Oregon Is Having a Tiny Home Boom

Some members of the small-house movement live off the grid—but Oregon’s cities want them to stay on it.

A 460-square-foot tiny house in Portland, Oregon

Credit: Caitlin Murray/zenboxdesign.com

My friend Justin pulled up outside my apartment last month in a tiny house on wheels. “It’s my permanent home,” he said, nodding to the white van-turned-residence parked at my curb in Portland, Oregon. It was nice inside, lined with oak paneling and equipped with a sink, counter, bed, and couch. The only thing missing was a toilet.

In his late twenties, Justin is a single, bearded, mountain-scaling type who has opted to live outside structured society for a bit. While his lifestyle is an enticing alternative, I soon learned that if he kept his new home parked outside much longer, he would be committing a crime.

“A lot of people on wheels have this notion of ‘living off the grid,’ but our city’s rules are still conservative,” says Shawn Wood, a construction waste specialist for the city of Portland. He says living structures within city limits must stay on the grid, hooked up to the sewer, water, and electric systems everyone shares. Collectively, this keeps standards of living high, says Phil Nameny, a Portland city planner. When citizens opt out of public services like these, he says, it encourages illegal energy tapping and waste dumping that can taint the surrounding land.

A tiny house on wheels parked outside a Housing Commission meeting in southern Oregon
Credit: Derek Severson/Flickr

But Nameny assures me that Justin could continue his lifestyle in what’s known as an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) or, as it’s affectionately called, a “granny flat.” These are small homes, often situated on the same property as an existing residence. Anything from a transformed garage or basement to a newly built structure qualifies. “But you’re only allowed to plant one if it does not have wheels,” Nameny says. On wheels, it would be no more than an RV―and permanently living in an RV is a violation of Portland’s single-family zoning code, unless the vehicle is set in a designated park.

The reasons for living tiny are many. Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality conducted a study in 2010 to examine more than 20 green building techniques, such as heat-trapping curtains and timber framing. When it came to environmental friendliness, size mattered more than anything else. For example, when the researchers compared a 2,262-square-foot “medium size” home to one just north of 1,000 square feet (most ADUs fall between 200 and 800 square feet), they found that the smaller house reduced the production of waste and the consumption of water by 20 percent to 40 percent.

This makes sense, Wood says. “Building smaller is going to use less energy no matter what. I mean, that’s the whole reason why I got interested in this.”

The popularity of tiny homes in Portland is growing. A couple of decades ago, the planning office approved about 30 ADU permits annually. In 2015 it gave out 350. Last year that number went up to 660. In fact, a trend in tiny dwellings has spread across the state—just about everywhere except the capital city of Salem, which is about an hour south of Portland. The Salem government doesn’t currently allow ADUs (wheeled or otherwise), but it may be changing its tune.

“They’ve never been allowed here, but I haven’t really been able to find out why,” says Lisa Anderson-Ogilvie, Salem’s planning administrator. She doesn’t think they were purposely banned; they just weren’t written into city zoning codes when the codes were first drafted, back in the 1920s. (In fact, a few pre-Jazz Era tiny homes exist in the city’s more historic nooks.) Whatever the history, Anderson-Ogilvie says more and more Salemites have been requesting permits for ADUs since the 2008 recession. And after a recent Salem Housing Needs Analysis found that in 20 years the city would not be able to provide enough multifamily housing for its projected population, Salem began to explore other options.

Allowing ADUs in Salem would make for more efficient use of already developed land, says Salem City Planner Eunice Kim. Adding density prevents the need to accommodate a rising population by expanding the urban growth boundary into adjacent farmlands and forests. There’s been some anxiety that growing Oregon cities like Salem might mimic the ways of sprawled-out hubs like Los Angeles down south.

A custom-built compact ADU studio
Credit: SQFT Studios/sqftstudios.com

In other Oregon cities, the environmental benefits of added density have been clear. Thanks to infill in central Oregon’s city of Bend, for example, more than 70 percent of new city growth will be constrained inside the existing urban growth boundary. This keeps the majority of Bend’s population from spreading into the region’s natural areas—largely high desert steppe and sagebrush to the east. To the west, parks and forests are already protected.

Tiny homes have their detractors, though. “Oregonians really dislike two things,” former Salem mayor Mike Swaim once said: They dislike sprawl, but they also dislike density. With concerns over privacy and with owners using the side homes as rentals on markets like Airbnb, some traditional Salem communities are fretting. “Salem citizens are expressing concerns about renters not investing in these neighborhoods,” Anderson-Ogilvie says. For this reason, several U.S. cities prohibit the rental of ADUs.

While the tiny movement could bring a lot more faces into established communities, it seems to be concentrating in the hipster hubs. “Portland’s ADU map basically mirrors the city’s Badass-ness Map,” Wood says. “Which does exist.”

Twentysomethings like Justin, however, aren’t the only ones going small. Baby boomers who want to live near their children but maintain their separate spaces have also been contributing to the rise of ADUs. Alan Armstrong, a Portland architect, recently designed a skinny, “almost trailerlike” ADU for his parents. He says he hopes the downsized dwelling will help them save money and add value to their existing house and property.

Portland’s permitting process, Armstrong says, is complex and confusing, but he supports the city’s waiving of ADU developing fees, which started in 2010. This is a savings of some $10,000 to $15,000 for most, and it’s helping the small movement to catch on.

“To live in an ADU is a huge lifestyle change,” Armstrong says. “You change your whole worldview when you choose to live at 200 square feet.”

If that’s a life that appeals to you, peruse tiny living communities across the United States right here. And remember—be a good neighbor and get some plumbing.

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