A New Tiny House Community for Low-Income

SquareOne Villages is revolutionizing housing in Eugene, OR, and around the country. They are a non-profit organization and developer dedicated to creating self-managed communities of cost-effective tiny homes for people in need of housing. Their journey into the tiny house movement was a direct out-growth of a local Occupy Wall Street protest and camp, where housed and unhoused sparked a proactive collaboration in the Fall of 2011. 

At Opportunity Eugene almost every resident maintains a flower or vegetable garden. This is where we witnessed the quality relationship building and cooperation between neighbors.

This collaboration lead to the creation of the Community Task Force on Homelessness, in partnership with the City of Eugene. The action plan that emerged was a transitional micro-housing pilot project, Opportunity Village Eugene (OVE). The City of Eugene provided one acre of land to OVE to lease ($1/year), initially for just one year. Funds were raised entirely from the local community, $98,000 in private donations and $114,000 of in-kind materials and labor. The board of directors, a group of volunteers and future residents built 30 micro-homes and common spaces (bathroom and laundry room). They also installed communal yurt that acts as the community's living room, computer room/internet cafe and general meeting place.

The contract with the City of Eugene has now been renewed for four years. This contract regulates how the OVE site may be used. A Village Manual outlines internal policies and procedures for this self-governed community, led by residents. While SquareOne Villages provides ongoing oversight and support. 

Opportunity Village Eugene

We recently came for a weeklong visit to OVE. The villagers voted to allow us to park our tiny home there and to document village life.  We certainly felt welcome and very safe. There's a running joke that OVE is a gated-community from the homeless. We soon began to get to know many of the 30 formerly homeless villagers and were blown away by their warmth. Residents come from a wide variety of backgrounds and circumstances that led to their previous life on the streets. They all have one thing in common, a deep gratitude for their much-needed transitional home, a secure place to sleep and independent community living.  One things for certain, the age-old stereotypes about "homeless people" are painfully inaccurate. 

Initially there was bit of NIMBY unease about OVE and its residents. The surrounding neighborhood has gone from skeptical to accepting. There's been no rise in crime due to OVE. While on guard duty (villagers take shifts, 24/7), one villager even helped save lives when he noticed a nearby home on fire, late one night. By calling 911 promptly, the fire department was able to quickly respond and rescue the lives of those trapped in the house.

Our traveling tiny home on wheels parked at OVE

"The vision was to create a collaboration between the housed and unhoused that provides stable and safe places to be through cost-effective, human-scale approaches for transitioning the unhoused to more sustainable living situations."

By all counts, Opportunity Village has been successful as a pilot project. It has gained an immense amount of community support and goodwill—from citizens, from the Mayor and City Council, from the neighborhood group, and from the police department. There has also been interest and attention from people around the country—neighborhood and community leaders—who have come to visit and gain ideas and perhaps emulate the concept in their own communities.

Chris Pryor 
Eugene City Councilor

Thanks to support of SquareOne Villages many past OVE residents have been able to get back on their feet, find work and transition into permanent housing.  A couple of the biggest obstacles to placing more villagers in permanent housing is lack of housing and unaffordable housing. Rents have sky-rocketed in Eugene, and most rentals require first and last months rent for a security deposit. This steep starting price combined with rent that is far more than 30% of their income, makes any available housing out-of-reach of the OVE villagers, even those who have found gainable employment and those on fixed incomes. This harsh reality led SquareOne Village's team to develop a new tiny house community concept to fill the gap between transitional housing and limiting market-rate housing. The team includes incredibly compassionate and brilliant, Executive Director Dan Bryant and Project Director Andrew Heben.

Visiting with Andrew Heben and his fiancé, Jolene Kessler in our tiny home at OVE

"Tent City Urbanism" by Andrew Heben, explores the intersection of the "tiny house movement" and tent cities organized by the homeless to present an accessible and sustainable housing paradigm that can improve the quality of life for everyone.

The concept for Emerald Village Eugene (EVE) emerged, an affordable tiny home community for the very low income. This village model will provide permanent, accessible and sustainable tiny homes, 22 in total. Thirty percent of current OVE residents will be transitioning into these come late Fall, when the village is opens its doors. This includes OVE resident Alice, who is an elderly woman living off of a social security. She is beyond thrilled to have the opportunity to own her a home and put down strong roots for aging in place.  

Ingrid reviewing the available tiny home designs at a future resident planning meeting

All future EVE residents went through an application and selection process, based on level of income and interest in being active member in an intentional community. Ingrid and Dominic are a couple that successfully went through the selection process. They have been living at OVE for almost a year. They see this move as an opportunity to create more financial security, a higher quality of life and to give back to the community. And boy, are they looking forward to a future with their very own bathroom and kitchenette! Sharing these facilities with 33 other residents can be quite the juggling act.

EVE is being developed as a housing cooperative where all resident will be members. Each resident will pay $250-350/month to cover coop share payment, utilities, maintenance, and all other operating costs. Residents will have a share in the village and will be able to build equity ($50/month goes into a savings account, up to $1,500). This will enable them to create a modest asset that can be cashed out if a resident ever chooses to move-out.

Like Opportunity Village (OVE), Emerald Village (EVE) will be governed  by its residents who will abide by a community agreement that outlines basic code of conduct and village maintenance. The village will feature common facilities that include a community gathering area, gardens, kitchen, laundry, restroom, tool storage and office. There's even room for a potential micro-enterprise multi-use building.

Yet again SquareOne Villages has achieved astounding legal success, in a unique partnership with the City of Eugene. EVE is zoned as a multi-family development. This helps alleviate challenges caused by individual lot setback requirements in planned unit developments (PUDs). On the Oregon state government level, SquareOne was instrumental in moving forward state-wide legislation to create specific building code standards for tiny houses, pulling from the IRC Tiny House Appendix V. State bill HB2737 was passed in June.

The ammended version of the bill does not adopt the specific code language initially proposed, but it does direct the Building Codes Division to adopt specific standards for tiny houses that at a minimum will allow for sleeping lofts and the use of ladders or alterantive tread devices by no later than January 1, 2018.

Advocates are still pushing for the full adoption of the Appendix V.

SquareOne has also be garnered staggering community support. Fourteen local architect/builder teams are participating to design, finance and build 17 unique tiny homes. SquareOne and a few of the future residents have participated in Whitaker neighborhood meetings, home to the developing EVE, with mostly positive results. Neighbors fell in love with future villager, Kentrel, an African-American elderly caretaker, who offered insightful feedback and ideas on many agenda points.  He's energetic, smart and full of enthusiasm for community building. The fact that Project Director Andrew Heben will be living at the community with his wife went over really well too.

The neighbors are cautiously optimistic about EVE, and it seems mostly the local business owners are somewhat wary of the long-term maintenance of the community.  

Only time will tell, of course, but it would appear that EVE is being developed with longevity in mind.

The EVE tiny homes (built on foundations) will range in size from 160-300 square feet. The design of each architect/builder team house is distinct and crafted with the resident in mind. In fact, all future residents are given the opportunity to give input on the design and request modifications to layout, per their needs. During the build, EVE residents will contribute sweat equity alongside volunteer labor.

EVE construction planning meeting

Foundation forms

Natural builders, Sara and Connor demonstrate the straw-clay brick insulation system

One of EVE's 22 tiny homes is being built by natural builder team, DirtChic Builders. The Hundred Mile Home is pushing the envelope in Eugene; this will be the city's first permitted stray-claw house. They are developing a new straw-clay brick system (bricks not typically used in this building style) for the wall insulation that will dramatically speed up dry time from 12 to 4 weeks. 

Inspired by the concept of sourcing much of the material from within 100 miles of the building site and community based design that will involve local community members, students and future EVE resident, Kentrel, in the design and construction process.

The primary key to the affordability of this unconventional community is this: profit is not part of the picture. SquareOne Villages is a non-profit developer working to serve the housing needs of community; an investment in people and the well-being of the greater community. They are learning many, many lessons as they go along about extraordinary amount of detail and planning goes into making a development of this kind a reality. Architect and developer, Dan Hill of Arbor South Architecture, is acting as the development/construction manager and mentor to SquareOne’s Andrew Heben and project coordinator, Alicia Ginsberg.

As a staggering number of cities grapple with problems caused by lack of affordable housing, they can look to the Eugene for guidance on how to fill-in-the-gaps and create innovative, sustainable housing options for all their residents. SquareOne Villages is developing a ToolBox to help other communities create tiny home villages. 

The purpose of this TOOLBOX is to provide a comprehensive set of resources for planning, developing, and managing a tiny house village—from concept to reality.

Opportunity Village and Emerald Village would not be possible without the dedication, hard work and savvy community outreach efforts of SquareOne Villages. They are proving that small non-profit and grassroots collaborations can make a huge positive impact.

Small but mighty may just be the key to creating lasting change for our broken housing market.

Make a modest donation to gain access to SquareOne’s wealth of knowledge and hands-on experience to learn how to start a tiny house village like this in your community. You can the Emerald Village Eugene’s development process by signing up to SquareOne’s newsletter. Live in Central Oregon? Sign up to be a volunteer!

-Alexis Stephens, Tiny House Expedition

EVE capital campaign to raise the remaining amount needed to complete the village. Help raise an additional $400,000 by the end of September. Contact: info@squareonevillages.org

Alexis StephensTiny House Blog Contributor 

My partner, Christian and I are traveling tiny house dwellers. Together we've been on the road two years for our documentary and community outreach project, Tiny House Expedition. We live, breathe, dream the tiny home community every day. This is our life and our true passion project. We are very fortunate and grateful to be able experience this inspiring movement in such an  intimate way.

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Heidi Korf - July 14, 2017 Reply

Love this concept. Would love to see this put into motion in my community.

Stephanie - July 18, 2017 Reply

This concept is a remarkable idea!!!! We are getting to the point of living in this society to help each other in living spaces. I have always wanted to help the homeless but that actually takes money which I don’t have. I pass out sandwiches and water but that’s the most I can do, unless I win the lottery. I donate to our soldiers, animal rescues and child rescues. I plan on designing my own Tiny House with guaranteed inheritance within the coming year. I will be able to make it completely off-the-grid. All of this will be about $50k. I would love to be in a “community” to watch out for each other. I am 65, partially disabled and have an employment background of being a First Responder. I was a certified EMT and “still have that in my bones” so I could help someone until paramedics arrive. My worry is that the latest rumors in the US government is a decreasing Social Security check and my need to continue being able to see my doctors, etc. I need a very reasonable piece of dirt to park. What I am discovering is $25k and up for land. Could I purchase 500 sq ft of that dirt instead of a lease? If I have to pull out I would donate that piece of dirt to the community for whatever use is determined to be needed by the administration, whomever that is. I know that helping someone who is homeless by providing them a roof over their head would create a confident person who would contribute to society again. Looking forward to your comments regarding purchasing 350 to 500 sq ft for my little house and the joy of being in a community who are grateful to have been provided a new life – from a cardboard box to a “brick and mortar” home! In advance, thank you for your help. Stephanie Balcom

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