Creating Affordable Housing in Portland


There are many reasons for wanting to live in a city as beautiful and progressive as Portland.  For us, we like the fact that by staying close to the city core, we don’t have to commute for our jobs which are in the very heart of the city.  My days at my current job may be limited, but future jobs are going to be in the same area.  Why?  Because I want to work where I live, I eat, I drink, and where I find the most progressive people:  my friends and comrades.  Renting or buying a house can be very expensive in the inner region of Multnomah county, and in order enjoy my life without spending a large portion of our income on housing, I want an alternative.

Group Housing

Increasingly, many younger folks are piling into group houses to live a bit cheaper while also experiencing the benefits, and downsides, to communal living arrangements.  These situations are still on a rental basis, and can be surprisingly expensive for the minimal accommodations.  I suppose this trend towards group living is partly social evolution, but more likely is market driven as real estate values continue their dangerous rise.

Land Trusts

Non-profit organizations such as Proud Ground, here in Portland, offer below market rate houses to working families in the area through something like a limited equity arrangement with the company.  It allows people to own homes they would otherwise be unable to afford, and also ensures that when they decide to sell, the home remains affordable to future potential homeowners.  Community land trusts around the country have been doing similar work for decades, separating the land beneath the homes from the speculative commodities market.  The view is that land should be owned collectively by the community, and access to it for housing, farming, or small business, shouldn’t be limited to only those who are wealthy enough to afford it.  By purchasing land through a non-profit corporation and putting it into a trust, the activities on the land can be set by a charter outlining the purpose of the trust, and any development or exploitation of the land that does not fit within the scope of the trust’s intended use will be prohibited for future generations, so long as the board of directors set to manage it keep the trust intact.

It is through a combination of urban land trusts and tiny living, that I seek to make housing more affordable within Portland. My interest in urban housing includes finding a place to park our Squatch while we work on building our next home.  More than simply renting someone’s backyard, I seek something grander.  I, like so many others, am seeking a return to a lifestyle where I feel connected to my neighbors through trust, respect, gifting, and shared resources.  I want to rebuild the village, but do it within an urban setting.  I’m not talking about some cul-de-sac surrounded by 3000 square foot McMansions; I’m seeking neighborhood houses with a few bedrooms and a back yard large enough for at least four tiny homes.  This could be a larger property with many more tiny homes, but I’ll get into that later.

How to fund this endeavor from where my finances are, I can’t say.  I will skip over that crucial part and just imagine that I have enough money to put a hefty down payment on a house and property in southeast Portland.  I’ve seen a few three and four bedroom homes with sizable back yards in the area of $250,000.  This is an absurd amount of money for a guy like me, but I’d like to show how this might be affordable if spread out over a group of people.

If I were able to start this project on my own, and I was interested in making this into a rental property, I may quickly find the house to be an affordable investment.  However, I must say that I morally object to rent.  Yes, by filling the bedrooms with 20-somethings, and the back yard with tiny houses, I could slowly pay down the mortgage with the rents collected.  Once the deed was in my hand, I could continue collecting rents to subsidize my income, or sell the house one day for a hefty profit, assuming the market hasn’t crashed by then.  A quick read of The Absurdity Of Property and Human Rentals will tell you how I feel about rent.

A Co-Op

No, instead the rent collected from individual parties could go toward paying off the mortgage in my name.  Or, by setting up a non-profit in charge of the property which I sell to it, for what I have paid so far (out of my pocket, not the community members), the monthly rent (or assessments, member dues, whatever) goes to the non-profit co-housing corporation which can use those assessments to finish paying it off.  Out of the monthly assessments each member pays, a portion goes towards the mortgage, a portion for insurance, taxes, maintenance, utilities, and perhaps an emergency fund.  A board of directors, preferably the community members themselves, would then make these decisions.  At this point, the person who originally purchased the property would no longer call the shots, and if they still live there, have no more power than anyone else, except for very new members who haven’t put the time in yet.

Over time, the group decides how to best budget and set the monthly assessments.  Once the mortgage is paid off, living costs drop drastically for everyone.  The group could decide to lower their assessments accordingly, a small amount to save money, or none at all in order to invest that money into a a community business, or by seeding another village property like their own.

The type of property and style of living could take many forms.  For one, there could be many more tiny homes than say, four on a large enough property.  One issue with that is there are not a great many homes with a lot that large in the city, and vacant lots do not have the services available to accommodate the needs of tiny houses.  There is also no legal way, under current zoning laws, unless the property were setup as a trailer park with all the expensive infrastructure and permits which go along with its creation.  By keeping the number of tiny homes to a small number, it is possible to define them as “detached bedrooms” of the main house.  The other possibility is to forget tiny homes and focus on creating a group house co-op.

The Advantages of a Hybrid Model

I would like to suggest that a hybrid of the group house and tiny homes has a few advantages.  First, by adding more residents to the back yard, the total cost per party is reduced.  There are also a growing number of people who wish to own their own home and are realizing that through constructing tiny homes on wheels which can be towed behind a truck, like a recreational vehicle.  These people have chosen this lifestyle often because they want a cheaper, simpler life to focus on what is important, like fulfilling relationships and community.  It seems as though there is a gap between the number of these tiny house people and legal places to harbor them.  In this age of individualism dominated by commercial relationships, many people may find group house living a little too close for their comfort.  A hybrid model allows for people to have a place to live (the big house), while they are building their tiny home in the back yard.

In the case of a model which includes tiny houses on wheels, individuals could own them outright as personal property, and tow them if away if they desire.  This is where equity comes into play.  The tiny house people own their home, while the residents in the big house do not.  If any party chose to leave the community, their parting would be somewhat similar to leaving a rental apartment.  Other than a having some initial investment returned (similar to a security deposit, maybe a community deposit?), there would be nothing for a person to sell.  They are giving up their share in the co-op.

Wrap it Up!

The whole point is:  affordable, high density housing that embraces ecology, sustainability, and community is possible in Portland.  Although there are several city co-housing communities, they aren’t very affordable from what I’ve seen, and the resource cost of medium sized condominiums is excessive, while the resource cost of developing many small hybrid communities, littered through residential neighborhoods, is considerably smaller.

I’ve written about many great opportunities possible in such a hybrid community at:  Noodle Soup Village,  Noodle Soup Village – Lite,  Edification In A Tiny House Community,  Noodle Soup Rentals,  Noodle Soup Meiosis

-M.C. Pletcher

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Posted in Dwelling, Personal, The Squatch, Tiny House

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