Public Works: Micro-Houses for the Homeless
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Public Works: Micro-Houses for the Homeless

Portland is combating its anti-homeless image with a new approach to affordable housing.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Image courtesy of Techdwell.

Image courtesy of Techdwell.

You know the reputation of Portland, Oregon: it’s America’s great western bastion of progressiveness. But the city is nevertheless divided on the subject of homelessness, which has been the cause of escalating tensions over the past year. Now Portland is examining a proposal to build 25 tiny housing units to help Portland’s lowest-income residents get back on their feet.

The plan, proposed by non-profit Micro Community Concepts and micro-house designers Techdwell, is to build 25 tiny houses—each 192 square feet—and rent them for $250 to $350 per month to Portland residents who make between $5,000 and $15,000 per year. Each house would have a bathroom, kitchen, futon, and small yard. Residents would have access to shared laundry facilities down the street. It is expected a single unit could house up to two adults. These micro-houses would give people in unsteady living situations a chance to stabilize their lives, look for work, and seek treatment for addiction or health problems. It’s a refreshing idea, given recent controversies over Portland’s treatment of the homelessness.

In 2013, the City started enforcing an existing law prohibiting camping on public property—which makes unfurling a sleeping bag in a public space punishable by a $100 fine or 30 days in jail. As a means of phasing the anti-camping law back in, Mayor Charlie Hales banned the homeless from camping on the sidewalk in front of City Hall during the day and restricted them to sleeping on an outer strip of the sidewalk at night. Last August, three homeless people were arrested for camping across the street from City Hall. In February of this year, 50 protestors rallied outside City Hall with torches and pitchforks to condemn what they described as the criminalization of homelessness.

It was a grim series of events—and it overshadowed Hales’s pledge to supplement the crackdown on sidewalk camping with an increase in spending to house the homeless temporarily. On August 20, the Oregonian reported that Hales was “infatuated” with the idea of constructing micro-homes for the homeless, and that the City was already looking for land to build on. A spokesperson for the mayor said the houses could be completed by February 2015.

It’s not a perfect plan. The sad truth is many people do not make the $5,000 per year necessary to qualify for a micro-home. Moreover, Portland estimates it has 4,000 people sleeping on the streets and in shelters each night, meaning the creation of 25 new homes is not nearly enough to compensate for expelling the homeless from their makeshift city campsites. But establishing transitional housing for people priced out of even so-called affordable housing is a great move all the same.