Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 in Review: Tiny House Villages progress as traditional housing options continue to fall short

At the end of last year, I wrote a popular post titled "2014 in Review: A Pivotal Year for Tiny House Villages."
At the start of the [2014] year, Eugene's Opportunity Village had been open just a few months, Olympia's Quixote Village just a few days, and Madison's OM Village was still just an idea. Since then, these projects have helped inspire a housing model being pursued throughout the country—a model that's beginning to seem less radical, and more practical—and a model that's therefore beginning to see substantial political support for addressing the persistent issues of homelessness and affordable housing.
As 2015 draws to an end, I thought I'd provide a recap of some of what has transpired since then.

Quixote Village in Olympia, WA

Derek Joel visited Opportunity Village this past spring looking for a model to address homelessness in his hometown of Lake County, CA. The idea has since been quickly put into action for a then unknown purpose—a shelter solution for the refugees from the devastating wildfires that hit the area this summer. Follow along at Cornerstone Villages.
"We are currently building tiny home villages in Lake County, CA, offering a safe and secure place to be for those who are unhoused. Due to the Valley Fire destruction, thousands have been displaced with only a portion having insurance to fund rebuilding their lost homes. Cornerstone Villages is in the process of building several tiny home villages that will give a mid to long term solution for those in need. It takes a Village to build a Village. Join us."

Big strides were also made in Seattle, where Nickelsville—a tent city featured in my book—is transitioning to a tiny house village that is currently taking shape thanks to some collaborative partnerships.

"The Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) in partnership with Nickelsville and the Lutheran Good Shepherd is currently working on creating a Tiny House Village to support those experiencing homeless in the Seattle, Washington area. The Tiny House Village will have 15 tiny homes on the site and will contain a security hut, kitchen tent, donation hut, two toilets and a shower facility. Each of the homes is insulated and built with high quality construction. Standing at 8 feet by 12 feet, these houses provide enough space for 1-2 people. LIHI will be providing case management for the residents of the tiny houses to get them on track to moving into permanent housing. The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd has generously provided the land to accommodate the village, while Nickelsville will be conducting the referrals for the site and implement a self-governance structure in managing the village. The partnership among LIHI, Nickelsville, and the Lutheran Church has been crucial to the success of this village. 7 volunteer build groups are building the 15 tiny houses, including construction companies that have donated their time and effort as well as pre-apprenticeship and vocational programs that have incorporated tiny house construction into their curriculum. Each of the houses costs $2,200 to build, and a great deal of these costs has been covered by generous donors. The partnership is working to complete this Village by Christmas of 2015.
Nickelsville and LIHI have also partnered with SHARE/WHEEL to operate two tent encampments on City of Seattle property. The encampment in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle contains 5 tiny houses along with tents on wooden platforms. These encampments on city-owned property were possible with the support of Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle City Council. The city passed an ordinance allowing for three transitional encampments on city-owned property that will set the national standard for city government support in encampments as an immediate intervention for homelessness."
Tiny House Village takes shape in Seattle, WA

Madison, Wisconsin's OM Village celebrated their one year aniversary. It's another example that has received unanimous praise since opening, winning over many of their neighboring critics after their fears failed to manifest.
"In extensive interviews with neighbors, many of whom initially fought the tiny village idea, the State Journal heard many similar comments and almost unanimous praise for the first year of the social experiment. A review of housing assessments, home sales and police calls also found no evidence so far of the dire consequences critics predicted for the neighborhood."
OM Village in Madison, WI

Here in Eugene, Opportunity Village continues to operate as designed, with 17 residents transitioning to more permanent living situations this year. One stand-out highlight was a free concert held at the Village—a stop on Luc and the Lovingston's Goodness Tour—providing a well received break from the everyday grind. The video below features a lead guitar performance by one of our residents!

Our next project, Emerald Village, continues to progress one step at a time. In May we purchased an acre of land for the permanent, affordable tiny house community, which will offer a step up from homelessness for some, and a more sustainable option for others at risk of becoming homeless. We've had 12 different local architect teams sign-on to design and lead the building of the first dozen houses (you can view most of those here).

We also changed the name of our non-profit to SquareOne Villages in an effort to signify the expansion of our mission, both locally and beyond. Our executive director gave a TEDx talk that's definitely worth a watch if you haven't seen it yet and you've read this far!

In May, I was honored to co-present with the inspirational Mark Lakeman during a two-day workshop in Victoria, BC. One month later Victoria's City Council approved a 35-50 resident pilot project, and a grassroots organization—known as Micro-housing Victoria—formed to plan Solidarity Village. The City has supported them in efforts to find land, recently offering $25,000 to the group to develop architectural renderings of the project. Here is an excerpt from the staff report:
Staff recommend that Council consider identifying and supporting a "grass roots" organization to develop a "made in Victoria" micro-housing approach, subject to:
  • Identifying an appropriate site of sufficient size to serve about 35 to 50 residents
  • Developing an agreement with the organization on objectives and operations
  • The City's commitment to provide funding and City services to the project
Workshop with Mark Lakeman and Mayor Lisa Helps
in Victoria, BC
Joline and our awesome host Bobby in front of tiny house
display outside the workshop
"unhoused and allies" meeting that led to the inception
of Micro-housing Victoria

In Sonoma, California, the Board of Supervisors authorized $75,000 for county staff “to analyze six sites in Santa Rosa that could host a village — eight to 12 structures, including possibly mobile trailers, small cabins or shipping containers,” reports The Press Democrat.

