Are Tiny Houses a Solution to the Rental Crisis—Or Just a Good-Looking Symptom of It?

Luz Gomez's new house is smaller than a standard parking spot.

(Christine Dong)

Luz Gomez has moved into a classic Portland home—in miniature.

On an early October afternoon, she climbs the three steps from a Northeast Portland driveway into her new, handcrafted home.

Gomez, a 55-year-old onetime refugee from Honduras, has bleach-blond hair, bright blue nails and an easy smile that camouflages the fact that she lost her job and home in the past three years. Sunshine is streaming through the house's nine windows onto the oak floors. Should she install shades, she wonders, or enjoy the light?

"I'm feeling like I have a place that I call home, a refuge," says Gomez, adding that she had "so many bags for six months, a year. Finally, I moved into my place."

But she's also trying to figure out how she and her 14-year-old son are going to share the 16-by-8-foot space.

That's right—her new house is smaller than a standard parking spot. The kitchen is a hot plate and a mini-fridge, and the bathroom is a shower and a composting toilet.

For this, she's spending $800 a month plus utilities: $500 to the man who built the house and $300 to the Cully neighborhood homeowner whose driveway hosts her miniature residence.

This is one of the ways Portland elected officials hope to soften the housing crisis.

DOWNSIZING: A handcrafted tiny home in the Cully neighborhood is among the first of the new homes sanctioned by the city of Portland this month. (Christine Dong)

Portland has long adored tiny homes as a quirky lifestyle choice. The little boxes on wheels have been featured on Portlandia, got their own show on HGTV and were turned into a tiny-house hotel on Northeast Alberta Street.

But this month, city officials sanctioned placing a tiny home in the driveway of any homeowner who wants to add an extra housing unit to a city with a notorious rental crunch.

"Tiny homes aren't about how cool the tiny home is," says Andy Miller, executive director of the housing nonprofit Human Solutions. "It's about the fact that the person living in the tiny home is king of that domain."

On Oct. 15, City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly directed the Bureau of Development Services, which she oversees, to stop enforcing city code that forbids tiny homes and RVs from being inhabited and parked in driveways. In doing so, she gave her blessing to placing tiny houses on wheels in the city's neighborhoods.

Luz Gomez’s tiny home in Cully. (Christine Dong)

Tiny-home advocates estimate that at least 100 such homes currently exist illegally—but changing the rules means they can move into spaces across the city, in driveways in every residential neighborhood, and on parking lots in commercial districts. More than 150,000 lots potentially could host tiny homes.

This policy change won't allow people to park their RVs on the side of the road, a practice that has enraged Portlanders. Enforcement against those so-called "zombie" RVs will continue.

Instead, City Hall is betting that tiny houses and mobile homes scattered on private property will give people on the margins some breathing room while officials look for other ideas.

But some observers wonder: Is this a solution to the housing crisis—or another symptom of it?

Luz Gomez’s tiny home in Cully. (Christine Dong)

Five years ago, Eudaly started a Facebook group that launched her political rise. She called the group "That's a G-D Shed"—a reference to a literal garden shed she found listed as a rental for $950 a month.

Eudaly says the similar monthly rent for a tiny home isn't a contradiction.

"Tiny homes and RVs were built for human habitation," says Eudaly. "Sheds are generally not meant for living in."

Eudaly has supported a number of solutions to the housing crunch—from rent control to legal tent camping in backyards.

But the continually increasing cost of renting points to a dilemma faced by Eudaly and the rest of City Hall: Portland has so badly failed to substantially increase the stock of affordable housing that the city has been reduced to giving the OK to what some see as overnight camping.

Luz Gomez’s tiny home in Cully. (Christine Dong)

While tiny homes may help ease some of the crisis, they won't come without pushback. Robert Schultz, a homeowner in the Lents neighborhood, reflects a number of Portlanders' attitudes about tiny homes: He says a lack of close city supervision could lead to chaos.

"I'm a huge fan of tiny homes, but there needs to be some kind of oversight or you're going to have shacks everywhere," he says.

Neighborhood complaints aside, the idea of tiny homes as a salve for the rental crunch raises a more fundamental question abut the speed and seriousness with which City Hall is tackling the crisis.

Tiny houses could represent the second coming of small-scale DIY innovation—something on the order of food carts, which transformed this city's food scene without big construction costs. But they could just as easily serve as a distraction from Mayor Ted Wheeler's push for more traditional housing. In a worst-case scenario, the sanctioning of tiny houses could be the first step to the creation of shanty towns.

