PICTURE TINY HOUSES IN BIG NUMBERS
Portland is a hotbed for the tiny house movement, and scores of people have towed them onto residential lots here and moved in.
But they're all illegal.
"I count my blessings every day that we're allowed to stay," says one tiny house resident living in Northeast Portland, who knows one neighbor complaint could require him and his partner to pack up and leave. "We've got to be on great terms with the neighbors and the other people who live on the property."
Tiny house activists, who convened earlier this month for a national conference in Portland, say it's time to legalize them, and Portland is a logical place to do that.
The Rose City already is the national leader in promoting accessory dwelling units, or ADUs — secondary homes on people's lots, garages, attics and basements. New ADU building permits issued by the city in 2016 approached the number granted for regular single-family homes.
Advocates say if the city could embrace tiny houses on wheels, it could help relieve its housing affordability crisis — with little to no city spending.
Tiny houses could "take off" if Portland homeowners, residents and entrepreneurs knew it was legal to site them in people's yards, says Eli Spevak, a member of the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission who has developed tiny homes, ADUs and co-housing projects.
"It benefits the homeowner (who can collect rent), and it benefits the person living there," says Eric, a tiny house resident and activist in Northeast Portland, who asked that his last name not be used so he won't get evicted.
Cheaper, smaller than ADUs
The typical ADU built in Portland at the maximum 800 square feet now costs about $180,000, says Kol Peterson, who operates the accessorydwellings.org blog and is working on a book on ADUs.
A typical tiny house on wheels has about 120 square feet of floor space, plus the sleeping loft(s), and can cost as little as $30,000, Peterson says. He and his wife own one of the few places where it's legal to stay in a tiny house in Portland because it's commercially zoned — Caravan, the Tiny House Hotel, on Northeast Alberta Street. The newest arrival there, a fashionable tiny house on wheels built by Colin Bardon, cost about $50,000, Bardon said.
Ironically, banks will loan money to build a tiny house on wheels but not ADUs, because tiny houses can be repossessed if the loan isn't paid off. Portlanders building ADUs must scrounge up the cash or borrow against their home equity, if they have enough.
Though ADUs could be built smaller and more cheaply, it's hard to pay for today's construction costs by charging rents under $1,000.
Having tiny houses available for rent "would open up a whole market in the $300 a month to $800 a month range for a lot of people" who have nowhere else to go, says Eric, who has built four of them.
Tiny houses also could help counter the gentrification and displacement that's rapidly reshaping the city. Tiny houses in Portland's closer-in neighborhoods could enable artists, twentysomethings, low-income folks and people of color to live closer to jobs and in neighborhoods otherwise out of their price range.
"There are people who Portland would love to have living in our city, but they can't afford it any more," Spevak says.
Portland needs tiny houses "to keep its own identity in place," says Michelle Boyle, who lives in a tiny house outside Sherwood and hosts the Tiny House Podcast. "In order to encourage diversity in your population, you have to encourage diversity in your housing stock."
Not just for hippies
Many obstacles remain before tiny houses on wheels get the same treatment as ADUs here and elsewhere, but many say it's inevitable, given spiking house and rent prices and the growing popularity of tiny houses.
"City by city, slowly but surely, they've got to understand we've got to do something," says Dan Fitzpatrick, the California chapter leader of the American Tiny House Association. It's not just hippies living in tiny houses any more, he says.
"The tiny house movement has exploded since 2014," says Boyle, who gives much of the credit to "Tiny House Nation," a cable TV series on the FYI network. Now there's a bona fide tiny house industry and seven different TV shows cover the subject, she says.
Fresno, an agricultural community in California's Central Valley not known for being hip or cutting-edge, led the way nationally by legalizing tiny homes last year. The new city ordinance treats tiny homes on wheels the same as small ADUs, allowing one on each residential lot if they're connected to city sewer and water systems and utility lines. The ordinance also spells out safety and design requirements, such as skirting to cover up the wheels.
Fitzpatrick, a former Fresno redevelopment director, knows a tiny house builder in town and urged the mayor and City Council to legalize them.
Few Fresno residents have sited tiny houses yet, he says, but other California cities, such as Ojai, are poised to follow Fresno's lead.
Building code issues
One complication is that tiny houses on wheels are treated under law like recreational vehicles — which are illegal for habitation in residential zones — and subject to less-rigorous building code standards. The size of tiny houses on wheels is limited so they can be towed on highways; as a result, they don't meet residential building code requirements for wall thickness, insulation, head room and other provisions. Many people use ladders to get to sleeping lofts in tiny homes on wheels, which don't meet fire safety regulations.