And in Chicago, there's currently a competition underway to design a tiny house village in partnership with the local AIA chapter. A prototype of the winning design will be constructed and on display at the Tiny Homes Summit in April at the University of Chicago.

Fort Stewart soldiers build 'tiny houses' 
for homeless Savannah veterans

Dozens of other projects are currently in the works throughout the U.S. and beyond, and I look forward to reporting on more progress next year.

Want to get involved? Join the movement! See if there's an existing effort to start a community near you on the Village Collaborative Network, and join the conversation on the Village Collaborative Facebook Page. For more detailed information on this subject pick up a copy of Tent City Urbanism.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Tent Cities—Tiny Houses—TEDx

I wanted to share a couple recent and relevant TEDx presenations that are a must see if you're interested in Tent City Urbanism.

The first is by Dan Bryant, our executive director at SquareOne Villages, explaining the need for truly affordable housing solutions, and introducing Emerald Village as a model for doing just that.

The second is by Luca Clemente of OM Build, which talks about the relationships developed between the unhoused and the housed during Madison, Wisconsin's Occupy Camp, and the collaborative development that ensued, called OM Village.

Very interesting that both of these efforts emerged in the aftermath of a local Occupy camp, and always exciting as the body of work on this topic continues to grow.

Feel free to add your reactions to these presentations below.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Activists in Denver erect tiny houses for the unhoused—police arrest 10 and confiscate houses

Here is a recap of the events from Benjamin at Denver Homeless Out Loud:

"Last night, Saturday, Oct 24th, about 70 Denver Police Department and Denver Sheriff's Department officers, including swat units, under orders from Mayor Michael Hancock, descended on Sustainability Park and arrested 10 community members who, along with many others, were in the process of setting up a Tiny Home Village to be occupied and managed by houseless people. The arrests, on charges of trespassing, were followed by the destruction and removal of several tiny homes which the group had constructed for houseless community members to live in. The group, composed of houseless people and supporters, had been constructing tiny homes and trying to find a location for the village for over a year. But due to zoning and code constraints they have not been able to find a legal place to put the houses..

On Saturday, during a permaculture action day event, the group brought tiny homes that they had built or were in the process of building onto the Sustainability Park site. They announced their intentions to establish the Tiny Homes Village, which they named Resurrection Village (after the similarly named tent city which Martin Luther King Jr's Poor People's Human Rights Campaign built in Washington DC to demand higher wages and access to decent housing). Among the goals which the group put forth in conducting this action were providing low-cost, safe and sustainable housing for members of the unhoused community, gaining the right to put up tiny homes in Denver, ending the criminalization of homelessness, and maintaining urban farms. In explaining why they had chosen this site on which to establish the village, the group recounted how the Denver Housing Authority, which owns the property, has torn down hundreds of low income housing units, and after allowing the Urban Farming Cooperative to use the land for a few years, has agreed this year to sell the land to a private developer (Treehouse), who will build multifamily housing that will support gentrification in Curtis Park but be far beyond the reach of those for whom the Denver Housing Authority is supposed to exist.

In the afternoon, while constructing tiny homes on-site, the group was visited by a representative of Denver Housing Authority, as well as by the developer. By 9pm, with a police helicopter circling overhead, the officers made the arrests and Denver Public Works destroyed, threw into dump trucks, and carted away the homes that had been so badly needed by houseless people and so lovingly constructed by those who would have lived there and their supporters."

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Build Small Live Large 2015

I'll be presenting on affordable tiny house communities at this upcoming conference in Portland on November 6—along with Tim Ransom from Quixote Village. It's shaping up to be quite the one-day program!... It's just a bummer that our session is at the same time as the Courtyard Clusters session, which includes some of my favorites—Mark Lakeman, Ross Chapman, and Eli Spevak. Nonetheless, it should be an informative day on an ever-important topic.

Here are some more details on the event...

Build Small Live Large is the only event where you can learn about every type of small home - ADUs, small house communities, tiny homes on wheels and everything in-between – all in one place and all in one day! With over 30 speakers representing the most experienced and creative people in the small home market, Build Small Live Large is THE place to see case studies, designs and strategies you won’t find anywhere else.

You will see presentations from pioneering and visionary industry leaders you won’t find anywhere else:

Discounted early bird pricing ends October 6th so visit Build Small Live Large online and register today to save $50!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Nashville's "Infinity Village"

Five years after the demise of Nashville's infamous "Tent City," we see the emergence of a tiny house solution!

