Portland Is Embracing Tiny Houses for the Homeless

The creative city gets teased for being a hipster enclave, but the local government is backing the construction of the little residences.

(Photo: Courtesy TechDwell)

Aug 27, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Sure, Portland, Ore., has been the butt of countless Portlandia jokes about handlebar mustaches and hipsters who think they’re living in the 1890s. But the city’s residents are embracing a creative way to provide shelter to some of the area’s 2,000 folks who would normally sleep on the street: tiny houses.

Josh Alpert, the city’s director of strategic initiatives, told the Portland Mercury that Mayor Charlie Hales has agreed to create a task force that will spearhead the construction of the small structures on unused government land. Alpert told the paper that the city plans to ask entities such as the Portland Public Schools and Multnomah County to locate appropriate property.

“We have a seemingly unsolvable [housing] problem and a fairly static and occasionally growing houseless population,” Alpert told the paper. “We’ve put a lot of money into it, and we’re really not making enough of a dent to where we can say, ‘OK, we’re getting somewhere.’ ”

The tiny-house project is the brainchild of Portland housing advocate Mike Withey. He first presented the idea to the Portland City Council in June.

“I’ve yet to [hear] one person say this was a bad idea,” Withey told the council, according to the paper. “That single mom who’s working two jobs at McDonald’s deserves to live in your neighborhood just as much as you do.”

Withey also presented designs from local architecture firm TechDwell, which has previously built the houses in areas of Haiti that were destroyed by the 2010 earthquake.

A representative of TechDwell told Time that the company can build the 16-by-12-foot house in the above image in 45 days using materials from hardware stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s. The residence provides enough space for two people to sleep separately and includes a shared bathroom and kitchen in the middle. Each little house can be constructed for about $20,000.

That cost to build the structures would be offset by the money Portland would save by housing people who sleep on the street. That’s because providing a warm and safe living space reduces the chance that a homeless person will be involved in an incident that requires a police response or a visit to the emergency room.

Portland officials haven’t yet released an estimate of how much taxpayers will save. However, the developers of a similar plan to construct a village of 240 tiny houses for Austin’s homeless have estimated that the city will save $10 million just in medical costs. Similarly, an 85-unit homeless village saved Charlotte, N.C., $1.8 million in 2013.

“If this can work, I see this as an incredibly ‘Portland’ community-based solution,” said Alpert. Portland officials hope to have the first houses completed by February 2015.