I can use many phrases to describe the way I live now, and yet none fully does it justice, because the way I live now is almost nonexistent in the United States.
One way: I live in a 44-bedroom rooming house catycorner from the southern edge of the University of Oregon campus, near the School of Music.
Because the building provides not only room but also board (chef-prepared meals served in a dining hall downstairs), boardinghouse may actually be the more accurate term, making it an even rarer beast in the United States in 2019.
Each resident here has a 220-square-foot microstudio with a private bathroom, a huge and ingeniously designed closet, and a tiny balcony that fits two chairs, so a friend and I can enjoy the late-afternoon Oregon sun in the spring, summer, and early fall.
Each microstudio comes with a microwave and mini-fridge, but not a full kitchen. Our daily meals are made downstairs by a team of chefs, and an array of snacks, beverages, basics (dry cereal, oatmeal, bread, peanut butter, apples, coffee and tea, and too many fresh-baked desserts) are available in our dining hall 24/7.
Any leftovers from meals are packaged in single-serving containers and put in the communal fridge, and usually disappear within 24 hours.
Another way: I live in a privately run dorm, constructed in 1989 by a mission-driven developer who sought to provide academically minded students with an atmosphere suitable for “quiet enjoyment.” Luckily for me, he also admits non-students who are attracted to that lifestyle. Applicants have to submit three character references, and applications are taken all year; by April or May, there’s already a waiting list for the coming academic year (late September through mid-June).
Some other terms: microhousing (a term not yet well known in the US outside major cities, and often even within them); residential hotel (back in the day, these were common, especially for single working women in major cities; the Barbizon Hotel in New York City is a well-known example); co-living residence, suggested by a friend; and SRO or SRO 2.0.
Personally, I usually avoid using the term SRO because of the unfortunate associations it conjures. Ninety years ago, SROs were a common form of housing for people of modest means — <naturally occurring affordable housing> (NOAH), in housing-policy jargon. According to Paul Groth, author of Living Downtown; The History of Residential Hotels in the United States (available online for free), SRO units may have numbered as high as 90,000 in San Francisco in the early 1930s, meaning they were nearly as prevalent as apartments.
Unfortunately, SROs were virtually eliminated in city after city in more recent decades. Portland lost 40% of its SROs between 1978 and 2015, although the nonprofit Central City Concern, formed in 1979, has acquired and preserved many as low-income housing. In 1910 San Francisco, 15.6% of residents lived in SROs; in 2016, the figure was 2.2%. Most are now managed by the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (tagline: <Opportunity knocks only if you have a door>), which houses over 4,800 people — most with an annual income of less than $15,000.
Only a relative few survive, in places such as San Francisco, Portland, and Chicago, thanks to the dedicated work of advocates for low-income housing. According to San Francisco’s Central City SRO Collaborative, that city’s 518 SRO buildings are home to more than 30,000 people — far more than live in federally funded public housing in the city, which comprises 6,096 permanently affordable units and another 10,000 people housed via Section 8 vouchers. More of the fascinating history of SROs in San Francisco is chronicled here and in Up from the Deep, creation of the late, gifted photographer and historian Mark Ellinger.
But in May 2018, when I stumbled across the listing for my current residence while researching how to find affordable housing for The Young Leaders Guide to Internships, Scholarships, and Fellowships in Washington, DC, and Beyond, I wasnt thinking about honoring the venerable history of SROs in America, or even of living a bit as the acerbic writer Dorothy Parker had in her later years, in a residential hotel (the Volney). I just jumped at the chance to live affordably, have meals made for me, and relocate next to my beloved alma mater. As a writer yearning to live a simple, stress-free life in a culturally stimulating place, I felt I had found nirvana.
So what happens when a 55-year-old woman moves into a 220-square-foot room with 47 college students, and attempts to promote this way of life throughout her new community? Read on, and share my adventures in microdwelling.
When I moved back to Eugene a year and a half ago and began encouraging Seattle friends to visit me, I was surprised but pleased to see hundreds of Eugene listings on Airbnb. My friends could have much to choose from — everything from a campsite in a backyard ($20/night) to an entire unoccupied 6-bedroom house at $500/night. (No one chose that.)
I was surprised because — like many longtime residents — I didnt think there would be that much demand. Eugene wasnt All That, after all, not like Seattle or San Francisco.
That was before I realized how much Duck fever had transformed this <large small town> where I attended college 35 years ago. In those days the University of Oregon Ducks were a perennially losing team, the <Fighting Duck> was a joke, and college athletics were largely ignored by everyone I knew. (What is now the Duck Store, at the edge of campus, was called the University of Oregon Bookstore and sold books, not hundreds of varieties of green and yellow sportswear.)
Nowadays, it turns out that scads of parents, alumni, and others in town for a Ducks game keep many of the small-scale short-term rentals (a room in a house, a backyard cottage) full. They are listed on a host of platforms, including Airbnb, VRBO, HomeAway, TripAdvisor, and Booking.com.