Tent City, an informal refuge to hundreds of unhoused people over the course of several decades, was flooded and condemned in the Summer of 2010. After the flood, I posted photos documenting the ruins of Tent City, and wrote about how efforts to form a legal camp floundered.

It became the focus of one of the chapters of my Tent City Urbanism book, and is where the top picture on the cover of the book comes from. It was also the focus of a documentary you may have seen on Netflix, Tent City USA.

Now, 6 tiny houses have been placed on a lot just a couple blocks west of Tent City once stood off Hermitage Ave. The tiny houses were paraded down the street to their destination adjacent to Green Street Church, creating quite the spectacle. The church has been allowing people to camp on their property under what they call "tent ministry," despite being informed by the city that they were in violation of various codes and asked to stop.

Photo Source: Shelley Mays / The Tennessean

Instead they decided to build tiny homes, each at 60 square feet, wired for electricity, with a fold-down murphy bed, mini fridge, and microwave.

The project is led by a group known as Infinity Fellowship, which raised over $50,000 after Rev. Jeff Carr vowed to move into one of the tiny homes until the goal was met, which took 45 days. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bernie Sanders: a presidential candidate that understands how to make housing affordable again

For every 100 extremely low-income renter households, there are only 29 affordable and available rental units. This is arguably one of the single greatest challenges faced by American cities.

As we move forward with our next tiny house project, Emerald Village, I’ve been looking more into Community Land Trusts, and in the process I’ve become convinced that it's the most viable path to truly address our national housing affordability crisis.

In a Community Land Trust, a ground lease separates the ownership of the land from ownership of the buildings. And, they include a resale formula that allows for a modest gain in equity while restricting excessive profit. Together, these two elements keep homeownership accessible and sustainable for more people, including those with very low incomes. Along with preserving perpetual affordability, it also preserves taxpayer investments far more effectively, and results in staggering low rates of foreclosure (source).

Recently, I was quite intrigued to learn that the CLT model overlaps with something else I’ve been following closely—the grassroots presidential campaign launched by Bernie Sanders.

Sanders is very publicly taking on the billionaire class and the corrupt influence of big money in politics—restoring a sense of optimism to American politics for many of us. His campaign has boldly opted out of forming a Super PAC, and has instead started a Super Pack, operating on modest monthly contributions from everyday citizens.

To the surprise of many, both Bernie Sanders and his Republican counterpart, Donald Trump, are surging in the polls—what can only be described as a genuine 'fuck you' from the people to the existing political establishment. However, Sanders is speaking to important issues with pragmatic solutions, whereas Trump is simply stirring the pot with elementary-level rhetoric.

And on the issue of affordable housing—an issue that most politicians stumble through at best—Bernie actually gets it. As mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he led the formation of the Champlain Housing Trust—the first community land trust to partner with a municipality, and now the largest in the nation, with around 2,000 housing units preserved as permanently affordable.

Here is an excerpt from Brenda Trophy, describing Sanders’ connection to this innovative model for affordable housing: 

"The Champlain Housing Trust (CHT) was born in a small city with a big idea: by creating a stock of permanently affordable housing everyone could have access to a decent, affordable home, regardless of income. This was the grand vision of a newly elected progressive government led by Mayor Bernie Sanders who came into office in 1981, the same year as Ronald Reagan began his own two-term presidency.

The Reagan Revolution forced the Sanders’ administration to develop innovative solutions for Burlington, Vermont’s housing problems within the context of the federal withdrawal of needed funding from affordable housing and community development programs. 

...When Mayor Sanders created the Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO) in 1982 to help implement his progressive agenda, work on establishing a community land trust soon got underway...

...The Burlington Community Land Trust was the first municipally supported CLT in the United States, a direct result of the City of Burlington’s general embrace of permanent affordability as the only socially equitable and fiscally prudent way for the public to create and to sustain affordable housing.  Bernie Sanders and his immediate successor, Mayor Peter Clavelle, were outspoken champions of decommodified housing.  Both administrations acted to codify this principle into municipal policy and municipal ordinances.  Their goal was to ensure that any public investments in affordable housing would go primarily – even exclusively – into housing that would be kept permanently affordable.

As they worked to create new resources for the development of affordable housing, therefore, they also worked to ensure the lasting affordability of any housing produced with those resources.  This twin commitment to expanding the supply of housing and to preserving the affordability of that housing was woven into the Housing Trust Fund, capitalized through a penny increase on the property tax rate; the Inclusionary Zoning ordinance, where the affordability of all IZ units had to be preserved for 99 years; and ordinances regulating the conversion of rental housing to condominiums and the loss of existing housing because of demolition or conversion to commercial uses."

Learn more about where Bernie Sanders stands on these issues:

Bernie on Affordable Housing

Bernie on Homelessness

Friday, August 14, 2015

SquareOne Villages + Free Tent City Urbanism Chapter

Now that we have land, I've been busy pulling together the details to move our Emerald Village development forward here in Eugene—resulting in the recent hiatus in posts here on the TCU blog.

