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Kailash Ecovillage: not your typical apartment house

A boomer couple founded this sustainable co-housing community for renters
by: Jim Clark

At a time when some Portland co-housing communities are struggling to attract residents, an Inner Southeast Portland ecovillage is fully occupied, with a waiting list.

Like typical co-housing developments, Kailash Ecovillage supports the idea of community, with like-minded residents gathering for potlucks in a common room that includes a lounge and a kitchen.

But what makes Kailash Ecovillage viable - even in this slow economy - is that it is run by its founders, Ole and Maitri Ersson, on a rental model. As such, the Erssons say it is the only co-housing complex in Portland that doesn't require tenants to purchase the units in which they live. Instead, apartments are rented and advertised on Craigslist.

'Most of the people who live here would not be able to afford co-housing,' Ole says.

But there's a stipulation: If tenants merely pay their $600 rent each month and don't commit to any of the ecovillage's sustainable practices, including the no-smoking policy, when their lease is up it might not be renewed.

'Our tenants must be willing to do recycling and composting,' Maitri says. 'We give them a couple of years to get with it. If they find it inconvenient, they're free to leave after the lease is up.'

Growing vegetables and sharing gardening tools are a far cry from the meth culture that pervaded the apartment site before the Erssons took charge.

In 2007, the couple purchased the Cabana, a 32-unit, two-story apartment house at 4311 S.E. 37th Ave. set in a modest mixed neighborhood of apartment complexes and single-family houses. By then, the Erssons' three children were grown and the couple had sold their house in Portland's Buckman neighborhood.

To some, the Cabana might have seemed an unlikely place to start an ecovillage promoting bicycling and permaculture. For one, the Cabana wasn't safe: Drug dealing pervaded the complex, and the police arrived regularly.

But the Erssons had vision and persistence. Even the shootouts in the parking lot didn't blind them to the possibilities, especially given Maitri's past career as an accountant and Ole's continuing work as a Multnomah County family doctor to inmates.

'I'm not daunted by something like that,' Ole says. 'In jail, we deal with clinically mentally ill and people who self-medicate.'

Which isn't to say the Erssons didn't face crises. 'It was very stressful that first year,' Ole adds.

Since then, many of the old tenants have moved and the ones remaining say they feel safer, Maitri says. Nor do tenants seem to mind the laundry hanging outside on clothes lines or that the asphalt parking lot keeps shrinking to make more room for the garden.

After reading the application form and being interviewed by Maitri, prospective tenants know what to expect.

'I haven't owned a car in five years,' says Erik Harper, who, with his wife and 13-month-old child, moved into Kailash Ecovillage last month.

Harper, who now works for Alta Bicycle Planning and Design,  relocated from Washington, D.C., to Portland because he wanted to live in a bicycle-friendly city. He says he looked for an intentional community and found Kailash's website online (www.kailashecovillage.com).

As another resident works alongside Harper in the plots laid out for each tenant who chooses to cultivate them, the two agree they feel lucky to live there.

'I'm really grateful for Ole and Maitri for creating this place,' says Vince Green, a tenant who volunteered to construct birdhouses to be hung on nearby trees.

As for the economics of operating the ecovillage, the Erssons say they pay for a nearly full-time maintenance person and, except for the plumbing, the building is in good shape.

Recently, the economy again worked to their advantage when an adjacent property with a large lot and a single-family house went on the market after a proposed town-home development went bankrupt. The Erssons bought that property and are renovating the 1920s house for a two-unit rental. The property's paving has been removed, and the lot is now blanketed with wood chips, composting into soil for community gardening. In one corner of the lot, bees cluster around two bee boxes installed by one of the tenants.

The smooth transformation of a neglected urban property into a fertile landscape is less surprising when Ole reveals that for 13 years he managed Portland Parks and Recreation's Buckman Community Gardens. Now that their community vision is being realized, the Erssons intend to stay - living in their own apartment on site.

Says Maitri: 'We have a good life.'