On a more concerning level, STRs have become an industry. Entire multi-bedroom houses in Eugene are now being rented to groups of out-of-towners as STRs, with no owner on-site to supervise — a nationwide phenomenon. Hundreds of larger Eugene houses have been bought up by outside investors for use solely as STRs. A map prepared by City staff (page 4) shows that many are owned by the travel company Expedia, with a smattering owned by TripAdvisor and Priceline.
Expedia also owns the STR platforms HomeAway and VRBO, and has more recently acquired several platforms focused on short-term rental of apartments, a new market that its competitor Airbnb had already begun to exploit. According to an article on Skift,
In 2016, Airbnb began to coax multi-family housing owners into permitting their residents to rent out their places in exchange for a cut of the tenants’s rental revenue. By August 2018, the startup had signed up nearly 16,000 units worldwide to its Airbnb Friendly Buildings Program.
Expedia’s acquisition shows that its target market of properties is increasingly blurring with Airbnb’s…. In the early days, Airbnb focused on helping people to rent out their homes or apartments on a short-term basis, while HomeAway has emphasized whole home vacation rentals in resort destinations. In recent years, though, the companies have been targeting all aspects of the rental market.
In a more enlightened, renter-friendly Eugene, these larger, now-investor-owned houses would make excellent co-living residences, especially if managed by a local company or nonprofit patterned after Community Room Rental of Charlotte, North Carolina, or PadSplit of Atlanta. These companies partner with homeowners to deliver rooms at rents affordable to local residents. PadSplit, in particular, has been called unique among co-living companies in focusing on creating housing affordable for low-income workers. Both companies are looking to expand to other communities; to our knowledge, no one in Eugene besides us has reached out to them.
City oversight of STRs has so far been limited to requiring owners to pay a Transient Room Tax; no licensing or permit is required (page 3). The proceeds of the tax, curiously enough, are designated to fund cultural services rather than affordable housing — yet another indication that City leaders do not understand the relationship between STRs and the depletion of our rental housing stock. City staff has even called the number of STRs <trivial> with regard to its possible impact on rents and amount of available housing. We disagree.
How many are there?
Table 1. Eugene Airbnb listings as of Nov. 1, 2019
|Price per night||Number of properties|
|TOTAL LISTINGS (between 1 and 6+ bedrooms each)||1,154|
Other sites with entire-house/apartment Eugene listings include:
- HomeAway and VRBO: 198 (presumably the same set of properties, as both platforms are now owned by Expedia)
- TripAdvisor: 68
- Booking.com: 11
(At the Sept. 23 City Council work session, staff reported finding 823 Eugene listings on Booking.com, but we found just 47, of which only 11 were vacation homes or apartments; most were actual hotels or motels.)
How many are entire houses/apartments?
We saw no precise way to determine this using Airbnbs too-simple categories (selecting entire place yields a long list that includes hundreds of backyard cottages as well as hundreds of entire multi-bedroom houses), but a scan of listings at various price points suggested that at least a third of the 1,154 Eugene Airbnb listings are entire houses with no owner present. This estimate is likely too conservative; globally, entire-homes/apartments constitute 51% of Airbnb listings and 75% of its revenue.
Why is this a problem?
Eugene, and the entire West Coast, has a severe shortage of affordable housing. We need to create much more, but we also need to preserve the housing we have. The short-term rental industry has already removed thousands of bedrooms from the Eugene housing market and is poised to increase exponentially, especially given the much-anticipated World Track Championships in 2021.
- A recent Airbnb press release noted that Eugene had “a 213% increase in year-over-year bookings for the upcoming year.”
- Eugene is the #1 wish-listed West Coast destination on Airbnb for 2020. In the entire US, we are second only to Milwaukee(?). In the world, we are #7.
What other cities have done
Many studies (NYC, Canada, Los Angeles) have shown that STRs lead to a rise in rents and reduce the number of affordable housing units. At least 32 jurisdictions in Oregon now regulate them, with Eugene now the largest municipality in the state to be asleep on the issue.
- Ashland, Bend, Portland, and Salem (pages 7-10) have enacted regulations that were cited by City staff in their recommendations to Council
- Santa Monica (2015)
- Enacted rules that staff is reportedly using as another model.
- San Francisco (2017)
- Airbnb hosts must register with the city online.
- New York (2018)
- STR companies must provide the city with addresses for their listings, names + addresses of hosts, and whether rental is a room or an entire house.
- Los Angeles (2019)
- Hosts must register with the city and pay an $89 annual fee.
- Hosts are limited to one listing only, and it must be their primary residence.
- Seattle (2019)
- Hosts are taxed $8-$14/night; proceeds fund affordable housing 💞 + the citys STR licensing program. [Currently, the Eugene transient-room tax funds cultural services. Affordable housing seems to us a more appropriate beneficiary.]
Upcoming City Council action: Dec. 11
This summer the Eugene City Council finally directed staff to look into regulation. Council held a work session on STRs on Sept. 23 and scheduled another on Dec. 11 at noon to consider a draft ordinance. According to the December South University Neighborhood newsletter and staff comments at the November Housing Policy Board meeting, the draft ordinance will include at least the following items:
- Yearly license fee.
- Owner-occupancy requirement — for instance, the homeowner must live on site at least 275 days/year.