We've also recently changed the name of our non-profit from Opportunity Village Eugene to SquareOne Villages—as we grow into an organization with multiple projects, and as we look to build the capacity to implement the tiny house village model on a wider scale, both locally and nationally.

I invite you to learn more about this exciting new stage in the movement to sustainably address issues of homelessness and affordable housing by checking out our new website:

Along with details and updates on our latest village building endeavors, the site also includes a chapter from the Tent City Urbanism book. If you haven't yet, be sure to check that out here:

Chapter 12—Eugene's Collaborative Village

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Villlage Model Advances in Clear Lake, California

An excerpt from the Lake County Record-Bee, by Bernice Quirino:
"With that in mind, Joel came across Tent City Urbanism and the tiny house movement, a model based on building accessible, sustainable and inexpensive homes as small as 60-square-feet in size, that’s gained moment in recent years.
More than just the “mission-style” shelters, where everyone is under the same roof, the Tent City Urbanism approach sets forth to create a village of tiny homes for those in need...
...After watching documentaries and reading articles about the cabin-like structures and the philosophy behind Tent City Urbanism, Joel got in his ‘72 Datsun wagon during spring break and drove north to Eugene, Oregon to spend four nights at Opportunity Village. 
What he found there was a flourishing example of the concept at work — a community of people living in 30 tiny, beautifully decorated homes...
...The LC Tiny Home Village group is ready to turn their ideas into actions. They have multiple committees that split up duties from land search to zoning and transition committees.
Most recently, they built a prototype that was featured in the Clearlake Fourth of July parade with the hopes of creating more momentum for the movement. Regular meetings are also being held with the next one taking place on July 30 in Lower Lake."

Read the full article at the Lake County Record-Bee
To get involved with this project, visit Facebook: ​

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Upcoming Events in Victoria, BC

Very excited about these upcoming events in Victoria, BC where I get to collaborate with Mark Lakeman—the very person who inspired me to delve so deep into this topic! And it's also being sponsored by the City of Victoria:

"The City is partnering with the Committee to End Homelessness and the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group to host two urban planners from Oregon, Mark Lakeman and Andrew Heben, to share information and answer questions relating to micro-housing communities in Portland, Eugene and other cities in the Pacific Northwest.

As we grapple with homelessness in our City and region, including overnight sheltering in City parks, we are hoping you can join us for this important discussion to evaluate the extent to which micro-housing may help form part of the solution."

Will be sure to recap the events upon my return..

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Tiny Houses Embraced by City of Eugene, Oregon: "There’s nothing in the building code that prohibits a tiny house.”

"Micro-housing" was the topic of Monday's city council work session.

The goal—to start to set a context and common understanding of what the terms are related to micro-housing with the hope to get a sense of where council wants to go with this. This post summarizes key points and takeaways from the session.

It began with a presentation by city staff. Micro-housing was defined to include tiny houses, cluster housing (tiny house village), congregate housing (i.e. SRO's), and micro-apartments.

Photo by Benjamin Chin
"There’s nothing in the building code that prohibits a tiny house."

"The building codes seldom prohibit design elements and instead establishes minimum standards. Many tiny house designs incorporate specific elements that them themselves have code challenges—such as ladder access to a sleeping loft or the size of a bathroom. For that reason they are often made mobile by putting them on wheels to avoid being subject to building code. This probably is the cause of the misconception that the tiny house can’t meet the building code requirements."

Land Use—municipal code intended to support the livability of our community—presents a more difficult obstacle to the tiny house. Examples of regulations include:

  • Size, location and height of small houses and SDUs
  • Where small homes that are mobile or on wheels can be located
  • Standards for multiple small homes on one parcel
  • Additional regulations regarding density and lot coverage may also apply when micro-housing is being considered.

However, there are still several legal avenues to develop various forms of micro-housing within the existing land use code, as illustrated by the chart below.

Micro-housing also intersects with a number of existing city initiatives, including:

Envision Eugene Pillars:

  • Provide affordable housing for all income levels
  • Plan for climate change and energy uncertainty
  • Promote compact urban development and efficient transportation options
  • Protect, repair, and enhance neighborhood livability

Climate & Energy Action Areas:

  • Building and Energy (Objective 2.2a): Revise or expand incentives to encourage smaller homes that require less energy to operate and fewer building materials to construct.
  • Land Use and Transportation (Objective 11): Increase density around the urban core and along high-capacity transit corridors

City Council Goals:
  • Sustainable Development: A community that meets its present environmental, economic and social needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Emerald Village Project Overview

Following the presentation, the city council had an a very optimistic discussion of tiny houses and the village concept, with one councilor stating, "I think we could really be on the cutting edge of something very big and profound in terms of a psychological community shift in how we do things." Some more key quotes from the discussion are included below—

Councilor Greg Evans: "I’m really excited about this because this provides a tremendous opportunity for people who are living at the lower ends of our affordability spectrum... it gives them a type of freedom and privacy that before has not been available in terms of dwelling units… what this brings up for me is a way towards homeownership that I could see as being more of a long-term solution than what is suggested as rental units…. If people have investment in the property, they’re more likely to keep that property up, to self-manage and self-govern…"

Councilor Alan Zelenka: "When I proposed this work session I wasn’t really thinking of it necessarily as only a low-income type program... There is a multitude of types, reasons, and ownership structures… and different variations of it all over the world.. but it was inspired by Opportunity Village and it does provide the option of housing that is much more affordable than the traditional single-family house."

