PORTLAND — Faced with an intractable homeless problem, officials in Portland are thinking inside the box.
A handful of homeless families will soon move into tiny, government-constructed modular units in the backyards of willing homeowners. Under the pilot program taking effect this summer, the homeowners will take over the heated, fully plumbed tiny houses in five years and can use them for rental income.
The project, called A Place for You, is believed to be the first in the nation to recruit stable residents to address a homeless crisis that’s gotten so bad the city last year declared a state of emergency and made it legal to sleep on the street.
Portland has an affordable rental shortage of 24,000 units and nearly 4,000 people sleep on the street, in a shelter or in transitional housing each night. Residents just passed a $260 million housing bond, but it will be two years before those units are ready, said Mary Li, director of Multnomah County’s new Idea Lab, which developed the concept.
The first phase is very small — likely just four families — with hopes to expand significantly if it works out or regroup if there are problems, Li said.
“We said to ourselves, ‘What does FEMA do when they have to house 10,000 people after an earthquake?’ Well, they grab a bunch of trailers and they plop them in a field,” she said.
“Well, there’s underutilized space in people’s backyards. What if we provide a lower-cost — but very habitable option — in people’s backyards?”
About 200 homeowners have signed up to learn more after Multnomah County’s project was first made public this week by the city’s alternative weekly paper.
Becca and Kelly Love were some of the first to express interest.
Becca, a social worker, and Kelly, a counselor, see the impacts of sky-high rents first-hand in their jobs working with low-income students at Portland Community College. They live in North Portland, an area struggling with homelessness.
“Just because you don’t have housing, it doesn’t make you a bad person or more likely to be a bad tenant. In fact, you’d be a better tenant because you’d appreciate it,” said Becca Love. “We’ve been trying to think of a way to help out in our community because we do have privilege … but we didn’t know what to do.”
Housing officials are still ironing out many details, but they will buy the first four modular units with $365,000 in government money and a charitable donation. The 200-square-foot units under consideration will be large enough to house an adult and one — or possibly two — children, Li said.
All families will be screened and the homeowner and the tenants will sign a lease that spells out what behaviors won’t be tolerated.
The families will receive social services that the county already provides to all homeless families they house, Li said, and they will pay 30 percent of the rent themselves.
Housing officials in the city and surrounding Multnomah County have increasingly turned to so-called “tiny houses” and even portable sleeping pods.
The new mayor, Ted Wheeler, has said he wants to move away from the unplanned tent villages that sprung up under his predecessor — often in gentrifying neighborhoods — and focus on planned communities of small, more permanent dwellings until the city can build more apartments.
A pilot project in the city’s Kenton neighborhood, for example, will place 14 homeless women in portable sleeping pods, 8-by-12 foot units with a space for a bed and some storage. The pod village was recently approved by the neighborhood association.
The city has added 600 shelter beds recently for a total of 1,200 year-round beds, but that isn’t enough. Up to 200 people sleep each night in a shelter reserved for families with children, said Marc Jolin, director of the city and county’s Joint Office of Homeless Services.
“This project … is as important as the work we’re doing on shelters because we have far too many families with children living in our shelters,” he said. “We want to move them to permanent housing as quickly as possible.”