For Women, by Women: A Sisterhood of Carpenters Builds Tiny Houses for the Homeless
For the volunteer tradeswomen who came together over several cold, wet weekends this spring to build a tiny-house village for homeless women in north Seattle, the ultimate reward wasn’t necessarily their finished handiwork.
Rather, it was the confidence and camaraderie the project inspired for many of the crew who, for the first time, worked on a construction site where they were not the only women.
Alice Lockridge, who spent a 30-year career training women to do physically demanding work, created the Women4Women initiative that brought them all together.
“These women go to work every day and are told they are not as good, they are taking some man’s job, and ‘Why are they there?’ Subtle and straight to their faces, every day for their entire careers,” Lockridge says.
With Women4Women, she says, “we made a place where they could come to work and share their skills and learn new skills in an environment that was free from all that.”
Whittier Heights Village is a community of 15 colorful tiny houses, each 100 square feet. In July, its new residents began moving in, many from the streets or from shelters around Seattle. The village also has a common building with a kitchen, bathrooms, and laundry.
Located on city-owned land, it is one of nine tiny-house villages in Seattle that serve as emergency shelters for the city’s homeless population. It is operated by the Low Income Housing Institute, which develops and operates housing for low-income and homeless people in Washington state. Each house costs about $2,500 to build, and the labor is mostly provided by volunteers.
Dozens of women—and also some men—from across the state answered Lockridge’s initial call for volunteers. Not all were carpenters; there also were gardeners, plumbers and electricians, and artists. They included tradespeople with years of experience and folks who hadn’t picked up a hammer in years.
“People talked about how different it was from their regular crew in the real world where they worked. … We worked, learned, and taught,” Lockridge says.
It was a different scene from the male-dominated worksites many of them report to every day.
While the construction industry has a narrower gender pay gap than U.S. industries on average, Women4Women volunteer Linda Romanovitch said many women don’t see such work as viable career options.
In the construction trades, women represent about 10 percent of 10.3 million construction workers in the U.S.
Romanovitch, who spent 40 years in the construction trade, 32 of them as a supervisor and carpenter with the King County government, said that too often the only people being recruited into construction work are the brothers and sons of men who already have those jobs.
What’s more is that high school shop classes, which seldom attract girls in the first place, have been all but abandoned by most U.S. high schools, meaning students miss out on exploring those options.
“It’s called the other four-year degree,” Romanovitch says. “You get benefits and a pension. All these things I’m promoting as a union carpenter, but my great passion is to promote this as a viable career option for women. It’s still a man’s world in construction.”
Romanovitch had assembled about 15 women from Sisters in the Brotherhood, a group of women in the United Brotherhood of Carpenters union who support and mentor one another.
She regularly coordinates volunteer projects for the women carpenters—from building tiny houses to repairing the homes of seniors and the disabled.
Sisters groups exist in carpenter locals across the country. In some cases, it’s just one woman, Romanovitch says. In the construction trades, women represent about 10 percent of 10.3 million construction workers in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Sisters have been going into middle and high schools to talk to young girls about construction work, and also visiting inmates in a women’s prison.
“The millennials are going to carry the water,” Romanovitch says. “But first we need to recruit them.”
The Sisters also have been trying to chip away at some of the barriers that keep women out of the trade, including harassment, for which the industry is well-known. They have been working with their union brothers to try to create healthier worksites overall, and they encourage women to report problems when they arise, Romanovitch says.
“But it’s at a snail’s pace,” she says. “There’s still a lot of old-school shit you are battling, but at least it’s being talked about.”
Saskia Brown experiences that on the job daily.
“Every day I have to prove that I know what I’m talking about.”
She got into a carpentry apprenticeship program 11 years ago after high school, when a friend suggested she try it instead of going to college. She liked the work and the pay and stayed, working her way up the ladder, becoming a lead and then forewoman about two years ago.
In her regular job, Brown oversees other carpenters on many large projects, including hospitals and high-rise apartment buildings throughout the Puget Sound region.
But the challenges of being the only woman on a site—and a supervisor on top of that—are unrelenting, she says. “Every day I have to prove that I know what I’m talking about.”
There is a base level of disrespect, she says, and she’s always being questioned, not so much by the men she supervises, but by the men working in upper management, project managers, and other foremen. “A lot of times they don’t even know they are doing it. That’s just the way the world is, the way construction is,” Brown says.
It’s why working on the Whittier Heights project felt so good.
Brown had learned about it at a meeting she regularly hosts for women carpenter apprentices. And unlike in her day job, she said, the 30 or so church volunteers she supervised on that project did not question her judgment or credentials. “It was nice and laid-back,” Brown recalls.
“No pissing contests. Everyone there had a common goal. It was refreshing.”
Lornet Turnbull is the former civil liberties editor for YES!, a Seattle-based freelance writer, and a regional freelance writer for The Washington Post. An award-winning enterprise reporter who's worked in media for more than 20 years, Lornet has covered everything from the auto industry and labor unions in Michigan, to real estate and statehouse politics in Ohio, to homelessness in Seattle, to refugee children in the West Bank, and sex workers in Mexico City. She speaks English.