Question around what’s the definition of house? 

Staff response: the village concept (with shared common facilities) is similar to an SRO. But definition of SRO says at least 9 bedrooms within a building… Would have to change the definition of an SRO to allow them to not be within the same building ("to replicate what OVE has done you would have to change that definition")..

Councilor Chris Pryor: "This is a topic that has really been of interest to me for awhile now… One of the real ‘ahha’ moments for me, was to realize that many of the issues that I though were obstacles actually are not. We are much closer to being able to have tiny housing than I had originally thought. And I approach tiny housing not for any one purpose but for a multitude of purposes—it can meet many different needs—whether you're building one in your backyard or your building an actual subdivision or cluster of them."

"Opportunity Village is one of the steps in getting to an Emerald Village—which would be tiny housing because it would have kitchen and bathroom facilities—and would not only have the opportunity for rental but also for homeownership. We want to move from shelter to rental to ownership—some of those leaps are enormous and a lot of people can’t get over those. But to have a tiny house option, which you could finance if you could get the price down… its within the realm of a car purchase. It provides the opportunity for people who could never save for a home, to save for a home."

"I could see these in developments like Emerald Village, which I think is a tremendous idea—the next growth opportunity for this kind of idea. But also as things that could be built in people’s backyards as a way to achieve density without creating destruction of neighborhood livability. I’ve been very sensitive to the fact that sometimes the only opportunity people see for creating density in their neighborhoods is building apartment buildings, and I wouldn’t want that in my backyard either… But if you could have a tiny house option to create density in backyards, now we’re starting to talk about ways to create additional capacity without destroying neighborhood livability. And I know that it’s already occurring. So its not an idea that has come, it’s an idea that has come and gone, and I want to make sure it can be built legally, durably, and appropriately."

Councilor Mike Clark: "The single best way for a city to close its income and wealth gap is through homeownership. If we are going to participate in anything that encourages this trend, that we do everything we can do everything we can to encourage that they be owned rather than rented." 

Mayor Kitty Piercy: "The question is about what you get for your dollars. If you have a certain amount of dollars to build housing, what's the best way to get the best number of units for the people who need it” —brings up tension between small, separate units or attached, apartment like units—which is more cost-effective?

"The other issue we have on affordable housing… CDBG is very tight about what they will fund. The rules are very strict on what kind of housing they will allow you to spend their dollars on."

Manufactured housing issue—"People feel vulnerable when they don’t own the property that their housing is on, so there may be something where there is public ownership of land, that protects the rights of people so they can have some type of owned units on that land. That gets away from that fear of the owner making a decision that would threaten your property"

"Ask for how you can get to what you want, as opposed to can I do it. You’ll find in terms of code or anything else, if you have a notion about what it is you’re trying to get to, to ask that question gets a different application of law and code than "can I do it.”

Councilor Greg Evans: "I was thinking about modeling or piloting a public/private partnership option with a financial institution… probably this would be more up the alley of a credit union than a traditional bank… this could be one of those new cutting edge products that would be able to be the best of both worlds for a lot of people. Because if we can begin to get people into tiny housing for somewhere between $15k and $25k, give them a chance to create and build equity, and then eventually at some point… they have already modeled a way to go forward with a bigger home… an opportunity to repair some credit issues and some other things… and be able to be an education tool in terms of money management and homeownership."

"There are a lot of things that we could get out of this as demonstrable public benefit, and helping people to become much more self-sufficient in a real concrete way. Instead of looking at this as a situation where people are saying we need more affordable housing, and the mindset has always been build apartment buildings and to create rental situations that we’ve seen since the 1930s that hasn’t worked…I think we could really be on the cutting edge of something very big and profound in terms of a psychological community shift in how we do things."

Mayor Kitty Piercy: "Emerald Village—they’re struggling with the financial aspect of this, and they’re essentially trying to do a lot of what you’re talking about. If there’s some way we can figure out how we can partner with that, that seems like the logical direction to go."

Related Post: Emerald Village Tiny House Prototype

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Affordable Housing: Smaller isn’t necessarily cheaper, but shared equity homeownership can make it more accessible and sustainable

The National Planning Conference was held in Seattle this past week, and as reported by City Lab, affordability and equity were among the most talked about subjects. Attendees packed the room to hear from the planning director of New York and San Francisco on how to make housing more affordable, but they were ultimately left without any quick fix solution to this heavy-weight issue.

