My three minutes at Build Small Live Large 2019

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.

My remarks (expertly edited by Jen Hornsby) will be accompanied by five painstakingly selected images.

Thank you, Lina. I appreciate being invited to address you today.

For those who would rather not take notes, I blog at, 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.

Being kind to our unhoused neighbors means creating housing they can afford

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.

We need a Levittown of tiny houses

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.

How tiny is tiny?

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.

… tags …

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)
housing co-ops
intentional communities
modular housing
rooming houses
solutions (so important!!)
tiny houses

And maybe:
let’s get political
Section 8
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.

Eugene’s innovative transitional + deeply affordable housing

At Tuesdays happy hour, our visiting presidential candidate asked us about OpportUNITY Village and Conestoga huts, two innovative, extremely inexpensive ways of housing folks that were born of brilliant and compassionate minds in our community. We didn’t have all the facts at our fingertips at the time, so did a bit of research. Here is a bit more about these great nonprofit projects….

OpportUNITY Village Eugene (OVE) is a community of 30 very tiny houses and micro-shelters (64-80sf) on an acre of city-owned land in the Trainsong neighborhood (that is, near the railroad tracks). They are intended as very basic, transitional housing for formerly homeless people, and kitchen and bathroom facilities are shared. The total cost to build all 30 houses on the city-owned land was less than $100,000; the cost to operate the community is $5/night per person. (Conventional development of affordable housing can cost $150-250K per unit.) PBS showcased the village in 2014.

The equally impressive Emerald Village Eugene (EVE) is a community of twenty-two 160-330sf tiny houses that rent for $250-$350/month to people with very low incomes. We have learned that this is called (by some) <deeply affordable housing>, to distinguish between it and housing for folks making, say, 50-80% of area median income (AMI), which is considered affordable housing but can still be deeply unaffordable for people on fixed incomes or with low-paying jobs.

Both villages were spearheaded by Andrew Heben, a young urban planner and author of Tent City Urbanism, who also founded the nonprofit SquareOne Villages along the way. An excerpt from his book tells the long and patient tale of how both villages came to be, and this excellent Huffington Post video showcases both OVE and EVE.

As is shown in the video, Opportunity Village also hosts several Conestoga huts on their site. Those, and 100+ more that are clustered in several gated Safe Spot Communities, or hosted at churches, nonprofits + private homes, were built and are overseen by Community Supported Shelters (CSS), another Eugene nonprofit, for under $3,000 each. Here they are on video.

Our group was warmly received at CSS today, and I hope to do a separate post on that experience in the near future.

Happy hour!

Springfield/Eugene Micro-Dwellers has had a full summer of more than 30 tours and events, so I haven’t had as much time for this blog as I’d hoped. Let’s catch up!

On Tuesday night we hosted the first of what will be monthly happy hours, with no agenda other than chatting. It’s always a good sign when a social event lasts for longer than you had planned!

We finally said goodbye after more than two hours, but will be hosting one every month from now on. It will be on the first Tuesday of the month, 5:30-7:30pm; check our Meetup page for each month’s location (we’ll move around, at least at first).

In addition to some frequent attendees of our tours this summer, we enjoyed drop-ins at our happy hour from a gent who had seen our flyer around town and an intrepid woman conducting an exploratory presidential campaign! She’s visiting all 50 states, mostly in an RV, and is enjoying the micro-dwelling aspect of that experience. (Although not necessarily the generator difficulty her team encountered the next day.)

She was keenly interested in microhousing as a way to Live Your Passion … since low housing cost means you’re not struggling with unaffordable rent or the time/energy-suck of having a large space to maintain. We had her over for breakfast and a tour of our community of micro-studios on Wednesday. Our 45-minute conversation is here.

During our chat she asked about Eugene’s OpportUNITY Village and Conestoga huts, two innovative, extremely inexpensive ways of housing folks that were born of brilliant minds in our community. We didn’t have all the facts at our fingertips at the time, so we did a bit of research. Our next post shares a bit about these great nonprofit projects.

Living well … on a freelancer’s budget

Microhousing lets me enjoy a fabulous style of living at an affordable price because of the small living units, shared facilities and services, and efficiencies of scale.

One example, my prime reason for living here: I would never be able to afford a private chef as a single, modestly paid freelancer, but here I can have delicious, freshly made meals waiting for me downstairs every day. Food waste is minimal, and leftovers from breakfast, lunch, and dinner go in the communal refrigerator and disappear post-haste.

Another example: I’ve never felt able to splurge on a housekeeper’s services, but here our bathrooms are cleaned and carpets vacuumed monthly.

