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Tiny homes, big ideas, a scarcity of information

Portland's plan to build tiny one- or two-room houses on publicly owned land to accommodate homeless and low-income people has enormous surface appeal: Who would argue that a roof overhead isn't better than a tent or, worse, a highway overpass?

For the homeless person, dignity is at stake, not to mention the possibility of rebuilding a life requiring it and the fitness to find work. For those with very low incomes and priced out of an expensive rental market, stability and a place to call home are required to plan and to prosper.

But those attributes are gauzy log lines to a stage play without structure. Portland Mayor Charlie Hales' top policy adviser, Josh Alpert, in assuring Portlanders that heated, plumbed micro-homes would be coming to town, said Hales was "infatuated" with the idea and issued the admonishment, "Let's figure it out," The Oregonian's Andrew Theen reported.

Yes: Let's do that. Better yet: Let's figure it out before committing to it.

Tiny homes are hot. A glowing report on them surfaced this year from Tacoma, Wash., where an itinerant homeless group living in tents had moved 20 times before landing at Quixote Village, a $3 million cluster of tiny structures on 2.1 acres of land leased to the village by Thurston County for $1 a year, The New York Times reported. Separately, reports have surfaced from San Jose, Calif.; Austin, Texas; and Madison, Wisconsin, where those cities, struggling to meet the needs of burgeoning homeless populations, explored the use of tiny homes, or better-than-backyard sheds typically offering one cozy room, electricity and, in some cases, flush toilets.

Portland's iteration of the tiny home would be roughly 16 feet by 12 feet in size, accommodate two adults or a family, and cost an estimated $12,000 to build, exclusive of sewer and electricity hookups, Theen reported. TriMet, Portland Public Schools and Multnomah County will be called upon for an inventory of property that presumably would generate several candidate sites, allowing productive and humanitarian use of available public land. Multnomah County Commission Chair Deborah Kafoury lent her immediate support.

The city and the county need to slow down. Nobody wants homeless people, or those in poverty, to endure the elements and broad-spectrum vulnerability. But before proceeding, city planners — none so far, significantly, from the Portland Housing Bureau — must ensure that basic questions are answered:

Who gets in? How much would a tenant with income pay? Is there an expiration date on tenancy? Who governs and enforces rules at a 25-housing-unit cluster situated on public land? How are micro-communities a good-bang-for-the-buck option for taxpayers when Portland's homeless population is estimated at 2,000?

How, meanwhile, is a micro-community substantively different from Dignity Village, the anomaly of alternative homeless housing near Portland International Airport? Dignity Village started as temporary but has become, by the weight of its presence and disinclination of many of its residents to move on, a permanent colony of makeshift structures. Nobody in city government quite knows what it is or what its future holds.

Questions only multiply, the most basic the most challenging of all: How do tiny homes fit into the city's portfolio of public and assisted-housing options, typically designed to provide not only shelter but social services that pave a pathway out and up?

Then there is Right 2 Dream Too, the homeless camp at the Chinatown gate in downtown Portland. Like a ship that can't quite land, R2DToo struggles to find a new home — this after the city failed in selecting from among more than 20 candidate sites with more than $800,000 in developer money to do so. R2DToo is a prime candidate to become a micro-community of tiny homes, certainly, just as the peripatetic, Tacoma-based Camp Quixote was before becoming Quixote Village. Would R2DToo enjoy first dibs?

It's time for homework before this can be declared promising or simply trash-canned. Let's do figure this out. Portlanders should know what they're getting into before the city seriously considers undertaking anything of this financial and social scale.