"The shortfall of affordable housing arguably would take 50 years to fill at the current rate of production in San Francisco—the very frustration expressed by Rahaim. It might take 25 years in New York City. But betting it all on increasing supply is fraught, too. It’s expensive to build in the city, and costlier still to build increased height and density without considering the needed infrastructure to support those kinds of environments."

But what about micro-housing? Can’t we make housing more affordable by making in smaller and more efficient? Nowhere has this concept been more readily adopted than Seattle with 780 units cleared for occupancy and 1,598 more units on the way. But this hip alternative has proven not to be an answer in and of itself.

"The trend toward micro-housing—super small living spaces, some with shared kitchens—hasn’t been the affordability solution once envisioned. Smaller isn’t necessarily cheaper in these hot markets.”

This is a very valid point, but not necessarily a dead-end. Micro-housing on its own only suggests a physical change in our housing—from excess to compact. And while this greatly reduces our environmental footprint, the shift does not necessarily correlate economically. For example, a 200 square foot unit in Seattle still goes for $1,000/month. And so the base price for any space at all in a hot market is still unaffordable to a large sector of the population.

If the conventional model of rentership is carried over—maintaining the modern privacy, anonymity, and exclusive use among neighbors—little is likely to change in terms of affordability. Some, such as Seattle’s “aPodments” development, have pivoted in the direction of sharing resources—

"At the time, the city allowed up to eight unrelated people to live in one “dwelling” with a shared kitchen. The code didn’t say the rooms had to be tied together as a single unit, so Potter built a cross between an apartment building and a boardinghouse, where someone could rent a sleeping room as small as 100 square feet with a private bath and share a kitchen with up to seven others renters."

While this concept may be novel in juxtaposition to today’s limited housing variety, it's really just rebranding the layout of  residential hotels—a once popular affordable housing option in the private market that outnumbered the stock of public housing until the 1990’s. 

Source: The Seattle Times

Micro-housing evokes images of smaller apartments within a larger building, whereas tiny house village evokes images of miniature little homes clustered on a common plot of land—again, it’s a physical alteration. But there is also a social dimension to these concepts—the fact that several people are living so close together. 

Isolated renters will always be at the mercy of the speculative landlord, but if we were to allow neighbors to organize democratically, spreading costs and risks more broadly amongst a group rather than on the shoulders of each individual, that is where we might begin to find truly accessible and sustainable housing. 

This is where I was intrigued to learn—from the APA conference mentioned above—that both New York and San Francisco are exploring shared equity homeownership models at the municipal level. I say this because these are the very models I stumbled upon in researching an affordable housing model for the tiny house community I’m currently working on, Emerald Village (see the Project Overview here).

Shared equity homeownership offers a viable alternative to the two common choices of traditional ownership and renting. It includes community land trusts (CLTs), limited equity cooperatives (LECs), and CLT-LEC Hybrids (tons of information on these models here).

"At their core, shared equity models are defined as follows: resale-restricted, owner-occupied housing where the “bundle” of property rights is divided between the homeowner and the community. The subdivision of building and land rights allows households to access affordable ownership opportunities and enables the community—via a non-profit steward—to retain a stake in the land, maintaining permanent affordability and mitigating speculative market forces.” (Ehlenz)

Smaller isn’t necessarily cheaper, but if we link it with more innovative ownership models—this is how we can begin to make housing more affordable.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Tiny House Co-op: popular concept presents zoning conundrum

An example from Alberta, Canada...

It turns out Ashley Baptiste wasn’t the only person excited about creating Alberta’s first tiny house community on a peaceful property east of Calgary. 
After posting an ad online more than two months ago, pitching the idea of a small home co-op on his 1.6-hectare property and asking would-be homeowners to get in touch, Baptiste was swamped with nearly 500 phone calls and e-mails. 
But, Baptiste said bylaws and zoning rules within Wheatland County, the municipal district where his land lies, could force an army of tiny home enthusiasts to move elsewhere.
Baptiste envisions renting out tiny plots on his land, lovingly named ‘Serenity Acres’. He wants to establish a community of a few small homes where families embrace a simpler lifestyle, neighbours know each other, and food is grown in a communal garden. 
“We got responses from all walks of life,” Baptiste said. 
“From retired single ladies, to young families, to handicapped people on AISH, as well as people that have the money that just want to live more sustainability.”
...Read the full article at

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The American Tiny House Association

I've recently been involved in the formation of a new non-profit—the American Tiny House Association. Here's our introductory press release:

March 25, 2015 – Tiny house advocates are harnessing the exponential rise in popularity of tiny houses by forming a new nonprofit organization, the American Tiny House Association. The mission of the association is to promote the tiny house as a viable, formally acceptable dwelling option for a wide variety of people. Its goal is to support tiny house enthusiasts who are seeking creative and affordable housing as part of a more sustainable lifestyle. 

