A tiny house hotel with a twist
John Jendritza and Grant Norling never set out to become hotel owners.
By day, Jendritza runs a graphic design business while Norling works as a commercial real estate appraiser. However, for the past 10 months, the two Portlanders have been balancing those day jobs with roles as operators of Slabtown Village, one of the more unique spins on short-term lodging in the city.
Portland has become a hotbed for hotels, ranging from the 600-room high rise under construction near the Oregon Convention Center to a boutique hotel in a renovated historic building in the downtown Central Business District.
But the city also made headlines in 2013 with the opening of Caravan, the first tiny house hotel in the country. Located in the Alberta Arts District, Caravan now consists of six small dwellings on flatbed trailers arranged around a community area featuring a fire pit. Another hotel with eight tiny houses, all one wheels, opened in the city's Kerns neighborhood, near Northeast 28th Avenue and East Burnside Street.
Slabtown Village has taken the tiny house hotel concept and added a twist. Located in a section of Northwest Portland known as Slabtown, the hotel features three tiny structures on wheels, but also offers lodging in three small Victorian houses that have been on the property since they were built in 1875.
For visitors, the unique mix offers an experience that's blends just-the-right amount of Portland weird with Pacific Northwest innovation. For the hotel owners, it's become a symbol of something even more meaningful. The combination of old and new structures reflects the past and present of an area of the city that in recent years has undergone a rapid transformation, with older single-family homes and low-slung warehouses razed to make way for trendy apartments and mixed-use buildings housing restaurants and retail outlets.
"These (older houses) are disappearing in Portland," Norling said. "We wanted to find a way to incorporate them and make them relevant and modern by adding the tiny homes."
Achieving that goal, however, took almost two years and required a steep learning curve.
On the search
Opening a hotel was never part of their plan when Norling and Jendritza began looking four or five years ago for space that their wives could use for their psychology counseling practices. The search was focused on three possible areas: the Northwest part of Portland, the St. Johns area and the Corbett area.
Norling and Jendritza thought they'd found the perfect spot on Northwest 21st Avenue, but when that didn't pan out, they began to think they should just rent space somewhere.
It was with that in mind that the broker they were working with directed them to a Victorian house on Overton Street between Northwest 18th and Northwest 19th avenues. The house was one of a trio that the then-owners were leasing out as commercial space.
Norling and Jendritza asked their broker to see if the owners were interested in selling. As it turned out, they were — but only if Norling and Jendritza wanted to buy all three houses. Norling had researched the surrounding area and knew the 4,800-square-foot property would be a solid investment.
"The ability to break into Northwest Portland for under a million dollars is almost impossible," Norling said. "I knew the scale of the property and I knew that we were going to be able to afford it. I was like, yes, this is an opportunity."
The purchase came with ready-made tenants. A nonprofit was located in what's now known as the Walton house, named after Bill Walton, who lived in the neighborhood back when he played basketball for the Trailblazers. A music teacher rented the smallest of the three houses.
Jendritza and Norling settled in to their new roles as landlords, not realizing the winds of change were about to stir in Slabtown.
Norling and Jendritza had planned to continue to lease out the Victorian houses as commercial spaces. Within a year or two of the buying the property, though, they started to notice a shift in the neighborhood. At one end of the block, local developer Gerding Edlen was busy replacing a building that housed a doggy daycare business with an apartment complex called the Muse. Another apartment project was being proposed to replace older buildings at the other end of the block
"We looked around the neighborhood and saw a tremendous amount of development occurring," Norling said, "and (we were) feeling like we were growing further behind with what the potential of the property was."
While the business partners wanted to keep pace with change around them, they also felt a responsibility to protect the history of the area by preserving the houses. on their property. They'd already seen three similar structures a block away razed, only to have the property end up as a fenced-off area filled with gravel and weeds.
"We looked at every scenario we could to catch up a little bit while maintaining the integrity of just how wonderful these structures are," Jendritza said.