- Limit on the number of days a unit can be rented — for instance, 90 days.
- Basis for license revocation, including number of complaints per calendar year.
- Requirement for STR platforms to maintain a registry and ensure that hosts have a business license + collect transient-room tax (TRT). Santa Monica and Portland already have such regulations. According to The New York Times, Seattle, San Francisco, and London all require STR platforms to share data through a registration system for listings. New York City is currently being sued by Airbnb and HomeAway over its approach.)
- Parking requirement.
There have been indications that Airbnb is organizing its hosts to lobby against regulation, and at least one Airbnb host is running for City Council (Kate Davidson in Ward 2, who gushed about the merits of Airbnb when interviewed by Eugene Weekly about her candidacy).
Concerned Eugene residents who back responsible regulation to protect Eugene from further exploitation by this burgeoning industry are encouraged to write letters to the editor (email@example.com (guidelines + deadline); firstname.lastname@example.org (guidelines + deadline), cc your City Councilor, and testify for 3 minutes at the next City Council public forum on Mon., Dec. 9, a few days before the Council work session.
Signup to speak begins at 7pm, but arriving earlier to get in line is likely advisable if you want to speak early in the evening, as 350 Eugene members will be doing the same to testify on the Climate Action Plan. You may wish to connect your comments to climate action/sustainability — for instance, protecting our rental housing means workers will be able to afford to live in Eugene rather than have to commute from less-expensive areas, thus lessening our greenhouse gas emissions.
A final note
It seems important that Eugene coordinate STR policies with Springfield. If Eugene clamps down on STRs but Springfield does not, STR activity might simply move to Springfield, and have the same deleterious effects on that community.
The developer of our microhousing community writes to me:
<A situation worth exploring is providing incentives to older citizens who live in homes that once accommodated their large families … encouraging them to move and converting their residences to multi-family occupancies….>
Yes, although to get them to move, there need to be appealing smaller places that they can afford. Many older people in Eugene cannot afford much. Quite a few have only Social Security as income.
I suggested the Eugene Abbey to one senior homeowner who joined our group, for instance. The Abbey provides senior apartments and two meals a day, on a leafy residential street just a few blocks from downtown. Home to about 50 seniors, it is run by a national nonprofit with 250 such residences, the Midwest-based Good Samaritan Society. But she couldnt afford it. (All-inclusive rates begin around $1,500/month for lodging, meals, utilities, internet, and housekeeping.)
So we need to expand the affordable small-scale living options for seniors (and others) in Eugene. Here are some possibilities worth exploring.
- Many older homeowners (especially single women) are coming to Springfield/Eugene MicroDwellers because they want to build or create a backyard cottage and live in it, while renting out their main house.
This would be quite possible in Springfield and many other enlightened US cities and towns. In fact, Springfield residents may wish to connect with innovative Eugene architect/developer Dylan Lamar, who floated some creative ideas in a recent Eugene Weekly article: <Lamar says he would partner with homeowners to build ADUs in their backyards. He says he would have the people who live in the ADUs become co-owners of the property, which could benefit homeowners because somebody else could help pay their mortgages.>
Eugene residents have more work to do. Unfortunately, our City Council has been dragging its feet all year despite a several-year-old state law requiring it to allow what are called accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in all residential zones. Over the years, it has imposed some two dozen requirements/restrictions on ADUs, and a majority of councilors are still clinging to them. Fees and charges imposed by the City and EWEB serve as an additional deterrent to would-be ADU creators. All this despite the Council having declared a housing emergency several years ago.
ADUs have the potential to add thousands of lower-cost units to our housing stock, with no public subsidy, primarily because no money need be spent to acquire the land. 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!
We hope that persuasion — and if that fails, the election of pro-housing Councilors in 2020 — will lead to the changes in this policy that our community urgently needs. Among other things, Eugene could follow the lead of other cities and
* waive permitting fees and system development charges (SDCs), especially for ADUs of 400sf or less
* make simple preapproved plans available on the City website
* authorize City staff to encourage and guide homeowners through the process
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 15. They have said they like to see new faces.
- For older homeowners who have extra bedrooms and want to stay in their home, some communities have homesharing services that connect senior homeowners with vetted renters. Examples include Nesterly (which serves Boston and Columbus, Ohio), the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens, and Silvernest (which says it accepts listings for all areas, but most listings so far are from Colorado, California, and Florida; there are seven listings at present in Portland).
To our knowledge, the City of Eugene has not created such a program or partnered with any senior homesharing platforms, despite the fact that about 20% of Northwest bedrooms are vacant on any given night … and likely a larger percentage among older empty-nesters. A further analysis by the same number-cruncher estimated that there were 45,000 to 50,000 empty bedrooms in Eugene.
- For older homeowners who would like to move elsewhere and see their entire large house rented out to its maximum capacity (and, likely, revenue), co-living companies such as Bungalow, Common, and OpenDoor do just that. They contract with homeowners (of any age) to rent out all of the rooms in their houses to individual tenants, often providing community-building activities for residents of their houses as well. These firms are active in multiple cities, including Seattle and Portland, but none seem to have been recruited to Eugene despite our housing emergency.
