The homeless crisis throughout the West Coast has become so intense it can seem like the issue is practically encroaching on our backyards. That sentiment gave innovators in Portland an idea, however. Why not let a homeless family live in your backyard?
The idea is taking off in Portland, but Seattle may be a tougher sell.
“Our plan is to build four of these dwellings and find four homeowners willing to host them,” Mary Li told Seattle’s Morning News about the pilot program starting up in Portland. “They host the family for five years. At the end of five years, they can use these accessory dwelling units for whatever purposes they want to – they can continue to rent to the family, they can rent to someone else. They can use the units however they like.”
Li is director of Multnomah County’s Idea Lab, which launched the project. She said the idea has prompted interest from 588 Portland residents as of Wednesday morning who contacted the county for more information.
“I’ve talked with dozens of these homeowners, and they have said to me virtually the same thing, ‘This is really interesting; I’m nervous; I need to hear a whole lot more before I commit. But I’ve talked about it with my partner, my spouse, my roommate, myself and I’ve decided that if I can help, I will help. And I’m interested.’”
But while more than 500 Portland residents expressed interest, folks around Puget Sound don’t seem to share the sentiment. MyNorthwest ran an unscientific poll via Twitter to get some impression of what locals think of the idea. As of Wednesday afternoon, the majority of respondents said “no.”
If the @CityofSeattle paid for a backyard cottage, would you be willing to house a homeless family for 5 years (ala Portland)?
— MyNorthwest.com 🌲 (@Mynorthwest) March 21, 2017
House a homeless family
The Portland project called “A Place for You” has garnered considerable interest in the Rose City. Beyond the pilot project of four tiny homes, the ultimate goal is to build 300 tiny homes in the backyards of Portland properties. Each will be 200 square feet and cost $75,000 to construct, according to the Willamette Week. All the homeowner has to do is allow a homeless family to live there for five years — rent free. They keep the building after the five years are up. In Portland, they are calling them “granny flats.”
“We anticipate one parent and one child, or maybe a parent and two children in bunk beds, will be able to live in the dwelling,” Li said.
“Certainly, this is not going to end homelessness or family homelessness,” she said. “A tiny house is not going to be appropriate for a two-parent family and more than one or two children. However, a significant number of our households do fit that type. We hope that as this concept gets proven we will have another piece in the arsenal to fight homelessness.”
Li said that there are no approved models for the tiny homes just yet. But the intention is for them to have electricity and plumbing. Unlike other tiny homes, they won’t be on wheels. They will be a permanent structure. Each homeless family will undergo the same vetting procedure that the county uses to house homeless individuals now. And a person will be assigned to make sure the situation works out for both the landlord and the family.
Seattle backyard solutions
Seattle has already looked at local backyards as a solution to housing in its own way. City officials have considered backyard cottages as a way of opening up new affordable housing options in the city.
Previous surveys indicate that about 75,000 single-family lots in Seattle have space for a cottage. The issue that officials are wrestling with are zoning codes which prevent a lot of cottages from being built. Landlords, for example, would have to offer off-street parking to renters in a cottage — pretty difficult in that situation.
Efforts to start a new backyard cottage industry was gaining speed in 2016, but little has been heard about recent progress. Inquiries to the City of Seattle and Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s office — who spearheaded the effort — have not been returned.
In the meantime, Seattle has chased the homeless crisis. New encampments have been established and tiny homes are included in those programs.