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Tiny-house village: Will it work in Portland?

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POD project for 14 homeless women needs Kenton Neighborhood OK to proceed

COURTESY: MARK LAKEMAN/VILLAGE COALITION - The pods have been built and are ready to use. They are between 6-by-8 feet and 8-by-12 feet wide and as tall as 10-by-8 feet. 

The future is looking mostly bright for Portland's first village of transitional tiny homes for homeless women.

A vote at a March 8 Kenton Neighborhood Association board meeting will take place to determine the project's fate, since organizers don't want to move forward without neighborhood support.

Many organizations and the city have been working together on the Partners On Dwelling (POD) Initiative since last year. If the neighborhood approves, the homes potentially will be installed by the end of March.

Originally slated for installation this month at the potential site, 2221 N. Argyle St., the neighborhood pushed back on the project, vocalizing concerns about a rushed proposal that they didn't fully understand.

"A lot of people felt it was sort of sprung on the neighborhood. Mayor Hales' office put a lot of ducks in a row before they sort of talked publicly about it," says Tyler Roppe, Kenton Neighborhood Association president. "It's an all or nothing situation in Kenton. ... No one was part of selecting the site."

After pushback, plans were stalled so that there could be more dialogue about the project.

According to Roppe, things seem to be going well, as organizations involved have been holding meetings, working directly with the neighborhood to address questions and concerns.

Organizations come together

Trell Anderson, director of community development and housing at Catholic Charities, which will screen and select the women who will live in the pods, says this is the first time local government, grassroots and social service organizations have worked on a project like this in Portland.

"This is really the first time that the city of Portland, the Joint Office (of Homeless Services) and social service organizations such as Catholic Charities have come together to say 'let's take a look,'" he says. He says that having the city and county's involvement and ability to contract with the joint office adds structure to the project, which he sees as filling a gap. A gap not in number, since it's only servicing 14 people, but in model.

"There's a gap in our homeless service system to permanent housing. This seems like it may fill some of that gap in terms of a model," Trell says.

Though there are other homeless villages and encampments in Portland, such as Dignity Village, Right 2 Dream Too, and Hazelnut Grove (which served as a case study for the project), the Kenton village, being called Argyle Village, is the first of its kind as a temporary transitional pilot project. It was championed by former Mayor Charlie Hales.

Villages like these are in talks or are already in place in other areas of the country as one solution to homelessness, such as Eugene's "opportUNITY" village, another transitional micro-housing pilot project on contract with the city of Eugene, which Argyle Village will closely emulate.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Todd Ferry, research associate for the Center for Public Interest Design at Portland State University, which helped physically build the pods, looked at a model of the Kenton site at a recent design charrette.Neighborhood support

Organizations involved, including Village Coalition and Portland State University's Center for Public Interest Design, which designed the pods, have been working to win over neighborhood support and figure out the best plan.

The 14 tiny homes will sit on a plot of land owned by the Portland Development Commission across the street from Kenton Park, and offer shelter to women who have "lived or worked in the Kenton neighborhood or surrounding areas within the past two years," according to a draft version of the village manual.

"Some folks are worried it's going to turn into a shanty town of sorts. Trash, not well managed, a bunch of people will start camping out, that kind of thing," Roppe says.

At a Jan. 28 design charrette, people gathered at the Historic Kenton Firehouse to air their concerns and come up with their own ideas and layouts for the site using crayons, markers and drawing paper.

"It feels very collaborative and engaged. I think that there's a much better chance now," says Susan Oliver, a Kenton resident who attended the charrette.

Groups discussed their worries, including lack of plumbing or electricity at the site.

"There will be electricity and water available to the village 24/7," says David Bikman, a member of the Village Coalition. "Port-a-Johns will be installed and serviced by the city, and there is some research being directed toward the idea of operating a mobile trailer for hot showers that could serve this village and others."

Bikman added that solar panels have been set aside for the village as a way to supply additional power to each pod.

Village Coalition members held a separate "retreat" with women who would qualify to live in the pods, including two from Hazelnut Grove and two women who were homeless on the Springwater Corridor but were placed in supportive housing. They offered insight to how to shape the village, according to the coalition.

Kenton resident Torey Innes doesn't buy into the idea of a tiny-home village.

"I believe it's not good for the soul of people living in these communities. I want to make sure they have rights, and (that) associations affiliated aren't deciding their lives for them," Innes says.

Concept gets test-run

The city eventually will determine if the concept, supported by Mayor Ted Wheeler, is worth expanding.

"Shelter doesn't work for everyone, and while tiny-house villages won't either, they have the potential to serve a segment of the homeless population in a productive way. We're looking for innovative solutions like this," says Michael Cox, mayor's office spokesperson. Though it's a pilot project and the land will eventually be developed, an end date for the pods hasn't been determined.

The city has been pushing for affordable housing as a long-term means of ending homelessness, but that's an approach that Vahid Brown, homeless advocate with Village Coalition, says doesn't help people in the present.

"A project breaking ground doesn't help right now. We need a number of things," Brown says, adding that four hypothermia deaths of homeless people this winter were a wakeup call. But he's noticed a change in city response and applauds work by the Joint Office of Homeless Services, and believes that Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and Mayor Ted Wheeler take a "more progressive approach on these issues."

"The response of the city has been to displace and sweep them. ... I think the city, state and counties are coming to grips with the fact that only having a stick is not an adequate tool kit."

Roppe seems optimistic about the Kenton project.

"A lot of those concerns are mitigated. ... There's so much invested in this being successful. There's so many players involved here. If this doesn't work, the pod village concept will fail in the city," he says.

So far, there haven't been any plans discussed if the project isn't approved by the neighborhood on March 8.

"From my point of view, I would view that as a signal that more dialogue is necessary," Bikman says.

It's unsure if Multnomah County will see other villages. However, Bikman says City Repair, another organization involved in the project, recently responded to a request for information about a potential village project in Clackamas County that would target homeless veterans.

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POD Initiative

The Partners On Dwelling (POD) Initiative was created following the housing and homeless emergency declaration by the city of Portland in fall 2015. The Village Coalition, made up of homeless activists and advocates, formed after observing success of other villages established by homeless themselves. The group partnered in spring 2016 with Portland State University's Center for Public Interest Design to construct tiny homes for homeless to help combat the crisis.

Find out more:

www.centerforpublicinterestdesign.org/partners-on-dwelling-pod-initiative