Can Tiny Homes Solve Portland’s Homeless Crisis?

tiny homes portland homeless

Tiny houses are cute and trendy. Maybe you’ve seen them on house-hunting and home improvement shows. You’ve maybe even considered living in one yourself!

For homeless residents of Portland, tiny houses are more than just a cute novelty; they may be a lifeline. The City of Portland and Multnomah County are working to approach the issue of homelessness from a new angle, offering real homes instead of just temporary shelters.

Two methods of offering tiny houses to the homeless are currently being tested, and if they succeed, tiny houses could house a large swath of Portland’s homeless populations.

The first method is to build a new tiny house village that is specifically for homeless women living in that neighborhood.
The second plan involves putting similar tiny homes in the backyards of traditional Portland homes. Let’s take a look at what these programs are doing, and how they might help both the homeless and home owners across all Portland neighborhoods.

Why Portland Must Address Homelessness

Portland’s homelessness issue is a major one. According to city records, on any given night, about 4,000 people sleep on the streets or in shelters across Portland. That puts this little city in the big leagues in terms of what portion of the population is homeless. Out of any given 1,000 residents, six are homeless, according to a recent Oregonian report, with data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s the fifth-highest rate of homelessness in the nation, after Washington, D.C., Boston, San Francisco and New York.

A home is not just a physical space: it also provides roots, identity, security, a sense of belonging and a place of emotional wellbeing. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights — adopted way back in 1948! — recognizes adequate housing as a basic human right.

Still, Portland isn’t the only city to face major challenges in creating and maintaining housing for those who can’t afford it. But recognition of this issue is growing in the United States, and some cities have successfully tackled the problem. Salt Lake City reduced its homeless population by 91% by redirecting funds spent on emergency services and jailing the homeless to simply offering them housing.

The City of Portland seems to have caught on to this strategy. The Portland Housing Bureau website states that “The aim of our efforts must be to first get homeless people into permanent housing,” and the new tiny house programs promise to offer at least semi-permanent housing.

What is a Tiny House?

While there is no universal definition of a “tiny house”, advocates tend to place any home less than 500 square feet in this category. Tiny houses may be like full-sized homes in every other way, with plumbing, electrical and separate spaces within the house. Or, they can be more rudimentary, one-room cabins. Some are built on permanent foundations, while others are built on skids or even towable trailers to make them easily moved.

If you’re moving to Portland, or even if you already live here and have been scratching your head about these cute little structures popping up everywhere, tiny houses are definitely a topic to learn about. While most folks will still choose to live in traditional, full-sized home, the option for a tiny house accessory dwelling unit in your backyard is becoming more and more common. As a real estate agent, these changes are exciting to me because they can improve housing affordability across the board and improve quality of life for all Portlanders.

Tiny House Villages for the Homeless

Two already exist in Portland with City approval, now another is being put together by Portland itself. They are mini-communities within neighborhoods that offer housing exclusively to homeless residents. Dignity Village, in North Portland, was established in 2000 and is the oldest continually operating project of its kind in the United States. All of Dignity Village’s units are tiny houses. Hazelnut Grove in the Overlook neighborhood is a combination of makeshift shelters and tiny houses.

A new tiny house village in the Kenton neighborhood of Portland will be the first to be City of Portland-approved before its construction. Catholic Charities will manage the village, which will be open to 14 homeless women. The houses, which are also called “pods”, are currently being stored at the Oregon Convention Center, but will soon be moved to a lot near Kenton Park, where they will have a home for a year. After that, the women will need to either move on or the project will find a new site, hopefully a more permanent one.

Residents of Kenton have been quite supportive of the project.
A woman quoted in the Oregonian said,
“I want the neighborhood, as well as the business community, to be a model for the city. Why not Kenton?”
Last month, residents voted 178-75 in support of the project, which will give priority housing to homeless women who hail from the neighborhood.

Tiny Homes in Backyards

The second innovative way Portland is using tiny houses to end homelessness is by actually incorporating them into existing neighborhoods. Instead of “pods”, these tiny houses are called ADUs, or Accessory Dwelling Units. They will be placed in the backyards of homeowners and house homeless individuals or families of up to five.

Homeowners have a powerful incentive to host these ADUs: They pay none of the costs of construction, and after five years of being part of the homeless program, they own the ADU free and clear. They can then choose to continue participating in the program, or rent out the ADU at market rates. Either way, it’s a smart option to increase housing density of Portland neighborhoods and fill in the “missing middle” of housing in the city.

Right now the program is only in the pilot stage. Multnomah County will select four homeowners to participate, and so far around 200 have expressed an interest!

You don’t have to wait for the program to be expanded to build an ADU in your backyard and rent it out. In fact, zoning rules are changing in many parts of the city to allow homeowners to do this, and it can make a big difference toward your mortgage payment.

We need affordable housing in Portland, few question this. In order for housing to be more affordable, we need more of it. Tiny homes and ADUs hold great potential for renters, homeless, and even homeowners looking to increase the value of their property.

May 1, 2017

Stephen FitzMaurice

Stephen FitzMaurice, Realtor is a top 5% real estate agent in the U.S. and a top 1% agent in the Portland Metro. Principal Broker in Oregon, Managing Broker in Washington he has been licensed since 2003 for residential real estate sales in the Portland Metro area. Call him direct: 503-714-1111.

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