But Fitzpatrick says there's lots of movement to modernize residential building codes to adapt to the new tiny house format. "The various codes are all coming together," he says.
Late last year, Ashland tiny house activist Andrew Morrison led a successful effort to get the International Residential Code updated by adding Appendix V, specifically written for tiny houses. The new language takes effect next year, though it generally takes a few years for states and cities to adopt it, Boyle says.
Morrison and other advocates recently spoke to Oregon lawmakers about adopting the new international code language.
Models for Portland
Some local activists say Portland could legalize tiny houses by adapting Fresno's ordinance, which would require sewer, water and electrical hookups that meet code.
Peterson, the ADU expert, suggests a simpler idea of adapting Eugene's camping ordinance, which allows residents to offer space on their property to people in tents, RVs or tiny houses, as long as they don't charge rent. The rent prohibition would have to be lifted to enable people to finance new tiny houses here on a large scale.
Some tiny house owners suggest the city legalize them as "detached bedrooms," where residents share use of the main house's kitchen and bathroom.
Several activists suggest tiny house advocates be enlisted to sit down with Portland city officials and hammer out changes to city regulations to legalize the units.
Spevak and other advocates tried to do that with former Mayor Charlie Hales, and prepared a draft proposal called A Legal Path for Tiny Houses on Wheels. That suggested that sewer, water and electrical hookups be required, or that tiny homes be allowed as accessory bedrooms. Their proposal called for changes to the property maintenance code so that tiny-house living would be legal if specified safety provisions were met, relating to emergency exits, handrails, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and weatherproofing.
Hales and his aide said they'd work on the idea, Spevak says, but "it didn't happen."
Now up to Wheeler
Last August, when the city Bureau of Development Services demanded that a Northeast Portland couple vacate their tiny house in a family member's yard, Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler told KGW News he sympathized with the couple and wanted to do something about the problem.
Wheeler's general goal is that there should be more opportunity for tiny houses as a place to live legally, says Nathan Howard, a policy adviser to the mayor. "We're not yet ready on specifics," Howard says, though he's been following news of the Fresno ordinance.
Wheeler supports increasing density via infill with duplexes, triplexes, garden apartments and ADUs, says Michael Cox, the mayor's spokesman. But so far, tiny homes have been viewed more as an "alternate shelter option," Cox says. One example: Wheeler is supporting a tiny house "pod" village for homeless women in North Portland's Kenton neighborhood as a pilot project, which could be replicated.
Wheeler wants more "flexibility" to site tiny houses in neighborhoods where they are welcomed, Cox says, but notes they may not go over well in some areas.
The Bureau of Development Services is discussing ideas for permitting and inspecting tiny homes, but that relates specifically to a Blanchet House project to train people how to build 30 homes, says Matt Wickstrom, a senior city planner for the bureau.
There don't appear to be any broader efforts underway by that bureau or the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to undertake the kind of effort needed to rewrite city codes to legalize tiny houses on wheels.
Eric, the tiny house resident and builder from Northeast Portland, says he's "disappointed that Portland is dragging its feet" on legalizing them.
"Portland is supposed to be a very progressive town," he says. "This is about as Portland as it gets."
What is a tiny house?
There is no widely accepted definition of a tiny house. Small accessory dwelling units, for example, may be labeled tiny houses.
But the majority of tiny houses are built on travel trailers so they can be towed. Such units, known as tiny houses on wheels, aren't placed on permanent foundations, and their heights, widths and lengths are restricted for safe towing on highways.
Find out more:
• American Tiny House Association: americantinyhouseassociation.org
• Living Tiny Legally videos:
Part one: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfLAKgJGc2g
Part two: www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qDG8X83auU&feature=youtu.be
• Michelle Boyle's Tiny House Podcast: tinyhousepodcast.com
• Kol Peterson's ADU blog: accessorydwellings.org
• Andrew Morrison's blog: tinyhousebuild.com
• Michelle Boyle's blog: mytinyemptynest.blogspot.com/2015/11/a-letter-to-my-tiny-house.html
• Caravan, the Tiny House Hotel in Northeast Portland: tinyhousehotel.com
• Tiny Digs, another tiny house hotel in Southeast Portland: www.tinydigshotel.com
• Eugene nonprofit working on tiny house villages: www.squareonevillages.org