Featured photo: Greensboro City Council approved funding for pallet houses to house homeless people. (screenshot from city presentation)

Greensboro could soon join a list of cities from around the country that use pop-up “pallet houses” to shelter people experiencing homelessness during the coldest months of the year.

On Monday morning, Greensboro City Council held a special meeting in which they heard from city staff, including former city councilmember Michelle Kennedy, about temporary housing solutions for this coming winter. Solutions on the table include 40 units of pallet houses that would be configured to create a community, as well as a designated parking lot for people living out of their cars to do so safely.

While the parking-lot solution seemed to be quickly accepted by council as a whole, the pallet houses, created by Seattle-based company, Pallet, were met with more questions and concerns.

According to the proposal presented to council, the 40 pallet shelters, which can house two people each, would cost the city $535,014. Rather than being constructed, the shelters can be quickly assembled and would be arranged with anywhere from six to 15 feet between them. In total, the community would sit on about a quarter of an acre, Kennedy said. The units would also be insulated and have 1500-watt heaters as well as air conditioning and ventilation for circulation. The structures are made to be pest-proof, mold resistant and withstand up to 110+ mph winds.

An example of a pallet shelter

There would also be two bathrooms on site, each with two sinks, toilets and showers for the 80 individuals living there.

The entire project is being called the “Doorway Project” by the city and is meant to provide interim housing for people with the highest needs, according to city staff. During the meeting, Kennedy said that there are approximately 200-250 chronically homeless people — those who are homeless for at least a year — in the city. She also said that the pallet houses would carry the city through “the next eight to nine months as [they] finalize permanent, supportive housing.”

Both the Doorway Project as well as the safe parking initiative would be in addition to endeavors that the city already has in place for the homeless community, including hotel assistance for families through the Greensboro Urban Ministry and the winter shelter at the Regency Inn, as well as the white-flag shelter which opens when temperatures drop below 25 degrees.

As both staff and city council members mentioned throughout the meeting, the pallet shelters are not meant to be a long-term housing solution, but rather a temporary living situation for those who will, hopefully, eventually obtain permanent housing.

An example of a bathroom (screenshot)

Many on council saw the proposal as a concrete step in the right direction to helping the homeless community, especially given council’s recent approval of ordinances that community members saw as criminalizing homelessness.

“As you take people’s stuff away downtown, they need somewhere to land,” said councilmember Sharon Hightower, who alluded to one of the ordinances that passed on Oct. 5.

Hightower was among the four council members who opposed the changes to the ordinances.

On Monday, seven members of council voted to support funding for the pallet homes and the parking lot, with councilmember Zack Matheny as the sole opposing vote.

Kennedy, who now works as the neighborhood development director for the city, said that the units have a 10-year lifespan and would be a good beginning.

“A combination of all these programs will allow us to accommodate between 200-250 individuals,” she said. “We know the number is much greater than that but in terms of an immediate action step, ideally this gets us a long way down the road with addressing those numbers.”

Pallet company new, questions about safety raised

While most council members appeared to be on board with the proposal from the beginning of the meeting, one of the recurring questions about the viability of the pallet houses was its overall safety.

One of the public speakers at the meeting was Scott Jones, executive director of the Tiny House Community Development, Inc. which builds tiny homes in the area as long-term housing for homeless people. Jones is also a part of Guilford County’s Continuum of Care or the CoC, which is a “planning body… that coordinates the community’s policies, strategies and activities toward ending homelessness,” according to the county’s website. The group is made up of nonprofit service providers, county officials, city representatives, healthcare providers and more. Councilmember Sharon Hightower is the city’s representative in the group. And like Hightower, Jones mentioned that he was caught off guard about this proposal, saying that no one in the Continuum of Care had been notified about the pallet houses as an option.

“I’m pretty disturbed,” Jones said. “I serve on the CoC. I am the housing resource committee chair and my charge is to find out what housing is being built, what housing is available in Greensboro and Guilford County…. What’s disturbing is the CoC was not a part of this conversation from the very beginning.”

