a prolonged housing crisis ...
Many cities are facing a similar problem: a severe shortage of affordable housing options coupled with a substantial amount of citizens going unhoused. It’s a complex issue that we’ve been grappling with for decades, during which a variety of different approaches have been tried—yet the problem only seems to be intensifying.
Housing costs have risen sharply while income levels have failed to keep pace. More than half of all renters in the U.S. now face a "housing cost burden"—spending more than thirty-percent of their income on housing. This has resulted in increased demand and competition for the limited number of affordable units that do exist, making conditions even tougher for low-income households.
Mapping America's Housing Crisis—A study by the Urban Institute shows that for every 100 extremely low-income renter households, there are only 28 affordable and available rental units. Use this tool to quantify the housing gap in your county.
Housing is Out of Reach—In order to afford a modest, two-bedroom apartment in the US, renters need to earn a wage of $20.30 per hour. Use this tool to see how much you need to make to afford a modest apartment in your state.
As housing becomes increasingly unaffordable, federal and state subsidies designed to mitigate this issue continue to be direly underfunded. Since the 1990s, approximately 25% of the existing public housing stock has been either sold off or demolished, with no funding allocated to build new public housing.
Instead, we use a voucher system in which low-income households seek subsidized housing in the private market. But unlike social security, medicare, and food stamps, housing assistance does not serve everyone who is eligible. Today, only 1 in 4 households that qualify for housing assistance actually receives it.
The current approach to building new affordable housing requires developers (both for profit and non-profit) to compete for a very limited supply of public funding and tax credits. This convoluted approach is extremely inefficient and expensive—typically approaching $200,000 or more per unit of housing. While research shows that providing housing first is still more cost-effective than the indirect costs of leaving people on the streets, reorganizing budgets to address this fact is no easy task.
In the past, an abundance of single-room occupancy (SRO) housing provided low-cost, short-term options to help fill the gap. They consisted of a modest, private room—typically under 100 square feet—supported by a bathroom down the hall and a shared kitchen and dining room on a separate floor.
But barriers to housing development have increased rapidly since the 1970s. This initially came in the form of minimum building standards that offered quality improvements to tenants, but also resulted in increased costs and the near depletion of SRO housing (an estimated one million units were demolished between 1970 and the mid-1980s). In more recent years, local barriers such as zoning regulations and lengthy land use approval processes have intensified—adding further cost and complexity to housing development.
Rampant homelessness ensues, and local communities are left to deal with the on-the-ground consequences.
Traditional homeless shelters have proven to be widely insufficient, ineffective, and often times inhumane. With no other alternatives, a sizable population is going unsheltered—defined as criminals by a growing number of anti-camping ordinances that make it illegal for these people to exist in space. This leaves our police departments with an expensive, unwinnable battle where they may succeed in evicting people from a specific site, only to watch them move on to the next residual piece of real estate.
As this relentless problem continues to dredge on, more and more people are beginning to demand a more practical and productive response.
a village model emerges ...
Making real progress in improving housing affordability for all citizens requires a commitment to concrete, alternative models for approaching the problem.
Looking at the American city, we see restricted public funding streams, an abundance of land and materials going underutilized, lots of people who need and want something to do, and the damaging effects of some not having a stable space to call home. We see the dire need for a sense of place, purpose, and belonging. It seems only logical then to better utilize the resources within our local communities to develop sensible, cost-effective solutions.
The intense specialization of the housing industry has meant that the average citizen has little role of influence. But the persistent shortcomings of public policy has led a growing number of citizen-led initiatives to propose their own innovative responses to address the situation.
The concept many local groups have coalesced around: a tiny house village.
By the turn of the century, the "tiny house movement" began to capture the heart of America, and the fascination around these little structures has only gotten bigger from there. The typical new American home has grown to approximately 2,500 square feet in size. In response to demand for a simpler option, the “tiny house” has emerged as a new category of housing (now defined in an appendix to the international building code as a house of less than 400 square feet).
While tiny houses were first popularized as a novel means for downsizing from conventional housing options, there has since been growing interest around a more practical application in restoring a simple, accessible, and sustainable housing option.
People see a tiny house and think—we can do that, this is something within our grasp! The simple structures are at a human scale, allowing for a diverse range of citizens to once again engage in the home building process. A skilled builder can lead a group of volunteers and complete a tiny home in as little as a day or two.
But it's not all about the physical structure; it's also an attractive model because of the emphasis on building community. After all, we are talking about tiny house villages here.
Clustering the tiny homes in a village setting offers a number of social and economic advantages, where neighbors come together to share resources and make decisions about how their community is run. This offers a stark contrast to the social isolation found in conventional housing options, which tend to prioritize efficiency over human need and desire; as well as the vertical organization of traditional homeless shelters where help is only handed down.