Smaller co-living companies abound as well. 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 thinks their business model could work anywhere. Atlanta-based PadSplit, one of six firms to win a prestigious grant from the Housing Lab at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley this year, is also looking to expand to other cities, its founder Frank Furman told me. The Housing Lab calls PadSplit unique among co-living companies in focusing on providing housing that is affordable for low-income workers.
To our knowledge, no enterprising businessperson in Eugene is yet pursuing these opportunities. But we do know that hundreds of such houses have been purchased by investors to rent out via Airbnb and other short-term rental (STR) platforms — to tourists, not our residents who need housing. The City Council will finally consider an ordinance regulating STRs, at their work session on December 11 at noon. Many other cities already regulate this industry.
We have a separate post on the STR issue here. It is an eye-opener!
The City of Eugenes latest effort to Engage me — this time a survey about its Climate Action Plan, years in the making but achieving only 40% of its essential goal — asks, <As the City Council reviews these additional policy options to mitigate carbon, is there any specific feedback you would like to provide?> Why yes, there is….
If I read correctly, the two biggest producers of emissions are Transportation and Residential/Commercial Energy Use. Thus, rather than hyper-focusing on natural gas, it seems the biggest impact could be gained by effecting these two basic changes:
INCENTIVIZE SMALL-SCALE LIVING
- Support microhousing (photos above) and other worthy innovations in small-scale housing. Again and again, we hear of Eugeneans with innovative projects having to build them in Springfield. (Eugene sustainable architect Dylan Lamars Barnraising project is just the latest.) Get with it!
- Legalize time-tested ways of living small, like boardinghouses, rooming houses, and SROs, throughout the city.
- Incentivize providers of what is now labeled student housing (quads) to rebrand it, more accurately, as Sustainable Housing — since all except Titan Court allow non-students, and this way of living is far more sustainable than the traditional apartment or certainly the single-family home that now covers 70%+ of Eugene.
- START SUPPORTING TINY HOUSES, and work with the many people wanting to create or live in tiny-house villages here. Wouldnt it be nice if the next article titled <City Council approves zoning change to allow for new form of innovative affordable housing>, passed excitedly from one pro-housing Facebook group to another, was about Eugene, not Minneapolis?
- Make ADUs easy and inexpensive to build or create, waive fees and property taxes for those 400sf or less, provide preapproved plans on the Citys website, and host forums with City staff to advise residents who want to add an ADU to their property.
- Encourage Eugeneans to rent out their extra bedrooms and backyard cottages to their fellow residents who need affordable housing, and de-incentivize Airbnb and other short-term rentals. Our priority should be housing our citizens, not tourists.
REDUCE CAR USAGE.
- Start encouraging and rewarding car-free lifestyles. How about a Car-Free Citizen Award each year?
- Build no more parking garages/lots, and convert some existing ones to other uses (such as housing/emergency shelter, as other cities have done).
- Incentivize all buildings, residential/ADUs + commercial, to be built without parking. If we keep building it, people will never give up their cars.
- Partner with the annual BRING Home + Garden Tour each fall to show car-dependent Eugeneans how to use buses, Uber + Lyft.
- Incentivize transit-oriented development, especially along the EmX line and other major transit corridors, with minimal or no parking.
- Put an end to the strange practice of building affordable housing in out-of-the-way areas with low Walk Scores that force residents to have cars.
- Stop assuming that everyone has or wants a car. And acknowledge that electric vehicles (EVs) are too expensive for most Eugeneans. The sustainable long-term solution is to walk more + promote walkable neighborhoods and frequent, easy-to-use public transit, not for everyone to buy an electric car.
Following submission, I came across several eye-popping facts:
- 55% of people who work in Eugene live outside the city. That certainly explains the surprisingly (to me) high level of car dependency in this supposedly progressive town. Unless you live on the EmX line in Springfield, it isnt easy to get into Eugene from outlying areas without driving…. Why this should be, that is a whole separate question. But even among Eugeneans, only 4.67% use mass transit.
- Corvallis — in my day, we thought of this hour-north town of 67,000 as Eugenes backward, conservative, sports-obsessed rival — has more green buildings per capita than any other city in Oregon and is ranked first on the EPA’s national list of Green Power Communities. Corvallis! Mind blown.
Not only that, Corvallis has a fare-free transit system and the second-highest percentage of mass transit users of any sizable Oregon city. (Although, it must be said, that percentage is only 2.41%.)
13th&Olive is an orange-and-pink intrusion at the southern edge of downtown that most Eugeneans love to hate. Its three massive (for Eugene), garishly colored buildings loom over the street, with no setbacks or (on Willamette Street, its most prominent face) street trees to soften the blow. Nor does it have any street-level retail to invite passers-by in.
And just a few years after it was built, it was sold to Singapore investors (for a considerable profit).
None of that is ideal. As I learned more about Eugenes housing crisis this summer, though, I became increasingly interested in touring it and other quads, which are ubiquitous in this college town. Marketed exclusively to students (though most are, in fact, open to all), quads are one of the only sizable categories of housing in Eugene renting for less than $650/month. (Rooms in shared houses, converted garages, and backyard cottages are another.)
