Four solutions for homeowners with too-big houses

Many homeowners, especially empty-nesters and seniors, come to our Springfield/Eugene MicroDwellers social hours because they are exploring ways to house more people on their property — which we find heartening and encouraging! Below are four possibilities we think are worth considering.

1. Backyard cottages (ADUs)

Many of the homeowners who come to us (especially older single women) want to create an inexpensive cottage in the backyard that they can live in, while renting out their main house. (These cottages are known as ADUs, or accessory dwelling units, in building code.)

Creating a legally permitted, inexpensive ADU is much more possible in Springfield, which has waived SDC charges through June 2022 and established a dedicated web page explaining the process (including a video and podcast). Local architect/developer (and MicroDwellers member) Dylan Lamar, in a recent Eugene Weekly article, expressed interest in partnering with homeowners to build and co-own ADUs there. Interested folks can contact him through his website.

Financing has been an issue, but institutions are catching up, given the increasing demand. Fannie Mae recently made it easier for people to finance their own home improvements — including, for the first time, the construction of ADUs — through a loan program called HomeStyle Renovation. (A variety of companies, such as Rent the Back Yard and United Dwelling, will bankroll an ADU and divide the rent with a homeowner for a set number of years, but so far they operate only in much more expensive housing markets, such as California.)

In Eugene, unfortunately, a majority on the current City Council has blocked ADUs for years. (Electing a few more pro-housing Councilors in 2020 can change this.) In 2014, the Council enacted a slew of ADU requirements and restrictions that slowed legally permitted ADUs to an average of two per year. (In contrast, LA issued more than 3,800 permits for ADUs in 2017.) Housing advocates successfully sued Eugene for violating a state law requiring communities to allow ADUs; the Council then spent all of 2019 postponing decision-making and still has not passed a revised ordinance to comply with the law.

One happy note: Thanks to a new state law, as of January 1, 2020, Eugene and other cities may not require owner occupancy or additional off-street parking in order to approve an ADU. Many other, probably illegal requirements remain in the ordinance, however.

The Council will have yet another next work session on ADUs on January 21, 2020. Consider emailing them your thoughts in advance and testifying at the public forum beforehand on January 13. (They have said they like to see new faces.) Some possible talking points (depending on what your councilor cares most about):

  • ADUs are green, sustainable housing by design because of their smaller size. Over their lifetime, they cut carbon emissions by as much as 40% compared to a medium-sized single-family home.
  • ADUs have the potential to add thousands of lower-cost units to our housing stock, with no public subsidy.
  • There are 43,000 city tax lots in Eugene large enough for an ADU. If the owners of just 5% of those lots built ADUs, Eugene would gain an additional 2,100 units of housing!

With a pro-housing majority on the Council, Eugene could follow the lead of other cities and encourage ADUs by

  • waiving permitting fees and system development charges (SDCs), especially for ADUs of 400sf or less, or if homeowners guaranteed that the ADU would be affordable to renters making 30% of the area median income
  • making simple preapproved plans available on the City website
  • authorizing City staff to encourage and guide homeowners through the process

2. Homesharing (with one other person)

The number of Americans over 50 who live with a friend or unmarried partner has jumped 75% nearly a decade. Dozens of communities across the country have homesharing services that connect homeowners with vetted tenants, run by nonprofits or local government. Some are for senior homeowners, and others serve all ages. (Having housemates may be the new retirement plan: 50 million Americans over 50 have less than $50,000 saved for retirement.)
Below are a few homesharing programs in other West Coast communities. The new Affordable Shared Housing NW page on Facebook also seeks to connect those interested in homesharing.

  • San Mateo County, California: HIPhousing (all ages), a well-developed, longtime nonprofit program of the Human Investment Project (check out their inspiring video)
  • Portland: MetroShare (all ages), a nonprofit program of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (video)
  • Olympia: Home Share (senior homeowners), a nonprofit program of Senior Services for South Sound
  • Set to begin in March in Portland: Oregon Home Share, a nonprofit program of Oregon Harbor of Hope, possibly in partnership with Silvernest. Aiming to place age-55+ women in danger of or experiencing homelessness.
  • The Facebook page Affordable Shared Housing NW shares news about homesharing arrangements and programs in Washington and Oregon.

