Oregon House Committee Hearing on Tiny Houses

On Wednesday, the Oregon House Committee on Business & Labor held an informational meeting on tiny houses to better understand how the structures are being built and deployed around the State. Topics included building codes, inspections, siting, and meeting affordable housing needs. Quite a bit of the discussion revolved around the definitions and differences of recreational vehicles, manufactured dwellings, pre-manufactured structures, and site built dwellings.

SquareOne Villages was invited to to speak on some of the various applications we're using tiny houses for to address issues of homelessness and the lack of affordable housing. Below you can find the video recording of the entire meeting, along with the written testimony provided by our project director, Andrew Heben.

Written testimony by our project director, Andrew Heben:

SquareOne Villages is a non-profit organization developing tiny house communities to increase the stock of transitional and affordable housing in Oregon. We’re about to break ground on our second project in Eugene later this year, and we recently received a grant from Meyer Memorial Trust’s Affordable Housing Initiative to develop a toolkit for replicating our cost-effective model throughout Oregon. So state legislation effecting tiny houses is of utmost importance to us.

Opportunity Village

SquareOne’s first project, Opportunity Village, opened in 2013 as a transitional micro-housing pilot project. It's located on one-acre of city-owned land, operating on short-term leases for a nominal fee. The land use was permitted as a “homeless shelter,” and the individual homes were permitted as “temporary structures,” and as “sleeping units” rather than “dwelling units” recognizing they would be served by central cooking, restroom, and gathering facilities.

The homes are just 60 - 80 sq. ft. in size, built on pier blocks so that they can be easily fork-lifted onto a trailer and relocated if necessary. The 30-unit project was built for just $100,000 in cash donations, plus an estimated $114,000 of in-kind materials and labor. It began as a one-year pilot project, and the lease has since been renewed on two occasions by a unanimous City Council vote. During its three years in operation, the village has provided a unique option for more than 100 people who haven't been one of the lucky few to receive subsidized housing vouchers.

Emerald Village

Many of our residents at Opportunity Village have a small amount of income through part-time work or SSI, but are still unable to access housing. Our next iteration, Emerald Village, will provide permanent, affordable tiny houses to people with very low incomes. Residents will be members of a limited equity housing cooperative, making payments of $250 - 350/month (including utilities).

It’s being zoned as a multi-family residential land use, and the homes will range from 160 - 300 sq. ft. in size—each built on a foundation, plumbed and wired to include a bathroom and kitchenette, and meeting the 2015 International Residential Code (IRC). Our total development budget for the project comes in at around $50-60k per unit. System Development Charges become a financial barrier for tiny houses under this scenario, but were waved by the City of Eugene because we are serving low-income tenants.

Overnight Parking Program

Furthermore, the City of Eugene has an Overnight Sleeping Ordinance that allows up to six vehicles to park in an approved parking lot of a religious organization, business, or public entity. It also allows for one vehicle to be parked in the driveway of a single family dwelling. Tiny houses on wheels are a being built for this purpose. Because they look and feel like a real home, it has a positive impact on the tenants. The structures also fit better into the surrounding environment, easing concerns of neighbors. In fact, the public seems generally infatuated by them, which has become a vehicle for overcoming typical NIMBY pushback.

Oregon’s Housing Affordability Crisis

So, we at Square One Villages want to emphasize that a tiny house, whether on wheels or on a foundation, is infinitely better than the status quo of leaving 7,000 people without any shelter at all. We are providing underserved low-income households with access to something they didn't have on the street, in their cars, or in overcrowded shelters—a safe, secure and dignified home.

As I am sure you are well aware, there is a housing affordability crisis in Oregon. An analysis by the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that there are only 22 affordable and available rental units for every 100 renters in Oregon with an income at or below 30 percent of the median family income. This means that Oregon would need to create a little more than 103,000 rental units to meet this demand. When we consider that the average cost for new construction of low-income housing is around $200,000 per unit, that would require over $20 billion in funding.

Furthermore, in his recent book Evicted, Matthew Desmond has drawn attention to the fact that only 1 in 4 (!) households who qualify for Section 8 housing actually receive them. If we cannot provide adequate funding for existing housing programs, then we must allow for simpler, more cost-effective housing options, such as tiny housing.

Until then, we will continue to see a substantial population without access to basic shelter. A population left to camp in areas not intended for human habitation—creating a blight in our cities and contaminating our environmentally sensitive areas. Just this month the City of Portland conducted a homeless sweep along the Springwater Corridor, displacing an estimated 500 people! Where do we expect them to go? A representative from the mayor’s office, Ben Mauro, recently told me, “we’re moving away from tents to everything tiny houses, both for optics and livability.”

Permitting Tiny Houses in Oregon

Reducing legal barriers to tiny houses could quickly provide accessible and sustainable housing options for thousands of people throughout Oregon. These could be in the form of new tiny house developments—such as our village model— or as accessory dwellings infilled into existing neighborhoods already equipped with the necessary infrastructure. Single family homes account for over two-thirds of Oregon’s existing housing stock. Tiny homes can add much needed density without changing the overall character of the neighborhood.

SquareOne is deeply committed to providing safe and dignified housing, and we have built great relationships with Eugene's planning, building, and fire departments. We value regulations that ensure public health and safety. However, as we all know, special interests also seek to influence these regulations in order to reduce competition and protect their bottom line.

Insisting that tiny houses be built according to manufactured housing standards would require them to be built in a “controlled factory environment,” making it no longer practical or feasible for many existing builders. This type of regulation would not only crush a budding small family business like the tiny house hotel featured in the Oregonian yesterday, it would also create insurmountable obstacles for the grassroots, volunteer-driven, community-based efforts that local groups have devised to help their unhoused neighbors, in order to address the shortcomings of federal and state low-income housing policy.

Within the past year, SquareOne has consulted with groups from Medford, Ashland, Roseburg, Clackamas County, Portland, Washington County, Cottage Grove, Veneta, Redmond, Bend, and Florence. People see a tiny house and think—we can do that, this is something within our grasps! We should be incentivizing and streamlining this process, not turning the tiny house into another specialized commodity held out of reach of the public.

It would be far better if Oregon asked that tiny houses meet the building code, and accepted the trailer as an alternate type of foundation. Or, better yet, develop a set of standards specific to tiny houses—both on trailers and on foundations.

Progress has already been made. The 2015 update to the IRC removed the arbitrary provision requiring every dwelling to have one room of at least 120 square feet, which is what’s allowing our tiny houses at Emerald Village to meet code. Further adjustments for loft access, ceiling height limits, and size based tiers for insulation and ventilation standards should also be made to allow for more efficient tiny house design. And of course, we need new land use codes that readily allow for the siting of these structures.

The City of Eugene decided to take a hands-on approach and actively helped us realize our vision while creatively meeting all applicable codes. This is not always the case in other cities, which often get hung up on the building code and zoning concerns. Having direction from the State on a legal path to living full-time in a tiny house that meets basic health and safety requirements could clarify the current confusion around tiny houses and streamline a new housing option to meet the overwhelming demand from the public.

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SquareOne Villages is a 501(c)3 non-profit  organization        |        Tax ID # 46-0801991        |        CCB # 224446        |        © 2020 SquareOne Villages