Illustration by Mark Markovich

"TINY HOUSES"—small, handcrafted homes built on wheels or plopped in affluent backyards—have quickly become a symbol of DIY Portland at its most twee and sustainable.

For people with the money and a bit of know-how, the construction of a 200-square-foot home can bestow many blessings: It's interesting enough to be discussed at dinner parties, or shown off on one tour or another by enthusiasts. It's also a direct route to salvation from the rat race, giving harried professionals a chance to spend less to live, and maybe even step back and slow down.

That magic, and its implications for Portland's tight housing market, already caught the eye of Portland City Council—which long ago passed legislation making it easier for residents to build backyard cottages. But now, thanks to the relentless pushing of a vocal advocate for the homeless, Portland City Hall might finally be ready to take the city's romance with "tiny houses" in a decidedly less glamorous direction.

Faced with skyrocketing rents, a shortage of affordable homes, and persistently chronic homelessness—while also looking to spread limited construction dollars as far as possible—Mayor Charlie Hales' office has agreed to explore city-subsidized tiny houses as part of a range of nontraditional solutions for easing Portland's housing crisis.

Hales' office has begun assembling an internal "task force" of city officials familiar with zoning, planning, and other bureaucratic concerns. It's also begun building a list of surplus government land in hopes of finding suitable sites—not only for tiny homes, but maybe for ideas like more Right 2 Dream Too-style "rest areas" and an AmeriCorps relief camp, matching social services with temporary and permanent housing.

The ambitious goal, says Josh Alpert, Hales' director of strategic initiatives, is to have some kind of pilot project up and running within the next year. Alpert's working with staffers for Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the Portland Housing Bureau.

"We have a seemingly unsolvable [housing] problem, and a fairly static and occasionally growing houseless population," says Alpert. "We've put a lot of money into it, and we're really not making enough of a dent to where we can say, 'Okay, we're getting somewhere.'

"If this can work, I see this as an incredibly 'Portland' community-based solution."

High on the list is some kind of "micro community" pilot project—essentially a dozen or so tiny homes, all with kitchens and bathrooms, sharing a large piece of land, including a common area. Rents would be kept to a couple of hundred dollars a month. That way, people on fixed incomes, making about $1,000 a month, could afford to pay and either leave the streets, or keep from landing there in the first place.

That concept is the brainchild of a housing advocate named Mike Withey, who was best known in city hall for helping tend the flames of a longtime camping vigil outside the building's front door. Withey had been building the concept for months before presenting it to the Portland City Council in June.

And it's attractive because the cost of each unit, about $12,000 even with decent amenities, would still be just a fraction of what it costs to build traditional apartments.

"Now's the time to do that," Alpert says, giving Withey credit for "unlocking" Hales' imagination when it comes to tiny houses as a balm for the city's housing ills. "If we've got the land, and the housing is that inexpensive, then let's do it."

Withey's been a familiar face in city hall since the spring, meeting with Commissioner Amanda Fritz to talk about code enforcement and zoning concerns, even before going to the full council in June. He's also met with Alpert and Saltzman's chief of staff, Brendan Finn.

"I've yet to see one person say this was a bad idea," Withey told the council back in June. "That single mom who's working two jobs, at McDonald's, deserves to live in your neighborhood just as much as you do."

He's also brought some clout for his idea, teaming up with a prominent pair of affordable housing developers—Rob Justus, co-founder of homelessness services agency JOIN, and Dave Carboneau, a former Portland General Electric executive.

The concept relies on the purchase of easily assembled tiny homes manufactured by an Oregon company named TechDwell, another of Carboneau's concerns. Carboneau and his partner first tested their structures in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

Carboneau and Justus both confirmed the preliminary conversations with Hales' office. They were cautiously optimistic when told those chats were far from cursory. And they say construction logistics would fit within Alpert's rough one-year timeline.

"It's feasible," Justus says, "in that you can build them in a couple of weeks."

But that's the easy part, Justus and Carboneau say.

Finding public land will require political salesmanship—and that hunt probably can't include land held by the city's water and sewer bureaus, lest the developers have to offer market price to pay back the city's utility ratepayers.

Then there's figuring out whether they're close enough to transportation, whether they're big enough to hold enough tiny homes (or a rest area, or someday, an AmeriCorps camp), whether zoning rules might need tweaking, and whether neighbors need reassurances so they won't throw a fit. Water and electrical hookups would be needed, too.

In St. Johns, where Withey has approached neighbors about a potential site, some residents were quick to sound the alarm.

"I don't think any of it's insurmountable," Alpert says. "It's a matter of going through them one by one."

Other skeptics have raised concerns about the quality of the units and the symbolism of embracing options like tent cities and relief camps.

And there's likely to be some institutional critics looking to defend the status quo, where millions of dollars are spent subsidizing traditional projects by large developers.

"Given that we have a 30-year record of being able to successfully house a lot of people without being able to solve the problem, you've got to have tools outside the box," says Israel Bayer, executive director of Street Roots and a well-respected advocate in city hall when it comes to housing matters. "We need large investments around a whole range of different strategies. This would be one of them."