Multnomah County wasn’t even ready to start recruiting homeowners for a pilot project seeking hosts for homeless families to live in county-built tiny homes on their property when the inquiries started pouring in. A Willamette Week story and other coverage prompted 1,000 homeowners to contact the county’s Idea Lab asking to be considered for the program.
The strong response from homeowners offering to be part of the solution stands as one of the few bright spots in a housing crisis that has sown deep dissent among neighbors, businesses and elected leaders about how best to address it. While the idea lab is working with only four homeowners for its pilot project, the widespread interest suggests that if the project is successful, the county could deploy tiny homes, otherwise known as “accessory dwelling units,” on a much broader scale.
That is, provided the city of Portland removes barriers that could delay or discourage tiny-home development. As The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Molly Harbarger reported, the county eliminated many homeowners’ sites from consideration due in part to their conflicts with Portland’s tree code, which regulates the preservation, protection and removal of trees during development. While the county had a long list of criteria for selecting the best candidates, the tree code was one factor “that came into play for many, many sites,” said Idea Lab Director Mary Li. Similarly, Kol Peterson, an ADU consultant, said navigating tree code requirements – such as a tree’s location on a site and how much room to leave for its root structure — is a common problem for homeowners seeking to add an ADU. While solvable, they can pose an unexpected and significant expense.
That’s why the city should take the time now to review the code and work with developers and housing advocates to iron out solutions to keep tiny-home construction as economical as possible. That could include expanding exemptions for affordable housing commitments, lowering tree-removal fees that can total thousands of dollars or loosening other site-development restrictions to allow trees and ADUs to co-exist. The city, now in its third year of a declared housing emergency, needs to evaluate how its development requirements align with goals of increasing density and boosting the supply of housing at affordable prices. Unfortunately, as we wrote last month about proposed new rules for neighborhood development, the city too often adopts contradictory policies that only ensure the housing emergency will persist for a fourth year — and beyond.
It remains to be seen how the county’s pilot project, still in its earliest stages, will fare. And ADUs alone won’t bring the tens of thousands of units that the housing market needs. But even now, months after the county stopped taking homeowners’ names, people continue to contact the county, Li told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board.
Such enthusiasm shows how easily an idea like this can take root. Portland should do a better job of preparing the soil.
— The Oregonian/OregonLive,