, right. Like, like And is so difficult to find. And so you want to put a building up, that's going to house 100 people finding that land paying for that land, mitigating the concerns of the neighborhoods around that land. I mean, it's, it's a monumental task. And the beautiful thing about the BLOCK Project is the land's already there, you don't need to go find it, you don't need to go purchase it, you don't even need to convince people of it because the scale of it is so small being one person, right, and, and the BLOCK Project does have designs to increase, you know, occupancy to couples, and then to small families. And the detached accessory dwelling unit zoning and scandal allows for that were well under building the allowed square footage. But this idea that you are leveraging something that's already there is one of the powerful parts of what the block projects, you know, is taking advantage of. Yeah, both land and volunteers. This is, you know, two things that directly come off the bottom line of cost for building large buildings, you know, the typical unit in Seattle, if you build a building, the typical unit is somewhere between $300,000 - $350,000 a unit
For a single residential home?
No, for one unit in a building, let's say you feel okay, got it. You know, the you build a building for 60 people that are homeless, those units run, to actually bring the market and put up are that $300,000 to $350,000. So you're talking about a block home that's at 70,000. And you're talking about a home that's built with materials that have you know, metal roof, and rainscreen siding, you're talking extremely low maintenance. And you have solar panels that are providing all of the power. Block home nine catches its own water, purifies it, and that the resident drinks the rainwater. Wow. It's so these are, you know, you're also looking at radically reduced utility bills going forward as well. So it's not just the upfront, it's actually the long term as well. Yeah.
Ethan Waldman 42:15
Well, that actually, this is jumping backwards in the interview a little bit. But that reminded me, because one of the biggest challenges that I've seen and heard about in placing either a tiny house or an accessory dwelling in the backyard is dealing with that water, both the connection to water, and also where does the rainwater end or sewage go? Can you talk about how that works in the BLOCK homes?
Rex Hohlbein 42:42
I sure can. So the initial design, again by Jenn and myself were were to be was to be completely off-grid. And we will so we wanted to have all of the energy provided by solar, we wanted all the water to be rainwater, which included a very large cistern. And we wanted on site, you know, treatment of black and gray water, and we were going to take care of the black water through composting toilets. And then the gray water we had a environmental group, pro bono, all of - Herrera Engineering - pro bono, all of the sizing for this very small septic field, right? Because you're talking about one person, right, and you're talking about only gray water, because black is being taken care of by the toilet, the composting toilet.
So solar was piece of cake. And water we we got there, there was a lot of pushback from the city because and I think they make a good point. Seattle has an abundant supply at this time of water and water is about a penny a gallon in in this area, which is really super reasonable. But for us, the BLOCK Project isn't just about solving for x or the problem at hand. It is about education. So these BLOCK homes are thought of as learning centers, in backyards, learning centers about homelessness, and learning centers about climate change and how to address it with correct building. So we eventually got the nod on that the health department was the most difficult hurdle. And we spent literally hundreds and hundreds of hours in meetings with state county and city officials. Not to give a lot of credit to those agencies are hanging in there and taking part and consuming a lot of time. But in the end, we have not yet been able to get the homes to have on site sewage treatment. There's just it looked like we were going to it was going to be a pilot program. And it was kind of a win win in the sense that the Health Department could say, "Look, we're going to try this pilot program under a state of emergency on homelessness, and that we are going to address this issue for the homeless this way." But push came to shove, and it just just couldn't take place. So we're still trying to work through that.
Ethan Waldman 45:09
So the homes are just are hooked up to the sewer at the street, basically?
Rex Hohlbein 45:14
They are and they - BLOCK Home 9 does have a composting toilet. But at this point, you know, we're still just regular hookup to sewage. And in fact, we're hooked up also to water. And, and we're hooked up to power, but we put more power back into the grid than we take out.
Ethan Waldman 45:35
So very cool. Well, I hope that eventually, the city catches up with reality. And and you're able to do the onsite greywater.
Rex Hohlbein 45:50
Yeah. You know, I think in this case, the Health Department is I mean, they're doing their job. And and, you know, I, I think the big, big issue for the Health Department is that we are a region that is growing in population. And we are outstripping our means for treating sewage. We are. So that's that's something in their rainy day.
Ethan Waldman 46:19
Rex Hohlbein 46:21
To-Do List is that they've got to address it and then in the future may hold, the answer may be using various methods to get there. And one of them might be opening up on site sewage.
Ethan Waldman 46:32
Yeah. Interesting. It's like, what's old is new again, you know, that they're always modernizing old neighborhoods and old cities by installing central sewer systems and saying, you know, no more individual septics because this polluting our groundwater and lakes. And now it's like, okay, wait, maybe we have to go back to that, but figure out a better way to do it.
Rex Hohlbein 46:57
Yeah, there's a lot of examples of that. I think Western medicine is that way, right. Like, there are a lot of holistic things that we're actually kind of going back and saying, Maybe we should include that in what we know now.
Ethan Waldman 47:09
Rex Hohlbein 47:09
That that replace it, but included or modify it? So yeah.
Ethan Waldman 47:14
Awesome. Well, Rex Hohlbein, it's been really wonderful speaking with you, thank you so much for your time, and just for sharing everything kind of so deeply. And so personally,
Rex Hohlbein 47:26
Ethan, thank you for being interested. And sharing it with your with your audience. Very grateful. I know Facing Homelessness is very grateful.
Ethan Waldman 47:34
Rex Hohlbein 47:34
If anybody has, or, can I plug?
Ethan Waldman 47:36
Oh, please! Yeah, actually, if people want to either volunteer to help build or to donate money, yeah, please plug away.
Rex Hohlbein 47:46
Yeah, I think if you have an interest in any way of getting involved in this, please go to the Facing Homelessness webpage. Also follow Facing Homelessness on Facebook. It's a really great way to begin your introduction. If you're one of those people that has said, "Oh, I care but I just don't know how to start it." The Facebook page is a really great place to do that. Also, if you would go to You Know Me Now on Facebook, and follow and read those stories. It's all about taking the first step coming closer and and then your own journey will will ensue.
Ethan Waldman 48:23
Excellent. Well, Rex Holbein, thank you so much for being a guest today.
Rex Hohlbein 48:27
Thank you, Ethan. Take care.
Ethan Waldman 48:30
Thank you so much to Rex Holbein for being a guest on the show today. You can find the show notes including photos of some of the ADUs that Rex has designed, links to Facing Homelessness and to You Know Me Now, and more at thetinyhouse.net/194. Again, that's thetinyhouse.net/194. Well, that's all for this year. I'm your host Ethan Waldman, and I'll be back in 2022 with more episodes of the Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
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