Small Comfort

A housing advocate calls for creating neighborhoods of tiny houses to address homelessness.

Michael Withey recalls how Occupy Portland's takeover of two downtown parks nearly three years ago was itself overrun by hundreds of homeless people.

Withey came to believe that the homeless who moved into Chapman and Lownsdale squares were sent by police, social-service agencies and even state-run mental institutions with one purpose: to disrupt the Occupy movement.

"The movement was ruined, and public opinion went against us," Withey says of the media attention that focused on the impromptu homeless camp that Occupy became during its 39-day hold on the two city parks.

"What I learned from the experience is that, rather than exploiting the homeless, someone should be trying to fix the problem. Nobody seems to be coming up with a plan to fix this problem."

Withey, 49, has worked as a homeless advocate ever since, often at odds with Mayor Charlie Hales. Withey, for example, protested Hales' homeless sweeps last year.

But Withey is set to be one of Hales' guests before the City Council on June 11 to present what he says is a big idea to halt homelessness in Portland: tiny houses.

The little shelters—often no more than 200 square feet—have become trendy niche housing in Portland, from backyard homes on wheels to a tiny house hotel just off Northeast Alberta Street.

Withey proposes a private development of as many as 25 tiny houses clustered on a single property, with rents ranging from $250 to $350 a month.

He says his idea could save millions in affordable housing costs. Three years ago, the city built the $47 million Bud Clark Commons in Old Town, including 130 apartments that cost on average $253,000 per unit to build.

Withey says to put 25 tiny house units on about half an acre would cost $15,000 to $35,000 a unit, including the cost of the land. The organization is currently looking at property near Northeast 146th Avenue and East Burnside Street, but Withey foresees more developments in the future.

"It's not sustainable," Withey says of the city's approach to affordable housing. "The government spends a lot of money for low-income housing in ways they shouldn't."

Withey says the development would operate independently of government subsidies. What it would need from the city, he says, are changes to zoning and inspection codes to allow the construction of tiny houses as permanent dwellings.

Still, city officials are reluctant to endorse tiny homes as a good way to address Portland's need for low-cost housing. 

Brendan Finn, chief of staff for City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the Housing Bureau, says the idea is one worth exploring.

"Dan will be listening with a keen ear at the presentation," Finn says. "We are very interested in learning what we can do to bring down the cost per unit."

Finn says the city's counts of homeless have found more women with children on the streets, so finding units for families is a priority. The tiny house units Withey is proposing can be remodeled to add rooms. "The fact they are expandable make them even more attractive," Finn says.

Withey formed his nonprofit, Micro Community Concepts, in May. He wants only low-income residents, those earning between $7,000 and $21,000 a year. But he doesn't want any government role, such as Section 8 federal housing support.

He says every resident would also have to undergo a criminal background check to keep out violent felons. (Withey himself has had a few minor scrapes with the law, mostly related to the Occupy protests in 2012 and 2013.)

"This is not a handout; we aren't building a shelter or rehabs," he says. "This is just for normal people that simply can't afford conventional housing."

Withey wants to buy the units from Techdwell, a Sherwood company that builds tiny houses.

Techdwell houses feature small front porches that lead into compact kitchens and rooms that fit twin-sized beds. Dave Carboneau, a partner at Techdwell, says the houses were designed for disaster relief in Haiti (so far, the company has sold two).

"With 200 square feet, you don't have a lot to work with, but we try to maximize the utilization of the house," Carboneau says.

Homeless communities like Opportunity Village in Eugene and Quixote Village in Olympia, Wash., have tiny houses, but they lack kitchens and bathrooms. The tiny houses in Withey's development would have them.

"It's not necessarily a homeless project we're proposing," Withey says. "It's a homeless prevention project."

People living near the site of Withey's proposed tiny-house cluster aren't thrilled with the idea. Laurie Cunningham lives a few houses down and says her home's value has depreciated from the influx of low-income housing in the area.

"When we bought our home, we didn't ask for any of this," Cunningham says. "We aren't happy, and it's not safe anymore. We've had to clear out drug addicts, and we've seen guns in trunks of cars right smack in front of our house."

Withey says his tiny-house neighborhood would be all about community. 

“We want to provide safe, supportive and sustainable living for people that deserve it,” he says. 

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.