Jones urged city council to rethink this proposal, stating that the company who makes the pallet homes, Pallet, had only been around since 2016 and that they were “not up to code.”

While city staff said that they wouldn’t approve the final contract until they got more details about the fire-safety rating about the shelters, a few news reports show that the shelters have caught fire in the past.

The pallet shelters don’t need to be constructed. Instead, they are more like pop-up shelters. (screenshot)

According to an article by Curbed from March, three pallet shelters caught on fire earlier this year in Oakland, Calif. The outlet reported that other shelters burned down in Oct. 2020 and in Dec. 2020. After the latter incident, Pallet changed its materials from high-density polyethylene to fiberglass-reinforced plastic, but the company denied that the change was due to the fires.

A source quoted in LA Magazine, also stated that the shelters had a three-year lifespan rather than the 10-year lifespan noted on the company’s website.

The safety section on Pallet’s website notes that the shelters are “independently inspected and approved by local fire marshall” and that each unit comes with a fire extinguisher, smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector.

Instead, Jones said he wants city council to consider contracting with more local hotels to house homeless individuals during the winter months.

Matheny, who voted against the pallet homes, pushed for a similar solution. He said that he’d like to know more about how the city was spending its money on the Regency Hotel before spending more money.

“I don’t see how we can support just spending another million dollars to buy something else when we’re not taking care of what we own,” he said.

Example of an interior of a pallet shelter (screenshot)

However, Kennedy, who was part of the team that came up with the proposal, pushed back on Jones and Matheny’s assertion that housing people in hotels or empty businesses would be cheaper. She said that during COVID-19, when they housed about 85 people in hotels for five months, that it cost the city approximately $800,000. And as other council members pointed out, the pallet homes could be used over multiple years for the same amount of money.

“We have investigated everything that is available to us,” Kennedy said.

Despite the fires, Pallet’s shelters have increased in popularity over the last few years, particularly during the pandemic. According to its website, the company now has more than 1,700 cabins in 63 “shelter villages” across eight states in the country. Many news reports also state the positive effects that the shelters have had on their municipalities including creating shelter for those most in need, decreasing encampments and offering support. While the option was not included in the initial proposal, Pallet also makes community rooms which could also be added to the villages for people to hang out in during the day.

“I think that’s a necessary part of it,” said councilmember Goldie Wells. “Homeless are getting on folks’ nerves and so where can they go? There is no place for them…. We need a gathering place for them also.”

The interior of a community room option (screenshot)

Kennedy said that she’s asked for the numbers on the community room options and would send the info to council for further consideration. In response to Jones’ and Hightower’s comments about the lack of the Continuum of Care’s involvement on this project, Kennedy said that it was to move the process forward more quickly.

“There comes a time, I’m just speaking really frankly here, where we can continue to meet and plan the next meeting or we can act, and we are at a place that we need to act,” Kennedy said. “Unfortunately the movement in terms of partnership will likely come as it relates to longer term solutions. There have been very little interest in immediate solutions that are actually moving forward.”

In the end, most of council agreed with Kennedy, opting to vote in favor of the proposal under the condition that city staff come back with more details on how the shelters are constructed and that they are safe.

“I don’t want to wait for action; I think we need to do something,” said Mayor Nancy Vaughan. “I understand that this solution was just identified in the last few weeks. I don’t want to wait just to talk about it some more, we need to do something. This is not the end all solution. This is just a short term solution, but we have to get people sheltered.”

If the solution doesn’t work, then someone will take accountability, she said.

“Whoever used them should be looking for work elsewhere,” she said.

Other things to note:

  • The safe parking pilot program will allow a max of 35 cars to park in a designated area safely
  • Homeless families will be prioritized for hotel stays through Greensboro Urban Ministry
  • The white flag shelter will open again this year but the threshold temperature, which has historically been 25 degrees, may be raised. The shelter does not have beds and is just a place for people to stay warm.
  • The areas for the pallet shelters and the parking lot have yet to be determined.

If you or someone you know is experiencing homelessness in Greensboro or Guilford County, they can find resources on the county’s website here.

Find Monday’s presentation about the pallet homes here. Watch the city council meeting here.

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