What could low-barrier, community-based housing look like that not only respects the identities of marginalized people, but provides autonomy for them to run it themselves? When Queer the Land was founded in Seattle in 2016, they had no examples of that model — so they embarked on creating one themselves.
Five years later, Queer the Land has hit a major milestone in its vision toward collective homeownership and new economic models for the city’s QT2BIPOC (Queer Trans Two-Spirit Black Indigenous people of color) community. At the start of 2021 the collective closed on a 12-bedroom property that is now being renovated into affordable housing and community space. It’s the result of significant movement building, fundraising and navigating a complex sales transaction that lasted over a year.
“We faced racism in the buying process, so many other obstacles, and the pandemic,” Denechia Powell, one of the founding members, says of the process. “Given all that, I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
The vision took root in the summer of 2016, when members of two QT2BIPOC collectives met up in a Central District living room. “After seeing how much housing instability there was within our communities, seeing that local government and local nonprofits did not know about our lives or needs, we decided to come together to find our own solutions,” Powell recalls.
Queer the Land emerged from that meetup with a vision of collective housing and safe community space that could serve as alternatives to the healthcare system, government-run shelters, transitional housing and police. The collective also knew it needed significant funds to invest in a long-term solution, as opposed to emergency fundraising. “We just didn’t feel like GoFundMe was sustainable,” Powell says. “We wanted a sustainable solution that was led by us.”
In ensuing years, the collective built capacity as it addressed emergency housing and basic needs of its members through mutual aid. (The collective now has about 80 members with two paid community members.) Though they didn’t have much grant writing or fundraising experience — and weren’t quite sure how much money they needed to raise for eventual property ownership — “we got the word out about who we are, what our mission was, what we were trying to do,” according to Powell. “A part of that was saying that we’re looking for a property to purchase.”
Money came in from individual donors, collective members and small grants. Queer the Land member Evana Enabulele became a dedicated housing coordinator. Work ramped up toward the end of 2019, when Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative granted the collective $75,000 in September. In December the owners of a three-story property, a former Beacon Hill boarding school turned commune, reached out. The property’s owners were caught up in a lawsuit and had to sell to a community organization.
What followed was a drawn-out, challenging process rife with racism and discrimination, according to Enabulele. “It was very difficult … the house had a lot of stipulations in order to get it,” they say. “I would have never done this if it wasn’t for our community.”
On top of racism from the sellers, Powell points out that homebuying is hardly accommodating for collectives like Queer the Land. “Most states are not built for it to be easy for a group, or collective of individuals, who are not a 501C3 nonprofit,” she notes. “The laws make it very, very hard for collective housing to be a thing.” Queer the Land’s team of pro bono lawyers, who originally expected the process to be much shorter, stayed on between May of 2020 to December 2020. The sale was finalized this January.
Queer the Land ultimately worked with Evergreen Land Trust, which holds both urban and rural properties in the Puget Sound region, to acquire the property and hold it as a land trust. Through its fundraising, which included another $200,000 award from Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative, the collective bought the house without a mortgage.
The collective also views the property as a model to develop alternative economic models. There will be a commercial kitchen and likely a recording studio, so Queer the Land members can generate income through the property. “We want to create a new economy, and that looks like folks creating their own income here,” Enabulele says.
(Photo courtesy Queer the Land)
A series of open houses, general meetings and surveys kicked off the community design process this year. (There is also a virtual house tour because the home is not fully accessible; Queer the Land is working with an accessibility consultant and a contractor.) “Half of the house will be used for residents and the other part will be used for community, for folks to go in and out,” Enabulele says.
The home will have eight or nine rooms, housing under 15 people. It will likely include community laundry and shower facilities and a hang-out room with wi-fi. The collective has already begun gardening the property, with the goal to have a community apothecary and food pantry. They just purchased a greenhouse.
In its years of organizing, Queer the Land has become a force among the queer-led groups increasingly pushing for new ownership structures and forms of wealth distribution. One big takeaway from all their roadblocks and eventual success: “Move slow,” as Enabulele puts it. “A sense of urgency will really kill everything … at the very least, move at the speed of your community.”
“We worked so intentionally, we had our vision but were always adapting it,” Powell says. “With all of the obstacles, it’s kind of a miracle we got this done — but it does attest to collectivism and community power.”
This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.
Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit.