One Man’s Quest To Build Affordable Communities With Tiny Houses

Andrew Heben thinks that building intentional communities with affordable housing can help bring an end to homelessness.

Tiny houses have become so trendy among environmentally conscious hipsters, they’ve even been parodied on Portlandia. But, as author and urban planner Andrew Heben demonstrates in a new Guardian profile, small houses can be much more than an architectural fad. They can also be used to create vibrant communities for low-income residents.


For more than 10 years, Heben has been working to turn Oregon tent cities into small sustainable communities. It’s a smart idea in places like Portland, where the local government has made camping illegal. Spread over 2 acres near the Portland airport, a self-governed “intentional community” has risen (think of it as a mixture between a halfway house and a kibbutz). As the Guardian writes:

A top-of-the-line tiny house with RV-like conveniences can set you back $60,000 or more. The 30 dwellings at Opportunity Village, made of prefab donated materials, cost ‘around $3,300 a unit.’ The savings come from the fact that they are basically detached bedrooms, with no utilities or running water. Cooking, washing and technology use all take place in shared facilities which the village’s 35 residents use and maintain in common.

courtesy Opportunity Village Eugene

And a philosophy of mutual aid permeates the community:

Along with common stewardship comes self-government along the lines of direct democracy. Though the agreement with the city of Eugene means that Heben’s NGO maintains an ‘oversight role’ in ensuring the village plays by the rules, day-to-day decisions are taken by residents. Some are delegated to an elected council, and others are voted on directly by everyone. This includes everything from the allocation of resources to basic decisions about who is admitted from the community’s long waiting list, and what should happen to those who break the community’s rules forbidding drugs, alcohol, stealing, and violence on site. ‘We’ve lost around 12 people who just didn’t make it,’ he says.

Adherence to the rules comes less from external compulsion than from a shared interest in the community’s wellbeing. The ordered provisions, gleaming surfaces, and manicured lawns of the common areas are a product not of coercion, but commitment. Pets are allowed, and “couples can live together,” unlike in the more disciplinary spaces of charitable homeless shelters. In a word, Opportunity Village is nice. It’s a long way from the stereotypes and clichés that color so much reporting on homelessness.

Heben’s idealism was inspired in part by the Occupy movement, where Heben saw homeless and nonhomeless citizens alike working together on a shared goal. That’s not to say that he thinks tiny houses will singlehandedly solve rampant problems of affordable housing and homelessness. As Heben says in the first line of the profile, “I never said that this was the solution to homelessness. It’s one experiment, we need more.”

To read more about Heben’s projects, head over to the Guardian.


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I'm a writer living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Interests include social justice, cats, and the future.