Meanwhile, over half of all Eugeneans are cost-burdened, which means they spend more than 30% of their income on housing.
In quads, residents have lockable bedrooms and sometimes private bathrooms or half-baths, and share a kitchen + living area with several other tenants. Often the units are furnished. Usually utilities are included.
In a Capri Eugene quad building we toured, each tenant had a private entrance. In others, the four shared a common front door, and a roommate-matching service was offered to help ensure compatibility.
We wondered: Could quads be livable for a single adult like us, just seeking a room of their own and not wanting to pay the median Eugene rent of $1,058/mo for housing?
We visited two downtown housing providers, 13th&Olive and Titan Court, a few weeks ago. (Earlier we visited a quad at Capri Eugene, which we found spotless and quite functional, and one managed by Stewardship Rentals, which was nondescript but also very inexpensive — around $400/month.)
You can see a lot of what we saw on our Instagram account, @microdwellers. Our conclusion: For single adults who dont mind (or even appreciate) co-living with a few others, quads are a creative, modern, and eminently livable Eugene-style update of the SRO (single room occupancy) concept. They deliver housing at a price most Eugene renters can afford — without public subsidy or lengthy applications demanding tax returns and extensive financial and rental history.
13th&Olive alone is housing up to 1,300 people (in three large buildings) for rates beginning at $615/month + electricity, per person. At present, it is only 76% full and is offering move-in bonuses, as are many of the other quad buildings in town.
Titan Court, next to LCC Downtown, provides another 225 units of housing for rents starting at $588/month, including utilities + internet. The building is LEED Gold and ultra eco-conscious. It requires tenants to be students, but enrollment in any type of higher education counts, including a single online course. It is 105% full (there is a waiting list).
Both 13th&Olive and Titan Court are within a few blocks of the downtown transit center and racks of PeaceHealth bikes, meaning residents dont need to own a car. Our Titan Court tour guide estimated that fewer than half of their residents have one.
Other quad housing providers include Capri Eugene (a mature friend of ours lives in a Capri quad and told us there should be much more of this type of housing, for all ages), Skybox & Courtside Apartments ($619/mo and up; 406 bedrooms), 2125 Franklin ($579/mo and up; 734 bedrooms), and Stadium Park Apartments (the least expensive of the big ones at $519/mo and up; perhaps because it is 2 miles from campus, near Autzen Stadium; 696 bedrooms). None require that tenants be students.
13th & Olive, Skybox & Courtside, and Stadium Park allow a pet with a security deposit ranging from $200 to $400 and an extra $25-$50/month in <pet rent>. Exceptions: Except for certified emotional support animals (ESAs), no pets at Titan Court and 2125 Franklin; cats only at Capri Eugene.
Vacancies at smaller quad providers can be found by searching rents below $600/month or so, on sites such as Craigslist and Zumper. Cedarwood Quads (28 bedrooms, open to all ages) rent for a rock-bottom $425/mo — perhaps because Cedarwood is owned by a local person, not a corporation or out-of-state investors, and doesnt have the fancy amenities of the others … see below). We hope to visit more quads and blog about them a bit later.
A final note: All these buildings offer shared amenities that the SRO dwellers of yore could barely have imagined. 13th&Olive, which can probably offer the most because of its massive scale, has a pool, hot tub, sauna, gym, game room, yoga studio, firepits, computer lab w/free printing, and more.
The puzzle to me is that the average Eugenean seems to have no idea of this. No local I have talked to has ever set foot inside 13th&Olive or any other quad, and most have no or a distorted idea of what they offer. In the case of 13th&Olive, this is particularly puzzling because its presence is impossible to ignore, and the front desk is staffed by residents who give tours at the drop of a hat to walk-ins, anytime from 9am to 6pm weekdays, 11am to 5pm weekends.
At the time of construction, there was controversy over these projects being granted the MUPTE (Multi-Unit Property Tax Exemption), a 10-year property tax break available to downtown apartments. That is sad because these projects both deliver housing that is genuinely affordable to the average Eugene renter — a category in which we have a deficit of at least 13,500 units. (The median income for renter households is $26,064.)
Contrast the <controversial> quads with Bennett Management s Ferry Street Manor project, granted a MUPTE this September with no opposition. Its 400sf studio apartments will rent for at least $1,100/month — nearly twice what the average Eugene renter can afford.
When faced with the controversy over the MUPTE, the City Council once again did exactly the wrong thing. Rather than explain to our citizens that Eugene needed 13th&Olive, Titan Court, and thousands more units of housing renting at this rate, it instead amended the MUPTE so it could no longer be used for what is mistakenly termed in this town <student housing>.
Thus we got no more of this sort of naturally occurring affordable housing, built in the hundreds of units by the private market. Affordable-housing production in Eugene is now limited to the worthy but minuscule-in-the-face-of-the-need Emerald Village Eugene (five tiny houses being completed soon, for a total of 22 in the village) and upcoming projects by St. Vincent de Paul (River Road Affordable Housing) and Cornerstone Community Housing (The Lucy), about 50 units each.