The board pulls from a broad base of experience:

President William Rockhill is a tiny house builder whose family run company, Bear Creek Carpentry, has been operating in the Adirondacks since 1991 and has over 40 years of carpentry experience. 

Vice President Robert Reed directs the Urban Sustainability Practice for Southface, an organization that works with consumers, the construction and development industry, and policymakers to forge market-based solutions for creating green jobs, clean energy solutions and sustainable communities. 

Treasurer Elizabeth Roberts is an attorney for Atlanta Code Enforcement. 

Secretary Elaine Walker is a blogger at Tiny House Community. 

Director Andrew Heben has a background in urban planning and is the author of Tent City Urbanism: From Self-Organized Camps to Tiny House Villages. Heben co-founded Opportunity Village Eugene (OVE), a non-profit organization with a mission of creating self-managed communities of low-cost tiny houses for those in need of housing.

The purposes of the association are as follows:

• to gather and provide information regarding the building of and dwelling in tiny houses

• to promote a healthy social and political environment conducive to tiny house building and dwelling

• to educate members regarding tiny house quality and safety, and

• to network and cooperate with related government agencies, educational institutions, development organizations, and private industry to address these stated purposes.

While zoning regulations and building codes have limited the formal acceptance of tiny houses to date, Walker says she anticipates regulatory changes in the coming years will allow tiny houses in urban alleys and suburban backyards, enabling tiny houses to tie into existing utilities, and tiny house dwellers to benefit from public transportation. According to Walker, “tiny houses can provide wonderful accommodations for teens, college students, and aging parents, in addition to single adults and couples who want more freedom and less debt.” 

Heben added that the tiny house has also emerged as an innovative approach for addressing our nation’s housing affordability and homelessness crises. “Half of all U.S. renters are currently facing a housing cost burden,” says Heben, “and tiny houses offer the return of a simpler, more sustainable housing option.”

The association has state chapter leaders that will work with local zoning and coding officials to understand how regulations can be modified to accommodate tiny houses.

Members of the association seek to make the world more tiny house friendly, to make it possible to build their own tiny homes and find a legal place to live. Says Reed, “The people and passion that this movement attracts, I think, represent a fundamental shift in the American Dream. People today are looking beyond their home choice as a status symbol; people in the tiny house movement want flexibility to pursue the wide array of 

Rockhill brings a builder's perspective, noting that “we all must keep safety as a primary concern not only for the occupants of a tiny house, but also for the firefighters, EMS and police who may have to respond to a call for help. My concern is for the individual builders who need someone in their corner, to look at it from their point of view.....on a budget....minimal tools.....working out in the elements......and trying to make a living while building their own house. I understand all these factors, as well as the fierce independence and striving for freedom, the desire to build it their way, on their terms.....I will work to keep things fair, to listen to all views, to try and reach a happy medium amicably.” 

Tiny house enthusiasts can join the association by going to the website.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The American Housing Affordablity Crisis

Half of all renters in the U.S. now face a "housing cost burden"—spending more than thirty-percent of their income on housing.

Unlike social security, medicare, and food stamps, housing assistance doesn't serve everyone who is eligbile. A study by the Urban Institute shows that for every 100 extremely low-income renter households (people earning thirty-percent or less of area median income), there are only 29 affordable and available rental units.

In fact, NOT A SINGLE COUNTY IN THE UNITED STATES has sufficient affordable and available housing to meet the demand of extremely low-income households.

Check it out for yourself:

Why? It's a simple equation, really.

We've created a situation where, by definition, housing is dependent on public subsidies in order to be affordable to people with little to no income—while concurrently failing to supply the funding necessary to meet the demand for these subsidies. And as long as this it the case, the product will always be millions of people either struggling to sustain a home or without a home altogether.

Here in Lane Couny, Oregon, the waiting list for Section 8 housing has been closed for most of the last two years. The Housing and Community Services Agency of Lane County is opening that list for just one week, February 27 - March 6, 2015, during which applicants can apply to be placed in a lottery for a possible 400 to 600 vouchers.  When this process was last used in 2013, approximately 2,400 applications were received.

Not only are there not enough funds to reach the amount of people in need, Congress consistently underfunds the Public Housing Operating Fund for the affordable housing stock that does exist—delaying mainenance and exacerbating deterioration.

Meanwhile, the Public Housing Capital Fund—the only source of federal funding dedicated to the rehabilitation of public housing—continues to be slashed.

The result: public housing demolition outpacing new construction and rehabilitation.

Between 1995 and 2008, more than 165,000 public housing units were lost and not replaced.

What's the solution? I see two possible paths for addressing the gap:

1) Allocate sufficient funding to provide rental assistance to all those who are eligible, and/or

2) Create simpler, low-cost housing options that are not as dependent on public subsidies.