Nationwide platforms include:

  • Senior Homeshares, a nonprofit that is free to use, begun in 2015. It has about 6,000 members, mainly in Colorado (where it is based), California, and Florida. There are a smattering in Oregon, and could likely be many more if it were promoted locally. It doesnt do any vetting of potential renters, though.
  • Silvernest, a nationwide for-profit platform open to all ages. It has matched more than 60,000 housemates. Senior homeowners pay $25/month, while tenants can list themselves at no charge. Most listings are in Colorado (where Silvernest is based), California, and Florida, with plans for expansion to Seattle.
    Silvernest has partnered with Teach for America to house Colorado teachers, and is about to partner with Oregon Harbor of Hope to house lower-income Portland women age 55+; this program, called Oregon Home Share, launches this spring. (At present, the Silvernest database includes no homeowners within 100 miles of Eugene.)

The six slides here explain step-by-step how local homesharing programs work. This would seem a natural fit for Lane County, with its many homeowners on fixed incomes and many residents needing affordable housing. There are around 125,000 to 140,000 spare bedrooms in Lane County, including about 45,000 in Eugene alone, according to research conducted for us by Leon Porter of the nonprofit citizens pro-housing organization Portland: Neighbors Welcome. If just 5% of the Eugene bedrooms were filled through homeshares, that would add another 2,250 units of housing.

Until some individuals or organizations in Lane County step forward to meet this need, homeowners can seek housemates on the Eugene Rooms and Eugene Conscious Community Housing Board Facebook pages, and on Craigslist. (None provide any vetting, of course.) They can also list themselves on the national platforms above.

3. Group house / intentional community

For those wishing to share life with a group of people, several models exist:

  • An intentional community with a benevolent landlord-homeowner, such as the Duma Community, where nine people share a 10-bedroom house, or Maitreya Ecovillage, where 25-35 people live in a diverse array of dwellings on several adjacent lots. (For seniors, the TV show Golden Girls is often cited as a model. We havent found a real-life one in Eugene yet, but the media frequently report on examples elsewhere.) Residents may govern themselves day-to-day, but if a contentious issue must be resolved, the homeowner-landlord often has the final say.
  • A housing cooperative in which the residents govern themselves, such as the Walnut Street Co-op, where nine people share a 10-bedroom house, or the East Blair Housing Cooperative, where about 40 people live in a diverse array of dwellings on 10 adjacent and nearby properties.
  • A community in which the land is owned by a Community Land Trust rather than by the residents. There are several CLT organizations in Oregon who may be able to assist.

The Foundation for Intentional Community and its directory of Oregon communities, which includes some housing co-ops, offer many helpful resources.

4. Professionally managed group house

Although this option doesnt yet exist in Eugene, we wanted to make people aware of yet another innovation that is increasingly common around the world: co-living companies, such as Bungalow (active in Portland), which sublease homes from their owners on a long-term lease, then rent out the bedrooms to vetted tenants on individual leases. They also often provide activities to build community among house residents.

A Eugene homeowner could move elsewhere and have a co-living company manage their home, thus providing more-affordable lodgings to a host of Eugene residents without having any landlord-type responsibilities.

Jason Wallace of Community Room Rental in Charlotte, North Carolina, told me their highly successful service (100 bedrooms total, 100% full) is interested in franchising, and he is convinced that their business model could work anywhere.

Note: Ideally there would be nonprofit co-living companies that pledge to keep rents affordable. Perhaps those will emerge in time. Meanwhile, this is an alternative to operating a short-term rental that earns income for the owner of the house but also provides housing for local residents. We welcome comments from people who have personal experience with it.

An overall note re #3 and #4

Hundreds of multi-bedroom homes that could be perfect co-living residences, group houses, or housing co-ops are being rented to tourists via short-term rental (STR) platforms such as Airbnb and VRBO — further depleting our already inadequate supply of housing. In December 2019, the Eugene City Council postponed action on regulating entire-house STRs until as late as June or July 2020. As with many housing issues, electoral change may be necessary to move this issue forward.

Published by Sherri Schultz

Writer & change-maker exploring micro-dwelling in Eugene, Oregon. Founder of Springfield/Eugene MicroDwellers: https://www.meetup.com/Micro-dwellers .

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3 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post. I’m in the “Golden Girl” category too, and would like to find a way to share housing by renting to people in my age group to live better with company. The idea of families is also changing: five unrelated people can be a family, such as the case with people on the autism spectrum who might share services.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Deena! Are you in the Eugene/Springfield area, or elsewhere? I havent (yet) done a comprehensive survey of senior homesharing services, but I am sure there are some others beyond the ones we mentioned.

      We totally agree with you about related people. We expect to see proposals for homesharing in our area that will help retire that rule. One Portland co-living developer said he felt any group living together and sharing a kitchen etc. were related.

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