The revision of the MUPTE was just one of countless misguided decisions by City leaders over the past 5-10 years that has led to our towns #1 status in unhoused people per capita.
Other anti-affordable-housing policies including imposing costly requirements and fees on ADUs, limiting the number of people who can share a home (no more than five unrelated people — a policy that has been flagged as a possible violation of Fair Housing law), and allowing short-term rentals such as Airbnb and VRBO to proliferate unregulated.
Many of us will be working to elect pro-housing City Councilors next year, so we can start turning around this dismal and tragic situation.
I am excited to be one of the five micro-friendlies on the closing panel, Housing Stories and Innovations, at the annual Build Small Live Large Summit, to be held in Portland this Thursday. (It is still not too late to register!)
Our role is to put a human face on the abstractions discussed at the conference. What is it like to be a microdweller? My fellow panelists include a tiny-house dweller who is working on an interesting coliving project in the Cully neighborhood of Portland, and several folks who have or build ADUs.
Thank you, Lina. I appreciate being invited to address you today.
For those who would rather not take notes, I blog at RedefiningHome.org, and Ive posted this talk there.
(photo 27 – me) Im a freelance book editor living in The Collegian, a 30-year-old microhousing community in Eugene. Our 50 residents pay about $1,500/month for lodging, three meals a day, utilities, internet, and monthly housekeeping. In Eugene the average rent alone is over $1,300/month.
Living at The Collegian, all my needs (except health insurance) are covered in one bill. That gives me peace of mind and the freedom to follow my passions, which include advocating for more microhousing so others can enjoy this lifestyle.
(photo 28 – TC exterior) The Collegian is a three-story building in a neighborhood zoned high-density residential. Water-wise native plants provide a visual screen from the street.
It is a block from the bus and a 15-minute walk to Bus Rapid Transit, so no one needs a car to live here.
Inside are forty-four 220-square-foot, furnished microstudios with bathrooms and balconies.
The first floor has the shared facilities found in all co-living communities: in our case, a dining room with open kitchen, a lounge for socializing, and a laundry.
(photo 29 – art-filled hallway) The second floor houses 22 microstudios (photo 30 – half of the main living area), with built-in shelves and an amazing expanding closet. (photo 31)
The second-floor units are for one resident only, but the 22 third-floor units have a sleeping loft with skylights and can accommodate couples.
What is it like to live here? Easy.
Last night I ate in our dining room (photo 32 – typical weeks menu). Our executive chef, Tommy Sipes, who was trained at the New England Culinary Institute, had made ham-and-cheese-stuffed chicken with double-mustard sauce. Dessert choices were chocolate chip cookies or carrot cake.
Later I did my laundry downstairs, in our free washers.
While I am here at this conference, The Collegian housekeeper is cleaning my bathroom and vacuuming the carpet, a luxury I truly appreciate.
Did I mention that The Collegian has a policy of never raising rent once you move in?
Microhousing can be a beautiful, economical, environmentally sustainable, stress-free way of living. I recommend it to all of you.
But there are only 44 microstudios at The Collegian, and it is in only one town. To my knowledge there are only four microhousing communities with meals, open to all ages, in the entire country.
You’re all invited to come visit me at The Collegian, and then please do what you can to build housing based on this model in your own community. Thank you.
- Key takeaway: Microhousing gives me peace of mind and the freedom to follow my passion — which is advocating for more microhousing and speaking to you here today.
I have been having an ongoing dialogue on Facebook, and in a meeting this past week, with some of the folks behind a free, somewhat mysterious event called the Choose Kindness Celebration, to be held today (Sunday) at a swanky downtown Eugene venue, the Shedd Institute for the Arts.
The event will feature (I have discovered through diligent research) an hour-long plenary with speeches from the mayor of Anaheim and others, followed by five breakout sessions, including one on what the event euphemistically calls <the housing challenge>. (In a city with more than 2,100 unhoused, 61% of renters paying more than 30% of their income for housing, and a need for 13,500 more units of housing renting for $625/month or less.) Lord have mercy.
But that is just one aspect of the tone-deafness of the event — which I do hope all concerned people will attend, so we can use our knowledge and talents to help make it a productive catalyst for concrete action rather than yet another exercise in civic feel-goodism. (I was encouraged, for instance, to read about Kindeavor, a collaboration between the campaign and Community Supported Shelters that results in paid work for CSS residents.)
The real head-scratcher is the juxtaposition with Eugenes reality, which was revealed to the entire nation a few weeks ago: this medium-sized college town has the most unhoused people per capita of any city in the United States.
More than much-publicized Los Angeles.
More than my former, now prohibitively expensive city of Seattle.
For this small area (Lane Countys population is around 379,000; Eugenes population is 166,000) to have more than 2,100 people unhoused (from the Lane County Point-in-Time Count, done in January 2019) is a moral disgrace and a civic failure of epic proportions.
How on earth can we be celebrating ourselves as Choosing Kindness?