According to US Census data, the average new single-family house has ballooned from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,500 square feet in 2012. During the same time period, the average number of persons per household dropped from 3.38 to 2.55—meaning the average American now supposedly requires three times as much space.
The Village Model is a community-based alternative that evolved from democratic tent cities organized by the unhoused. Seattle's Tent City 3 and Portland's Dignity Village were early pioneers of this model back in 2000. More recently, the concept has been re-imagined by examples like Eugene’s Opportunity Village, Olympia’s Quixote Village, and Madison's OM Village—each offering a nuanced approach, as documented in the Case Study Matrix.
These initial projects have laid a path for a bottom-up approach to the provision of simple shelter within the benefits of living in community. Their successes have challenged several common stereotypes around homelessness and poverty, and we now appear to be on the cusp of rapid embrace of the Village Model, particularly on the West Coast.
of this village toolbox ...
SquareOne Villages is a non-profit organization committed to leading, innovating, and disseminating the development of tiny house villages throughout our home state of Oregon, and to all corners of U.S. and beyond.
The impetus for this effort began in early 2012, shortly after the eviction of a tent city in Eugene, Oregon. The event catalyzed public concern around the issue of homelessness, and gave momentum to a citizen-led initiative focused on proposing an alternative response.
The result was Opportunity Village Eugene, a transitional micro-housing community for otherwise unhoused individuals and couples—funded by local donations of time, materials, and cash. Initially approved as a one year pilot project on city-owned land, the self-managed community has provided a home to more than 100 people since opening in August 2013.
Following on this success, SquareOne acquired a second piece of land with a vision of developing permanent, affordable housing based on a similar village model. Known as Emerald Village Eugene, the 22-unit tiny house cooperative has received its land use approvals, and is scheduled to begin construction this spring.
Together, Opportunity and Emerald provide two different types of villages for bridging the gap between the street and conventional housing options. They have garnered significant interest as cities continue to grapple with the housing problem outlined above. However, due to the unconventional nature of these projects, they often face significant political barriers in the development process.
In an effort to guide the aspirations of other groups looking to adapt a similar village in their locale, we have begun to compile this Village TOOLBOX. The goal here is to provide a comprehensive set of resources for planning and developing a tiny house village—from concept to reality—and to emphasize a collaborative process that brings a diverse range of stakeholders to the table. It's intended to be a living document that will continue to grow and evolve over time.
In order to inform what to include in this TOOLBOX, we released an online survey in spring of 2016. The survey attracted 75 responses from groups in various stages of starting a tiny house village. The results are summarized in the graphic above.
Following this introduction, we go on to further define what we mean by the Village Model—including key principles, components, and benefits of the model. Next, in Choosing a Path, we discuss considerations for deciding what type of village you want to pursue. And then we cover the key Roles and Responsibilities for launching a successful village.
Once you have a firm grasp on what the Village Model is, we go on to outline a 10-step Roadmap for making it happen. This section of the Toolbox is still under development and is intended for those who are ready to commit to starting a village. We are currently working with several cities throughout Oregon to develop and test this resource.
The initial work to develop this TOOLBOX was funded by a Meyer Memorial Trust grant designed to catalyze innovative approaches for cost-efficient affordable housing in Oregon.
In addition to the TOOLBOX, the grant also funded predevelopment work for piloting an affordable tiny house village in a rural community with fewer local resources. We chose to partner with an existing group in Cottage Grove, Oregon, known as the Cottage Village Coalition. Through helping them plan a village, they are able to benefit from our prior experience while we are able to document the process along the way.
During the grant period we conducted preliminary consultations with over two dozen groups from throughout the U.S., including representatives from 13 different cities and counties within Oregon. Learning the goals, composition, and progress of these various groups provided significant insight on how to approach this TOOLBOX.
While the tiny houses themselves have generated much of the buzz, we believe the most critical innovation of the Village Model is involving new players in the development process. Housing development has become a highly specialized endeavor, and non-specialists are left with few avenues for contributing. But tiny houses offer a more approachable scale, allowing for a diverse range of citizens to engage in the process—acting as "co-developers" of new and innovative housing options.
We have found that involving community members and future residents in the process creates a stronger sense of local ownership that has the ability to 1) respond to needs and desires specific to the local community, 2) draw on additional support and resources that exist in the community, and 3) breakdown common stereotypes around homelessness and affordable housing. By showing that even non-professional, non-wealthy citizens can make a mark on the city we can begin to heal the rifts that are creating barriers to change.
Partnering with the Cottage Village Coalition has affirmed our belief that, through providing supportive information and services, SquareOne can help make these local efforts more effective. It is our hope that this TOOLBOX will provide a jumping off point for extending our support to more local initiatives looking to take a tiny house village from concept to reality.