I’m pained to remember how much I spent on plumbers in my 90-year-old condo, and how much planning went into contracting with one. We’d try to coordinate visits to several owners in a single day, so we could split the plumber’s $200+ charge for visiting the premises. Then there was the hourly charge, also in the hundreds…

When my toilet here got clogged, I contacted our maintenance woman, who’s on the premises every weekday. She came within a half hour and fixed the problem in five minutes. No charge. Ditto for the dusty air filter in the air conditioner and the screen door with a year’s worth of outdoor dirt on it: promptly replaced or washed.

With only two rooms, that’s about all the household duties I have, with the exception of laundry (which I can do in the free washers downstairs).

It takes five minutes to do the dishes every few days — rinsing out reusable plastic containers for leftovers, and the occasional personal plate or utensil.

I’ve begun corresponding with a co-living evangelist in France. He assured me that our community does meet the definition of co-living, then asked me if it was affordable. I put off responding because I wasn’t sure what to say.

One can certainly rent a studio apartment here in the University District for less (a colleague has a studio apartment up the street for $675/month, for instance, about half what I pay). A room in a quad, rooming house, intentional community, other shared situation is even less. But when you add in the costs for food, utilities, Wi-Fi, etc., and consider the convenience of not having to worry about any of that … I think it’s priceless.

ETA 10.3.19: I have since discovered, to my shock, that the median rent in Eugene is over $1,000/mo, yet the median annual income of Eugene renters is just $26,000. Eugene’s median rent alone is about just a few hundred dollars less than what I pay here to receive lodging, meals, utilities, WiFi, and housekeeping. So I would say most definitely yes, this microhousing community is affordable, and I feel even more thankful to be here.

Creating community

Our community already has a group of tiny-house aspirants who are working to create a tiny house village, so I created a group for the rest of us, Springfield/Eugene Micro-Dwellers, using the magic of Meetup. In our first month, we’ve attracted two dozen folks with eclectic experiences and future plans, and have a core group of about a half dozen who’ve come to a number of events.

Surveying our members’ backgrounds, it turns out there are quite a few ways to live tiny: a motor home, a van, a converted garage, a yurt, an ecovillage, a rural intentional community, an urban artists’ collective … and I’m sure that’s only scratching the surface.

I asked members why they were interested in the group, and I’m excited about getting to know the people behind these answers:

  • “I’m interested in unconventional housing, reduced consumption, and community.”
  • “I lived in a 12×12-foot (144 sf) studio for many years in NYC and am considering converting my garage to live in now.”
  • “I just downsized from a 1,280 sf house to an 800 sf apartment. I still have too much stuff and would like to chat about letting go of things that are still important to me.”
  • “I’ve been progressively living smaller over the years and enjoy talking with other like-minded people about the joys, issues, and solutions of this lifestyle.”
  • “I recently moved here and had to drastically downsize in order to fit everything in my car. It was a great feeling to feel portable and minimalist like that. I hope to maintain this lifestyle as much as is reasonable.”
  • “I am thinking about living in a small space, building something on my property. I am just kind of scared about doing it and looking for encouragement and inspiration.”
  • “I’m going to start living in a 200 sf apt come September!”
  • “I have been living in an 87 sf micro home for three years. I’m interested in meeting like-minded people.”

It should be a very interesting summer and beyond!

My neighbors, my housemates, my co-livers

I live with the same group of 40+ community college and university students throughout the academic year (late September through mid-June). Then a good share of the residents head home (or elsewhere) for the summer, and a more random assortment of folks takes their place.

So far my new summer neighbors include

  • a retired couple from South Carolina who’ve returned for their third summer here
  • a materials science graduate student from a midwestern university
  • a law student newly arrived from Texas
  • a fellow vegetarian across the hall
  • a summer-study group from Asia that includes an assortment of rambunctious kids. They seem to most appreciate the cookies in the dining hall and the remote control in the TV lounge.

Holdovers include our several RAs (resident assistants), who help run the place and thus get an education in building management; a third-floor resident with an emotional support animal who’s the mascot of the whole building (regular pets aren’t allowed); and a smattering of other quiet young people.

Our lifestyle may qualify as co-living (or perhaps “co-living lite”), because we share some amenities — a TV lounge, a dining hall, laundry facilities — as well as monthly social activities such as game-watching parties and cookie decorating.

Co-living is a growing trend in the real-estate industry — much further along outside the United States, but practiced in the US by firms such as Common and Bungalow. I’ll write more about it and its many forms in later posts.

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