"If they start to put people into RVs on a permanent basis, that would be a mistake," says Andrew Morrison, a former builder who offers workshops for people building small homes. "It's a temporary, emergency solution. It's not a long-term solution."

LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS: Dana Denny got a no-cause eviction from the Portland room she was renting. Now she lives in a little home she helped build. (Christine Dong)

When Dana Denny couldn't find a house to rent in Portland, she decided to build her own.

Denny, 62, got a no-cause eviction in late 2015 from the Mount Tabor house where she was renting a room for $800 a month.

"I was so angry and so disappointed," she says. "I had some savings. I thought I could live for a year or two. I thought I would be able to make a life here."

But Denny, with the help of an inheritance from her mother, decided to build a tiny home. She did what she could herself and hired subcontractors for the rest, ultimately spending $50,000.

Her construction site? The Green Anchors industrial park on the north bank of the Willamette River under the St. Johns Bridge.

A tiny home under construction at Green Anchor. (Christine Dong)

During a rainy Friday, park co-owner Mark Fisher gives a tour, accompanied by Jones, his goldendoodle.

Ten traditional tiny home structures are being built on the site, and another 10 school buses are slated for conversion to either tiny homes or inhabited RVs. The tiny homes include a shipping container with a floor-to-ceiling window cutout, and one with a lattice of wood panels on the outside. Others look like more traditional Northwest cottages.

For $250 to $300 a month in rent, the DIY builders are working away on the mini-homesteads of their dreams.

"There's a lot of word of mouth," says Fisher. In the past five years, about 50 tiny houses have been built here, he estimates. The site isn't zoned for living in tiny homes once they're finished. Fisher estimates about two-thirds of builders kept their tiny homes in Portland even though it was illegal.

Tiny homes under construction at Green Anchor. (Christine Dong)

Denny began working on hers in March 2016, when she bought the trailer that served as its portable foundation. She built parts herself and hired out contractors for the rest.

It's built of plywood and insulated with a product made from volcanic stone. Tibetan prayer flags float above her wooden door. She laid down a path of gray, flat stepping stones to her door, wedged between smaller heart-shaped rocks, which she collects everywhere.

The composting toilet took some getting used to. Urine drains down one hole into a wastewater pool in the ground. She composts the feces, which goes into a separate hole in the toilet and is collected in a green plastic bag. Getting the waste into the right holes in the toilet took some practice.

The compost toilet. (Christine Dong)

But the bathroom does not smell. She places dark-brown coconut coir, ground-up fiber from the plant's husk, into the composting toilet to start the composting process. Once a month, she moves the poop to its own compost pile outside.
She likes the environment-friendly lifestyle—even the toilet.

"When I go into town and flush," she says, "I think, 'My God, think of all the water.'"

But Denny also had to move out of town to find a parking spot that she could hide away in—a parcel of land near Sandy, where she pays $400 a month to rent a space off the driveway, and another $50 a month for utilities. She feels isolated.

Dana Denny’s tiny home. (Christine Dong)

That's because Portland's rules barred Denny from keeping a tiny home in a backyard within city limits.

Since 2015, she had tried to get tiny houses legalized under the city's comprehensive plan, testifying before the City Council that they fit into the plan's goals for high-quality affordable housing.

"They are free to the city of Portland at no cost," she said in her fourth appearance before the council on Jan. 13, 2016. "Let me age with dignity in my little house."

At the time, City Hall said no. But then another group started banging on the door.

Dana Denny’s tiny home. (Christine Dong)

LaVeta Gilmore Jones lies underneath Luz Gomez's tiny house, hooking up the graywater supply. The house's shower and kitchen sink will drain into large plastic buckets that will be emptied into the toilet in the main house nearby.

If tiny houses become a balm for Portland's rental crunch, Gilmore Jones will deserve some credit.

She's co-director of Leaven Community, a faith group that pushed for the legalization of tiny houses in Portland.

Gomez's house will be the culmination of six months of organizing, lobbying City Hall and finishing the little house.

HANDMADE IN PORTLAND: Luz Gomez lives in a tiny home, handcrafted by a Portland artisan, parked in the driveway of a quarter-acre lot in the Cully neighborhood. (Christine Dong)

Leaven Community was looking for social justice projects. In rapidly gentrifying inner Northeast Portland, housing kept coming up.

