Multnomah County Hopes to Build Granny Flats to House Hundreds of Homeless Families in Portland Backyards

The county will build you a tiny house—if you invite a homeless family to live there for five years.

(Amy Churchwell)

Multnomah County is preparing to make Portland homeowners a remarkable offer: It will pay to build them a granny flat in their backyard, if they let a homeless family live there for five years.

The county project, called A Place for You, aims to build as many as 300 miniature, roughly 200-square-foot homes on residential properties across the metro area in the next year. County officials hope to build the first four houses, each costing up to $75,000, by June 30.

Under the terms of the project, the county would build the granny flats and homeowners would get to keep them—a substantial property upgrade. In return, a homeowner would commit to a five-year lease of the backyard structure to a homeless family, without pocketing any rent. (The county may start requiring families to pay 30 percent of their earnings into a savings account to prepare them for moving into other housing.)

"The public is calling on us to try something new and something different," says County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury. "The wait list for all of the [current] affordable housing units is ridiculously long."

The project marks the first foray into housing construction by the county-run Joint Office of Homeless Services. That office typically opens shelters and offers rental assistance to keep families from winding up on the streets.

County and city officials have long struggled to find locations for homeless shelters, rest stops and authorized camps. They've been repeatedly flummoxed by the vocal objections of local residents.

A Place for You offers an ingenious workaround to that obstacle. By offering to essentially pay homeowners to allow homeless families to live on their property, the county skirts getting the permission of neighborhoods. It also more closely resembles an affordable housing project, which tends to spark less controversy.

"This will be affordable housing scattered throughout our communities," says Marc Jolin, head of the Joint Office of Homeless Services. "I don't expect that this will cause any concern for neighbors."

But at least one neighborhood leader is skeptical. Robert McCullough, chairman of neighborhood coalition Southeast Uplift, says the only proven solution is housing that comes with social services.

"Little houses and ADUs are fine," McCullough says, adding that he was speaking for himself and not the neighborhood group. "But we need to find a location where we can bring services to the needy."

The granny flat—or, as it's technically known in Portland zoning code, the "accessory dwelling unit"—has been touted as the answer to Portland's growing pains, a solution for creating a denser, more affordable city where now only 17 percent of land is zoned for apartment buildings and roughly 45 percent is zoned only for single-family dwellings.

A Place for You is not the only effort underway to use small dwellings of various sorts to address the city's housing crisis (see sidebar below).

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is enthusiastic.

"This is an innovative idea to provide non-shelter alternatives to homelessness," says Wheeler in a statement. "The challenges we face around homelessness are diverse, and so our approach to addressing them must include a diverse set of solutions. The same old approach won't do."

But it comes at a time when Portland is facing a 24,000-unit shortfall in affordable apartments and homes, and is desperately seeking innovative solutions for people living on the margins.

At least 338 people are staying in family shelters across the county. But that doesn't fully account for the number of homeless families, including those living on the streets or in domestic violence shelters, or the 60 people provided hotel vouchers each night by the county.

The joint office put up $175,000 for the pilot project. It's matched by an equal amount from Meyer Memorial Trust. County commissioners approved the public-private partnership with Meyer earlier this month.

One drawback to the idea: It doesn't pencil out as very cost-efficient. Project organizers settled on spending $60,000 to $75,000 on each of the first four small homes—double what they originally hoped the units would cost.

That's a cost per month of up to $1,250 per unit, since each unit will be used as affordable housing for five years.

That's less than the county pays for shelter beds, which for a family of three cost the county and city roughly $2,000 a month. But it's also more than double what the city plans to spend per apartment under the housing bond—assuming those buildings last at least 30 years.

It's still unclear whether the project will try to meet the city zoning code for accessory dwelling units, or whether they'll technically be classified as something else. Also in the works: an effort to waive property taxes on the granny flats for the five years they are used by homeless families.

"We're taking risks," says Mary Li, director of the Multnomah Idea Lab, a county policy center. "My hope is, we prove this concept, and we do 300 of these in the next 12 months."

(Amy Churchwell)

Tiny Solutions

If tents have become the symbol of Portland's housing crunch, tiny homes and accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, are turning into the emblem of new efforts to help.

Last week, the Kenton Neighborhood Association approved the opening of a homeless village that will house 14 women in enclosed "sleeping pods" that have no plumbing. The Portland Development Commission has also approved a 72-unit affordable housing project for the site.

Then-Mayor Charlie Hales helped secure a $300,000 grant last year for the nonprofit Blanchet House for a project in which formerly homeless men will build 30 tiny homes for fellow homeless people. The group expects to begin building next month, though the city has not identified a location.

Portland State University's Institute for Sustainable Solutions is working on a project to make it easier, quicker and cheaper for homeowners to build ADUs. It aims to work with homeowners to build 200 ADUs in 2017-18.

Former PDC director Patrick Quinton has co-founded a company called Dweller that will build ADUs for homeowners, rent them out and manage maintenance. Homeowners would lease a spot in their backyard and collect a percentage of the rent. Dweller is starting with one ADU in June and hopes to build five to 10 by year's end.

City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly has launched an app for homeowners to screen whether their property meets basic criteria for an ADU; that is, lies in an area not at risk of flood or landslides.

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