Multnomah County has managed to catch the public's imagination with an experimental pilot project around homelessness that they admit went public prematurely.
The project, called "A Place for You," plans to house four homeless families by June in tiny 200-square-foot accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, also commonly called granny flats. The county will pay for the cost while Portland homeowners would act as landlords in a five-year contract, and then claim ownership of the units on their lots.
The announcement, first reported by Willamette Week on March 14, took many in the community by surprise, resulted in international media attention and a large amount of interest in hosting the homeless families — and ultimately getting the free ADUs.
As of Monday, 936 homeowners had signed up showing interest in the project. The county will have to narrow that number down to four homeowners. Sign-ups for interested homeowners will close on April 3.
"We had no idea this idea would capture so many people's imagination, and it seems like a really great option for them to help," says Mary Li, director of the Multnomah County Idea Lab, the primary facilitator of the project. Project organizers are "thrilled about that energy," Li said, but acknowledged the county is trying to see if the idea works, and it may not expand beyond the pilot test of four units.
The two-year-old lab hasn't worked on a project around homelessness of this magnitude before. It previously worked on a project for the Human Solutions Family Shelter to help "make the process of showing up at a shelter" more welcoming.
The city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services and Meyer Memorial Trust each are contributing $175,000 to the pilot project. The ADUs are each expected to cost up to $75,000, but that cost too could change, according to the Joint Office.
"It's a little bit unknown," says Denis Theriault, Joint Office spokesman. While he's thrilled so many people are interested in helping, he says that the Joint Office and A Home For Everyone, the initiative between the city, county, Gresham and Home Forward, have already helped house thousands — 4,600 people in the last budget year.
"The problem is so big that people have a hard time getting their arms around it," he says, adding that the tiny home movement is more easily conceivable to people. "But at the same time, you get people paying attention."
Generally, tiny houses are built atop wheels so they can be mobile, and are not legal residences in Portland residential areas, while ADUs are permanent, and are permitted on nearly all single-family lots where there is enough space.
Organizers hope the pilot project expands and that they can eventually house hundreds this way, but for now they're focusing on getting the uncertainties sorted for the first four units.
The county intends that there will be little to no cost to the homeowner while they host a family rent free, or possibly multiple families if they cycle out of the home, over the five-year contract. They're still working out what a landlord-tenant contract between the homeless family and homeowner will look like, and other uncertainties, like the potential for tax abatement, which they're discussing with the county tax assessor.
Enhabit is acting as the contractor on A Place for You. The county sought them out for their experience with energy retrofits of private dwellings and their list of minority women and small emerging business owners who they may work with in installing the dwellings. Enhabit will engage the homeowners and offer general support as the project moves through the pilot phase.
As far as which homeowners will be selected out of that large pool of those interested, they're looking at zoning factors; social factors, whether or not people signing up are amenable to entering a landlord-tenant relationship; property location and suitability.
"Is your lot close to services that families will need to help them live their lives? Is it near public transit, laundry facilities, grocery stores? Those are factors that come into play," says Stephanie Swanson, vice president of communications at Enhabit. Wide news coverage has prompted interest from people as far as Salem, but they're only looking at Portland owners. A lottery process is being considered for selection.
And what about neighborhood involvement?
"We'll look to the owner to do that," says Li. "The truth is right now that hundreds of people are building ADUs in their backyard and they don't have to inform their neighbors … this is just that."
Adam Lyons, executive director of the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, hopes there's continued discussion on "how this would actually roll out."
"When it hits the media, people get blindsided, and no one likes to get blindsided," Lyons said. He was informed initially by the first Willamette Week article and has been fielding questions from community members. "It gets kind of difficult if I get blindsided by something that's a visible livability issue in our district, inside or outside neighborhood associations. To me it doesn't matter; everyone's impacted."
Many people have asked on social media and elsewhere how the homeless families would be selected or if they would have case management.
The families will be selected and screened through A Home For Everyone's system of care for homeless families, where there's a coordinated entry system.
"This is part of what we intended on this test. We don't want to have this be a standalone boutique program, where we're funding separate support services, separate case management," Li says. The families will come with a "package of support" including staff from the county's mobile housing team, whose job it is to "make sure that the tenancy is successful both for the landlord and for the family," says Li. If things get bad between the landlord and the family in the ADU, they want the homeowner to call the mobile housing team before issuing an eviction.
Mike Withey, a homeless advocate and founder of Micro Community Concepts, likes the idea but isn't sure if it's "half-baked or not." Micro Community Concepts focuses on the idea of using tiny homes and ADUs as a solution to affordable housing, something he hopes the city and county will look more closely at.
"Maybe it'll lead into an expansion into more affordable housing."
Li says right now, she thinks the biggest challenge will be managing people's expectations.
"I know it's not going to be an easy project to work through. I know there's going to be a lot of people with a spotlight on this with places to point fingers. But I think we're approaching this with transparency and being as openly communicative as we can."
However the pilot project proceeds or doesn't, it's a testament to the city's housing crisis and massive interest from the public in helping.
"Really it says a lot about our housing shortage that we're turning to this," says Theriault. "If we had enough apartments, we wouldn't have to (build) 200-square-foot apartments in people's yards as an experiment."
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The article was updated to reflect that the lottery system is still being considered and is not definite, and that homeowners should call the mobile housing team before issuing an eviction, not the county.
The headline was corrected to reflect that the county did not formally "announce" the project.