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  • 04.05.17

Can Tiny Houses In People’s Backyards Help Alleviate The Homelessness Crisis?

Portland, Oregon, is pursuing a radical new plan to shelter its growing homeless population.

Can Tiny Houses In People’s Backyards Help Alleviate The Homelessness Crisis?
[Photo: lithium366/iStock]

If you own a house in Portland, Oregon, the county government wants to make you a deal: It will build you a free tiny house for your backyard if you agree to let a homeless family live there for five years. After that, you can rent it to whoever you want.

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“Like many large cities, we have a crisis when it comes to homelessness,” says Marc Jolin, director of A Home for Everyone, an initiative to prevent and end homelessness in the area that is helping fund the tiny homes. “We have at least a couple thousand people unsheltered on any given night, and a couple thousand more in shelters or transitional housing. We’ve done a lot to expand shelter capacity and expand support services, but where we struggle the most is around finding permanent housing options that are affordable for very low-income people.”

“We Don’t Want People Staying In Shelters For Two Years”

Portland and the county it sits in, Multnomah, have been working on the issue of homelessness for years. In 2016, the city committed to adding 650 new shelter beds to make a total of 1,240. A recently approved $258 million bond measure will fund 1,300 new units of affordable housing, but those units won’t be ready for at least two years. In the meantime, the county thinks that new backyard houses could be one way to help small families–such as a single mother and a child or two–get off the street.

“The purpose of our test is to see if we can bend the cost-curve down, and time to development down,” says Mary Li, director of the Multnomah Idea Lab, a government innovation program that came up with the idea. “So if it takes two years for new affordable housing development units to come online, that’s too long. We know why that has to happen, but in the meantime, we want to have an alternative to shelters, and we don’t want people staying in shelters for two years while they’re waiting for that housing.”

In the pilot, the county plans to build four of the tiny houses, aiming to finish construction and move in families by the end of the city’s fiscal year on June 30, or the end of the summer at the latest. If the pilot is successful, the team will seek funding to expand the program across the area. An evaluation may happen as early as six months after the first families move in.

Because they’re being built individually, the first pilot houses are likely to be relatively expensive for the government to build, and may each cost as much as $75,000. Over five years, that works out to $1,250 a month. Although that’s less than the government pays for shelter beds for a family of three, it’s more than what it plans to pay for each apartment that will be built under the housing bond. But if the tiny homes are produced at a larger scale, the cost will come down. The team is determining how much the cost can drop.

“If we can’t get them significantly cheaper than what it costs to build an affordable housing unit over time, then we shouldn’t do them,” says Li. “Part of our test is, can we do this at a cost point that makes it attractive for all of the parties concerned.”

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Proximity Breeds Empathy

Unlike larger developments for housing the homeless, which often face local opposition, backyards are likely to be easier places to build. Tiny backyard houses, also known as accessory dwelling units, are already common and typically can be built “by right” by landowners, meaning that neighbors can’t stop their construction.

For neighbors, it’s an opportunity to get to know someone who has dealt with homelessness personally, and to begin to dismantle some of the stereotypes they might hold about what a homeless person is like or why they might be in that situation.

“There’s a bunch of research that says when we know somebody personally, we are much more able to see them as a human being, understand their struggles, and are much more predisposed to be in relationships with them,” says Li.

Since the program was first publicized in March, around 1,000 homeowners have signed up to request more information. “I’ve talked to dozens of folks in the last couple of weeks,” she says. “Every one of them has said ‘homelessness is something I care deeply about–I don’t know what to do about it, it seems so big and unwieldy. When I heard this idea, I thought, I’m nervous, I have a lot of questions, but I think I could help. And if I can, I want to.'”

Inside The Homes

The homes are likely to be around 200 square feet. Each will have sewer hookups, water, electricity, and a basic kitchenette with fridge, sink, microwave, and perhaps a toaster oven. The designs, which are still in development, will take into account requests from users, like including a place for children to do homework.

For someone sleeping on a cot in a shelter, the houses are an obvious improvement, even though the space is tight. Children may be able to return to the neighborhood school they attended before becoming homeless.

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“One of the nice things about this approach is that it allows housing to be able to be distributed across a wide geography, in a variety of neighborhoods, proximate to a range of schools,” says Jolin. “One of the things that we know about homelessness is that it’s happening community-wide. We have families all over the city that are losing their housing. The goal is to keep families in the neighborhoods in which they were living–in large part because of the importance of not destabilizing the schooling situation for the kids.”

Some families may stay temporarily, though others may want to stay for the full five years the home is available. As the team at Multnomah Idea Lab went through a human-centered design process to develop the concept, interviewing all stakeholders involved, it was clear that some families desperate for housing wanted to move in immediately and stay as long as possible.

“There were a couple of times when staff came back and said, ‘I could just see she thought this was going to be her forever home,'” says Li. “‘And she was already in it in her mind–what it was going to look like, how she was going to be able to raise her child’ . . . Someone like that probably would be there all five years.”

Families using the homes will pay 30% of their income as rent to the government; those funds may be used for maintenance or insurance costs over the five years, or may be placed in matched savings accounts. Tenants will also sign an agreement with the homeowner detailing what’s permissible on the property. As they live there, they will get access to local support services such as social workers.

People Want To Help

When the houses revert to the homeowners after five years, they can help add to the local supply of affordable housing. Portland currently has an affordable rental shortage of about 24,000 units.

Backyard homes are one example of how cities are likely to transform to meet housing needs. “I think common sense says we can’t continue either as a community or as a world to think that the amount of space and the size of housing that has been perhaps traditionally thought of as the American dream can continue,” says Li. “The world can’t support it, the environment can’t support it, and frankly the economy can’t support it.”

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“If you look at some of the work that’s happening around universal basic income, if we have hit ‘peak jobs’ in essence, this American dream of you get a family-wage job, you work super hard, you save and you scrimp and you get the house and that becomes a legacy that you leave your children, that dream virtually isn’t possible any longer unless you’ve already started at a certain place on the economic ladder,” she says.

The homes are one of a handful of new programs the local government is testing to address homelessness. A new village of “sleeping pods” without plumbing will house 14 homeless women in Portland’s Kenton neighborhood. In another project, formerly homeless workers will build 30 tiny homes.

For Li, the backyard homes are particularly interesting because–whether or not they are ultimately built at scale–the idea has demonstrated how much people in the area want to directly help.

“There are 1,000 people who own homes in this community who were in some way moved, inspired, provoked to want to think about it and sign up for more information,” she says. “For me, the challenge of what do we do to capture, leverage, support, whatever that energy was, feels like a wonderful opportunity, and a really important one.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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