Signs for this event popped up this summer, mostly around churches, but I was never able to load the website listed on the sign or otherwise determine how to contact the organizers. And I never ran into any of them, though I spent the summer and fall learning my way through the local issues of housing and homelessness, attending meetings of various housing-related advocacy groups and quasi-government citizens commissions and visiting many innovative microdwelling options right here in town.
Here is a slice of that dialogue, with hyperlinks and some more details added:
<I am not frustrated or angry (except at the City Council majority that has led us to this place). I am excited about the young renter candidates who are running for crucial City Council seats who know housing issues, and who have already declared though the primary election is not till May
I am spreading the word at every opportunity that next years Council elections matter. Eugeneans who support #HousingActionNow should not ignore Council elections, as they may have done in the sleepy past.
Eugenes #1 status in unhoused people per capita is NOT inevitable or un-fixable. And it is no surprise. It is the result of City leaders deliberately pursuing policies, for years, that virtually ensure a housing shortage, given that the towns population increases every year. When neighborhood leaders say they dont want any type of lower-cost housing anywhere near them (NIMBYism), and City leaders coddle them instead of insisting that all our neighbors deserve housing they can afford, of course this happens.
Good news: We can begin to turn it around in a hundred ways, immediately, by telling Councilors we want lower-cost housing allowed in every neighborhood — the message of the new, equity-driven, housing-savvy movement called Yes In My Back Yard, and the key message that should be imparted at this Kindness in Housing session.
To significantly improve our situation, this solution-oriented framing must become the accepted wisdom in this town, as opposed to some themes I have observed in real life and in local online groups and, of course, NextDoor:
- Claims (against the data) that our unhoused neighbors are all mentally ill or substance abusers, or have all come here from somewhere else.
- Hopelessness (<it is such a big problem, it cant be solved, no one knows how to solve it>). This attitude has been encouraged by the pronouncements of many city leaders, and no wonder — it lets them off the hook for their unwillingness to take needed but controversial actions, failure to seek out and embrace innovative solutions, and overall abdication of their civic duty to educate and mobilize citizens to meet what the City Council declared four years ago was an emergency.
- Demands that government fund housing for all. Eugene has a housing deficit of 13,500 rentals at $625/month or below. With the cost of affordable housing built by nonprofit developers clocking in at $150K-$250K per unit, there are many more efficient + inexpensive ways of creating low-cost housing for all but the most destitute or in need of professional help, plus creative new ones emerging all the time.
- Blind anger and ranting at capitalism. Capitalism, if harnessed wisely by ethical people, as has been done repeatedly with success by creative Eugeneans, has great power to help get us out of this mess. In a post next week, I will share some of the solutions we have seen on our summer and fall tours.
In the previous post, I wrote about the bungalow court, the predominant form of multi-family housing in Southern California from the 1910s through the 1930s and a cousin of the cottage cluster that is perhaps more prevalent in the Northwest. Reading its Wikipedia entry:
<… a style of multi-family housing which features several small houses arranged around a central garden…. Bungalow courts were generally marketed to people who wanted the amenities of a single-family home without its high cost. While each family in a bungalow court had its own house and garden, upkeep and land were shared among the residents…. [O]f the 112 surviving bungalow courts in Pasadena [where the form was invented], 43 have a historic designation such as a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.>
I was surprised by how much it sounded like what todays tiny-house village proponents are seeking, having attended the monthly potluck of local citizens planning a village a few Fridays ago.
Levittown, another part of US affordable-housing history, also has some important lessons for us today.
- The Levitts purchased options on large swaths of onion and potato fields in undeveloped sections of Long Island. (Available land is harder to find today, and much more expensive, but every community likely has underused properties owned by government or by folks who want to make a difference.)
- The Levitts designed a small house that could be rapidly constructed. (Eugenes SquareOne Villages has put its tiny-house plans on its website for all to use.)
- They aimed for speed, efficiency, and cost-effective construction. The building of every house was reduced to 26 steps, which enabled them to be producing 30 houses a day by July 1948(!!!). (This reminds us of how off-site modular construction is increasingly being used to produce more-affordable housing today.)
- They used pre-cut lumber and nails shipped from their own factories in California, and built on concrete slabs. This necessitated changing the building code, which did not permit concrete slabs. Given the urgent need for housing in the region, the town agreed. (Changes in regulations and/or zoning often seem to be necessary with innovative, lower-cost housing, since some 70% of most cities and towns are still zoned only for single-family homes — a racially and socioeconomically exclusionary system that is finally beginning to be challenged.)
- They cut out middlemen and purchased many items, including lumber, directly from manufacturers. (We wonder if nonprofit providers and government are subject to so many constraints that it is difficult for them to produce Affordable Housing affordably. We have seen many criticisms of the cost of Affordable Housing, which can be $200,000 or more per individual unit — although it is also important to consider the costs, both financial and moral, of having thousands of our fellow citizens living on the street.)
- Half of the original 2,000 properties were rented within two days of the community being announced on May 7, 1947. The Levitts later built 4,000 more homes and switched to selling them, for as little as $8,000 each (equal to $89,765 today). With the full implementation of federal government supports for housing, they were able to offer ownership on a 30-year mortgage with no down payment and monthly costs the same as rental.