Historically, the chronic underfunding of HUD public housing programs makes the first option seem like a bit of a pipe dream. And so—as you may have guessed by now considering the focus of this blog—I've decided to focus my efforts on the latter.

We need more accessible and sustainable affordable housing options. Emerald Village will provide one such option in Eugene, Oregon through the creation of a low-cost, self-managed tiny house community. 

You can learn more about what's in store for Emerald Village here:

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Tiny House Prototype that meets 2015 IRC Minimum Area Requirements

The shell for the 8'x16' prototype dwelling is near complete, and I'm now looking at interior layouts within the minimum requirements set by the 2015 International Residential Code (IRC). The structure is roughly twice the size of the units at Opportunity Village, and will include provisions for a small bathroom and kitchen. They will also be better insulated with rigid foam and an improved modular panelization technique that reduces air breaks.

Material costs to get the structure to this level of finish amounted to $4,025.73 (interior paneling not shown).
Note that this is still our prototyping phase and not necessarily exactly what the houses at Emerald will look like. 
With 2'x4' walls, the interior area comes out to 103 square feet, which just barely meets IRC under the following interpretation. Applicable code for interior area and height includes:

R304.1 Minimum area. 
Every dwelling unit shall have at least one habitable room that shall have not less than 120 square feet (11 m2) of gross floor area. ***Note: this requirement has been removed in the 2015 IRC thanks to a proposed changed change by Tom Meyer

R304.2 Other rooms. 
Other habitable rooms shall have a floor area of not less than 70 square feet (6.5 m2). Exception: Kitchens. 

R304.3 Minimum dimensions. 
Habitable rooms shall not be less than 7 feet (2134 mm) in any horizontal dimension. Exception: Kitchens. 

R304.4 Height effect on room area. 
Portions of a room with a sloping ceiling measuring less than 5 feet (1524 mm) or a furred ceiling measuring less than 7 feet (2134 mm) from the finished floor to the finished ceiling shall not be considered as contributing to the minimum required habitable area for that room.

R306.1 Toilet facilities. 
Every dwelling unit shall be provided with a water closet, lavatory, and a bathtub or shower. 

R307.1 Space required. 
Bathroom fixtures shall be spaced in accordance with Figure R307.1
- 30"x30" minimum shower size
- 21" clearance in front of toilet and sink (can overlap)
- 24" clearance for shower door
- 15" from center of toilet to side wall

R306.2 Kitchen. 
Each dwelling unit shall be provided with a kitchen area and every kitchen area shall be provided with a sink. 

I find no requirement that the sleeping area or kitchen must be in separate rooms, and instead could be combined in a "studio" arrangement.

So I believe it could be legitimately argued that a minimum legal area by 2015 IRC standards could be as small as one habitable room of 70 sq. ft. with sleeping area and kitchen, plus a bathroom as small as 18 sq. ft. while meeting minimum spacing requirements.

The sleeping area cannot be lofted legally since the loft will be a non-habitable space (due to area and height requirements for a habitable room). However the loft can still be added with an intended use for storage, and there are no access requirements in the code for non-habitable spaces. That point is verified here by one of the authors of the IRC:

"If you are ever challenged on the use of a ladder for non-habitable loft, be assured that the code allows it by default. Intentionally, there are no requirements for non-habitable loft access. I know this as I am the one that wrote this code section as it is currently provided for in the 2009 IRC. Fresh from the horse's mouth...not its posterior."

The above layout includes a 19.5 sq. ft. bathroom designed around a 32'x32' shower with 24" clearance in front of opening. And a toilet with 24" depth and 21" clearance (required clearance for bathroom fixtures can overlap). The only thing it fails to include is a sink with 21" clearance, but I couldn't bring myself to include that since there is a sink just a couple feet away. But I can foresee the issue being raised that sanitation and cooking are two separate water uses and require two sinks. If this has to be the case, a very small sink (such as this) could fit along the back wall if necessary.

The bathroom and living space are divided by a bifold door with a loft overhead. This room just barely meets the 70 sq. ft. at 7 ft. wide requirement (the bump out does not count as habitable space since it is less than 7 ft. wide.) The kitchen counter with sink is located on the same wall as the shower to cluster plumbing fixtures. The bed could be replaced by a futon for added function.

Overall this layout illustrates a minimalist approach to accommodating the minimum area and functions of a dwelling as defined by the 2015 IRC. I often hear people voice the need to change the building code, but its important to note that it has indeed been changing for the better (of tiny house builders) in the last few years, and it really is not that restricting. 

Municipalities often include area requirements above and beyond that, and those need to be challenged. Why exactly does our locale need standards above and beyond the national standard? And what exactly is that protecting? Given that the intent of the building code is to protect the health, safety, and well-being of occupants—and not surrounding property values—these questions are difficult to answer.

Moving the prototype from the shop to Opportunity Village.
Finishing out the exterior on site.


You can donate to Opportunity Village Eugene, the 501(c)3 non-profit developing the Emerald Village tiny house community, here: