When Amy and Brady King started experimenting with how to build durable, reusable temporary housing that would be easy to transport and assemble, they were imagining a product to assist people after natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods that usually struck far from the Northwest.
But their first big customer ended up being close to home and for an ongoing, social emergency — the Northwest’s homelessness crisis.
Three years ago the Kings launched Pallet, an Everett, Wash. company that sells temporary shelters made of hard, plastic panels.
Brady King, a contractor and trained firefighter, was inspired to tackle the problem after seeing the mediocre shelter options available following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Alternatives such as tents are prone to getting mildewed and don’t perform well in extreme temperatures or heavy snow. Wood-constructed mini homes can be hard to transport and are also at risk of mold and rotting.
The shelters made by Pallet are self-contained units that include floors, bunk beds that can fold flat against the walls, windows and the option to add electricity, heat and AC. They can be placed on top of uneven, wet surfaces. The shelters offer essential features compared to tents and other improvised housing.
“They’re more dignified and have a locking door and beds,” Amy King said. “We’re trying to create something that is a little more clean and sanitary.”
Pallet had a booth at an emergency response trade show where the Kings met Toryono Green, chief of the Tacoma Fire Department. Tacoma and Seattle have both declared states of emergency over homelessness to help direct resources and respond to the challenge. Green was impressed with the shelters and the city bought 40 of the company’s small-sized units, which measure 64-square feet and can sleep four people. That was nearly two years ago.
“I liked that they were portable, as portable as a tiny house can be, and a material that we can easily clean,” said Green. “That was attractive for us.”
The startup was also willing to make modifications to the structures as the city needed, Green said. Tacoma initially deployed 20 of the shelters at city-run sites for people experiencing homelessness, and has erected more as space has been available.
It takes 20 minutes and no tools to assemble one of the buildings. Smaller units measuring 64-square feet that sleep up to four people cost $3,500-to-5,000, depending on which options are included. The 100-square-feet unit is $5,500-to-7,500.
Amy King said they deliberately chose not to include kitchens and bathrooms in the design, which keeps down costs and the shipping weight. But equally important is the fact that the more basic shelter is clearly a temporary housing solution.
“It’s better than a tent, but it’s not intended to be a home,” Green said. “We didn’t want people to get into them and stay. It’s meant to be a transition.”
The idea is that people can move from being unsheltered into the tiny houses where they can find stability and start getting the social services they need to eventually move into permanent housing. The Pallet houses require people to become part of a community with shared kitchen and restroom facilities.
Before launching the business, the Kings ran their own construction company. In the past, they struggled to find workers in the region’s tight employment market, and began hiring people who had formerly been incarcerated. It took a little more upfront investment in training, but they were able to retain staff and found that the employees were hardworking and eager to prove themselves. And by hiring people who can struggle to find work — including former inmates, military veterans or people eligible for food stamps — the business qualified for the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit.
The Kings are hiring from the same workforce at Pallet, which is designated as a social purpose corporation. Their team can turn out nine units per day. The high productivity, low turnover and tax credits created a model that pencils out financially. And there are less tangible perks.
“There is a social-emotional component that makes our jobs more rewarding and fun,” Amy King said.
She also tapped her workers for input on the design of the units, as some of them were previously homeless. They agreed with omitting the kitchens and bathrooms. The company is considering selling an add-on unit that contains the amenities for situations where they’re wanted.
And Pallet is still interested in providing housing for natural disasters — they’ve been talking to groups working in the Bahamas, which was recently devastated by a hurricane, and the company is stockpiling shelters to be ready to supply FEMA and others. Amy King said they’re also offering the units as shelters for temporary workers in agriculture.
“We’re home builders,” she said. “Different people have different needs in terms of housing.”Editor's Note: Funding for GeekWire's Impact Series is provided by the Singh Family Foundation in support of public service journalism. GeekWire editors and reporters operate independently and maintain full editorial control over the content.