They hope eventually to create a group of congregations and community organizations that build and host affordable housing.

"Luz is on that team," says Gilmore Jones. "This is one small action we took in response to what she shared with us."

A member of the community was building a tiny home—it wasn't illegal to build it, and there was talk that churches might be able to host such structures.

But the group quickly discovered the rules against tiny homes wouldn't make that a secure option. The city could swoop in at any time on a neighbor's complaint.

A member of the group prepared by writing a letter to every neighbor to explain what she was doing and to ask permission to host a home. She went back to every house with Gomez to make sure her neighbors were on board.

At the same time, the group sought to make the house fully legitimate, going to Eudaly's office.

City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly (Christine Dong)

It didn't take much convincing.

"I should have thought of that," Eudaly chief of staff Marshall Runkel recalls thinking.

Mayor Wheeler also threw his support behind the idea.

"During the campaign we talked about having flexible housing options," says the mayor's spokesman, Michael Cox, "options that increased density, that increased affordability."

Commissioner Nick Fish likes the basic idea but was noncommittal. Commissioner Amanda Fritz declined to comment, and Dan Saltzman was traveling and unavailable for comment.

A mobile home under construction at Green Anchor. (Christine Dong)

The City Council is expected to solidify the new rules by amending city code next year, with some additional guidelines. (One lingering question: whether to outlaw short-term rentals of tiny homes on websites like Airbnb, although such rules haven't stopped scofflaws in the past.)

But not everyone rolled out the welcome mat. In the days after Eudaly's Oct. 15 announcement of the rule change, some neighborhood leaders expect widespread objections.

The concern from neighborhoods—particularly Lents, which has been a hotbed of both homeless camping and opposition to the city's policies—is that it will have a similar impact as former Mayor Charlie Hales' "safe sleep" policy. That policy lent legitimacy to what was already happening on city streets: tent camping without fear of police sweeps.

Cora Potter serves on the Lents Neighborhood Association. It has not taken an official position on the policy—but she has.

"What people in inner neighborhoods see as enabling 'tiny homes' and nomadic millennials," Potter says, "I see as an open invitation for derelict RVs to squat in the driveways of vacant homes with absentee landlords, and permission for problematic houses to expand their footprints and create even more havoc for their adjacent neighbors. We need every enforcement tool possible. In this case, a really valuable tool is being taken away."

People in some wealthier neighborhoods are also skeptical.

Tiny house under construction in St. Johns. (Christine Dong)

"We had about 50 people present for a panel, and the issue of homeless camps was of considerable concern among many of the residents," says Steven Cole, president of the Irvington Community Association. "To no one's surprise, the police confirmed that the rise in homeless camps is likely linked to a rise in property crime. Thus, if a church were to set up a mini-camp, I am guessing there would be some concerned neighbors."

Some advocates for tiny homes question whether RVs should be legal long term.They worry RVs aren't a good housing solution anyway—because they generally have less insulation and aren't built for winter.

"RVs are not as easy to keep comfortable," says Lina Menard, who lives in a tiny home (illegally, until this month) and runs a related business, Niche Consulting. "The same goes for yurts. I don't have a good, solid answer."

Tiny house under construction at Green Anchor. (Christine Dong)

Solid answers are hard to come by in Portland housing.

Nearly a year after voters approved a $258 million bond to fund affordable housing, little progress has been made in spending that money. Reforms in the Oregon Legislature that could have helped—including outlawing no-cause evictions—instead fizzled. And while the building spree across the city may bring down rents, that relief has yet to materialize for low-income people.

So that leaves city officials hunting for Band-Aids. Maybe tiny houses will be a useful one: an innovation that shows a lot of little ideas put together can make a difference. Or maybe it's just the latest in a series of desperate gestures that don't move the needle—because Portland's leaders haven't been able to solve the crisis.

"We've seen a lot of promise out of the Wheeler administration," says Chris Trejbal, chairman of the Overlook Neighborhood Association. "I hope we see a lot of action in the coming months."

Luz Gomez (Christine Dong)

As for Gomez, she gets a house and will stay in Portland. (Gomez has a 20-year-old felony conviction for seeking public assistance she was not entitled to, and a criminal record can make finding rentals more difficult.) But she has a hard time seeing it as a long-term residence.

She says she'd rather own a home. She's hoping to start a rent-to-own deal with the builder in a year. Otherwise she isn't sure her new tiny home is an answer.

"It's not really permanent," she says. "I'm not building equity."

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