By Don MacGillivray


Portland is considering offering low-income residents and the homeless “tiny houses” that are safe, clean and inexpensive places to live so folks may be able to get off the street and into decent housing.

Each night more than 2,000 people sleep outside under bridges, on streets, in cars and in empty lots with a variety of makeshift shelters out of sight to most of the city.

Tiny houses offer an inexpensive and positive method of addressing the city’s 30 year homeless issue. Tiny homes can be built very simply with durable materials designed to be tough and low maintenance.

It is suggested that 25 tiny houses be located on a vacant half acre together with an on-site laundry, administrative services, and other amenities making a micro-community for about $20,000 a unit.

In Multnomah County there is a shortfall of over 21,000 affordable housing units for extremely low income households i.e., those making from 0% to 30% of the median family income.

Before people can get back on their feet and take advantage of job training or substance abuse counseling they need a good place to live. People making less than $15,000 a year are hard-pressed to find any affordable rentals at their income level.

The 200 square-foot homes, which would cost $250 to $350 per month to rent, would allow individuals making just $5,000 to $15,000 a year to be able to afford them.

Each unit could house two single adults and would be equipped with a bathroom and a small kitchen. The structures could be made of reused and recyclable materials and can be tailored to include additional features such as composting toilets.

The buildings take about a month to build and can be assembled with basic hand tools. A prototype of the tiny home concept is being engineered by Techdwell, a Sherwood-based company, and the nonprofit Micro Community Concepts.

Costs would be offset by money Portland would save housing the homeless population instead of having them disturb the community and overuse medical and other services repeatedly.

The City of Portland is partnering with Multnomah County to make the vision of micro-communities a reality. They are expected to be built on land owned by the City, TriMet, Portland Public Schools, and Multnomah County. Surplus land inventories may also provide options for suitable sites, but everyone is aware that land is at a premium in Portland and it is often difficult to find suitable locations.

Dignity Village may be considered a forerunner of a micro-community for the homeless. After several years of moving from place to place around downtown Portland they located on city property near the airport.

Villagers live in tiny houses, many that are less the 200 square feet and have a community center for basic services, meeting space, and recreation. It is a self run operation that has thirteen years of successful experience and it is a model for other cities. There are now a total of 39 tent cities in half of the America’s 50 states

In eight years, Utah has quietly reduced homelessness by 78 percent and is on track to end homelessness by 2015. In 2005, Utah figured out that the annual cost of emergency room visits and jail stays for homeless people were about $16,700 per person.

This is compared to $11,000 to provide each homeless person with an apartment. Each participant in Utah’s Housing first program also gets a caseworker to help them become self-sufficient, but they keep the apartment even if things don’t work as expected.

Portland officials hope that the first of the homes will be ready for occupancy in a micro-community by in the first quarter of 2015. Many unknowns remain, including the city’s financial role.  A task force is working to investigate the legal, zoning, and financial challenges of making tiny homes a reality.

ideabox builds manufactured and modular pre-fab homes.  The Aktiv was shown at the Portland Home and Garden Show. It is designed with a socially conscious owner in mind and it arrives fully constructed with a bedroom, kitchen and bathroom installed.  The Aktiv interior can be built with either ikea finishes or the ideabox palate of materials.

The 745 square foot one bedroom home is actually a creation of Oregon’s ideabox in collaboration with IKEA of Portland and is priced at $86,500.

AKTIV by ideabox. Picture courtesy of

AKTIV by ideabox. Picture courtesy of

The Aktiv is designed with a socially-conscious owner in mind and it arrives constructed and partially furnished, with an IKEA bedroom, kitchen and bathroom installed. IKEA is the world’s largest furniture maker and they have been making prefab homes since 1996 in Sweden.

Tiny “apodments” are becoming another affordable housing alternative in Portland. Two 51 unit, four story apartment buildings are being built in Portland on standard 5,000 square foot lots; one in Hollywood and one in NW Portland.

Units are very small with as little as 200 square feet per unit. This is a new trend that has been successful in New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle.

These units rent for about 60% of the standard $1,000 rate for a studio apartment. One of the controversial features is that units share a kitchen. The zoning code identifies this as group living and does not require on-site parking for any of the 51 units.

This will be a concern to nearby businesses and residents. However, the U. S. Census says one in four apartment residents in Portland do not use a car and only about 15% of the micro-apartment residents in Seattle own cars. The tenants are encouraged to use bicycles and urban transit rather than automobiles.

Three years ago, Portland built the $47 million Bud Clark Commons in Old Town, including 130 apartments that cost on average $253,000 per unit.

It is hoped that tiny homes in mini-communities will better for almost everyone.