He and Norling considered renovating the basements of the houses to create apartments, but scrapped the idea after realizing the work would require seismic upgrades that would prevent the plan from penciling out. They even looked at lifting the houses and building storefronts underneath. That plan also was eventually set aside.
"We had architects and engineers over, looking at just the homes themselves," Norling said. "It just got to be too tricky with how old the homes are."
The business partners eventually started looking at a small off-street parking area associated with the houses. They played around with the idea of bringing in food carts, which eventually led to the idea of placing three tiny eight-foot-wide houses ranging in size from 153 square feet to 175 square feet on trailer beds on the lot to create a unique twist on the tiny house hotel concept.
Norling and Jendritza approached the city with their plan. While they knew it would likely be a complicated process, they weren't prepared for just how drawn out obtaining permits turned out to be. The city had some experience with tiny house hotels from the two on Portland's eastside. However, the Slabtown Village approach required some additional steps that took some time to work out, according to Norling.
"When we were doing this, there weren't really any rules in place," he said. "So … we had to work with (the city) to come up with a solution for us to be able to do this.
"It helped that we weren't the first ones. The first (tiny house hotel), it might have taken two years, and then the second development, it might have taken them a year. And because of those two to start, (the city) had some traction to kind of guide us down the right path."
The process also was complicated by the fact that there were eight different projects — including the installation of infrastructure to allow the three tiny houses to be connected to city sewer and water systems — taking place at the same time on the Slabtown Village property.
With the experience now behind them, Norling and Jendritza hope the lessons learned will help anyone who wants to develop a tiny house hotel in Portland in the future.
"I think we learned from the city, and I feel like the city has also learned from us," Norling said.
Steps to success
Even as the Slabtown District has added housing and retail, short-term rentals have been slow to make an appearance in the area. In the 10 months since it opened, Slabtown Village has already made a big step toward filling that missing sector. Locals interested in test-driving the scaled-down lifestyle of living in a tiny house have booked stays. Millennials living in the nearby apartment buildings have arranged to have their parents stay at Slabtown Village while in town visiting. Couples have booked all six of the units for wedding parties, as have families celebrating reunions. The hotel has even served guests from South Africa, German, New Zealand and Japan.
The out-of-town guests who stay at the hotel are treated to true Portland experiences.
Parking in the neighborhood, for example, is at a premium. For visitors with cars, accommodations at the hotel include courtesy parking passes. Jendritza and Norling also play up the fact that Slabtown Village is located near the streetcar line and that Biketown bicycles available for rent nearby.
The hotel owners also promote and support local products whenever possible. The coffee provided in each unit comes from a rotating list of Portland area roasters. The welcome gift is also local; recent guests, for example, arrived to find a treat from Portland-based Woodblock Chocolate waiting for them. Jendritza and Norling also have started to connect with some restaurants and retailers in the neighborhood to promote each other's services, including a recent campaign for Valentine's Day.
Norling and Jendritza are quick to point out that they aren't the only ones investing time and energy to make sure guests have a first-class experience when they stay at Slabtown Village. Sara Bria, a friend whose hobby is interior design, helped with the planning for minor interior improvements for the Victorian houses. As the hotel flourishes, the owners are slowly building a paid support staff, including someone who manages reservations, a housekeeper who comes in and cleans and prepares rooms for guest arrivals, and a marketer.
But even with a growing roster of helpers, Norling and Jendritza still can be found at the hotel several days each week. They hold hotel staff meetings every Monday morning at an area coffee shop where ideas to improve the experience for guests are discussed. There's also always work to be done around the hotel: pulling weeds for Norling and updating Slabtown Village's website for Jendritza. But the business partners say that even though the hotel keeps them busy, they're committed to continuing their efforts to make it a success.
"It's been a lot of work: baggy eyes, sleepless nights, but the payoff, right now where we stand, it's amazing," Jendritza said. "We have people coming through from everywhere, checking our place out … All of the hard works seems to have paid off."