It is stunning to realize that there was once a very different America, where government and private industry worked together to produce an incredibly accessible and affordable housing solution, because affordable housing was properly seen as something its citizens deserved. And sad that our country has strayed so far from this ideal. But it can be inspiring that our own history provides some possible models for restoring sanity and affordability.
One contemporary model might be Community First! village on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. The brainchild of Alan Graham, Community First! is a 51-acre, two-phase master-planned community that, when complete, will comprise more than 500 homes.
Phase I, built in 2014, is already a thriving 24-acre community with 120 tiny houses (which they call micro-homes), 100 RVs, and 20 canvas-sided cottages, as well as community gardens, food prep and dining areas, medical and support services, Wi-Fi, an outdoor movie theater, and a direct bus line.
The micro-homes were designed in partnership with the University of Texas School of Architecture. According to CityLab, the homes are around 250sf and rent for $225-$430/month. Although created and managed by the faith-based nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes, Community First! has no religious requirements to join.
The village also operates a plethora of micro-enterprises that employ residents or enable them to make items to sell in the village market, from the Community Inn (a B&B for visitors who come to see the village) to a car repair, art, woodworking, and metalwork shops. A resident gives a video tour of the village and many of its amazing amenities here. (You can see the Before in this 2014 video.)
In October 2018, Community First! broke ground on Phase II, which will add 110 RV sites, 200 micro-homes, and a permanent 20,000sf health facility.
A member of a Facebook group on housing recently asked this question about a project to build tiny houses for veterans in southern Oregon. And since starting Springfield/Eugene MicroDwellers, I’ve often been asked it too. (Is our culture obsessed with size?)
For an expert opinion, I reached out to Renee McLaughlin, organizer of annual TinyFests in the Northwest, Southern California, and Midwest. She said there aren’t a lot of definitions at present, but cited Appendix Q of the IRC (International Residential Code), which defines a tiny house (on a foundation) as under 400 square feet.(Side note: Renee lives in an uber-cute, 87sf THOW (Tiny House on Wheels) — the tinest full-time permanent residence that we’ve seen so far.
Here’s the way I have come to think about home size, based on our research and field visits so far:
- 64-80(?) square feet: Pre-housing micro-shelter or bridge housing, like the Conestoga huts constructed by Eugene nonprofit Community Supported Shelters (CSS). Provides residents with basic protection from the elements and crime, while they pursue a plan to obtain permanent housing. Not generally thought of, or approved to be, permanent housing; CSSs Safe Spots, clusters of huts with shared kitchen, bathroom, and community room, are technically temporary, situated on land borrowed from the city of Eugene.
- 150-430 square feet: Tiny house. At Emerald Village Eugene, the 22 unique tiny homes renting for $250-$350/mo. range from 160 to 330sf. Under San Diego’s proposed rules legalizing THOWs in backyards, tiny houses could range in size from 150 to 430sf.
Oregon’s Building Codes Division has adopted the 2018 IRC, including Appendix Q, as part of the Oregon Reach Code to provide minimum standards for the construction of tiny houses (400sf or less, not including loft areas). These code provisions also establish a new occupancy classification for tiny houses on wheels (R-5). Portlands Bureau of Development Services has assigned an official to create implementation materials and help developers. (Wouldnt that be great if Eugenes government did the same thing?)
- Up to 600 square feet (or a bit more?): Small cottage/bungalow. This housing form, prevalent in cottage clusters and the bungalow courts popularized in California in 1910 through 1930, could be regarded as the original tiny house. Our neighborhood boasts a charming cluster of six 500sf cottages, which date from the 1930s; residents range from seniors to students at the nearby University of Oregon. Tim McCormick of the Village Collaborative (a network of those planning tiny-house villages for low-income folks) recently compiled an excellent summary of progress and possibilities for this form.
- 750 square feet: Larger cottage. In the 1940s, this was a respectable and accepted size for a modest middle-class home — as demonstrated by Levittown, our first truly mass-produced suburb, where 6,000 homes (first for rent, then for sale) were built at a rapid clip (30 per day!) to house America s returning (white) veterans in the late 1940s. (In a common practice at the time, no people of color were allowed to buy homes there, thus denying them this key opportunity to start building wealth through home equity.)
In smaller or less-developed towns, houses of this size may still exist; a friend in Eugene lives in a house that was originally 726sf, for instance (it now measures a whopping 926sf with a garage addition). We’ve seen a number of similar-sized homes offered and sold in our 15 months here — to be lived in, not demolished, as they would be in larger cities.
For perspective, the average American home is now 2,641 square feet and, according to The Minimalists, has 300,000 items in it — while the average American household has decreased, from 3.3 people in 1960 to 2.5 in 2018.
One thing a blogger has to do is generate a list of tags to use to index the posts.
This occasions the peculiar task of predicting what one will be writing about months or years into the future.
Here’s what we’ve come up with so far:
deeply affordable housing ($300/month or less – affordable to those living solely on modest Social Security or other fixed income)
solutions (so important!!)
let’s get political
short-term rentals (i.e., Airbnb, VRBO)
I didn’t know at least a quarter of these terms on July 1, 2019, when I began this project.