Houseless Villages and the Housing Crisis

In Research & Data Stories by WP-admin

Given the mounting pressure to address the affordable housing crisis, how do jurisdictions reconcile the legitimacy of houseless villages and the traditionally informal role that they serve?

The Portland metropolitan area is one of the fastest growing regions in the country. According to the Population Research Center, the metropolitan region gained 66 migrants each day between 2012 – 2014. While robust population growth continues to fortify economic growth, the situation does not come without its challenges. Strong in-migration rates, rising cost of construction, and demand for housing outpacing supply has lead to a regional housing affordability crisis. The housing crisis is not new – but what remains pertinent is the ability for jurisdictions to introduce effective policies to alleviate the most detrimental effects of the housing crisis.

The map above demonstrates the change in median single-family home values from 1996 to 2016. With the exception of the recession years, the Portland metropolitan region has experienced strong increases in home values. Certain neighborhoods have seen increases over 200%, and in some instances, over 300% (Table 1).

Median Single-Family Home Values by Neighborhood (Adjusted to 2016 Constant Dollars)

Efforts to address the housing crisis vary in scope and capacity. From the lens of public agencies, strategies tend to take the form of more permanent, long-term solutions. These include the introduction of inclusionary zoning (effective February 2017), exploring new construction of public housing units or mass shelters, and other major policy or zoning changes. While these strategies cater towards the more permanent and long-term end of the spectrum, a growing voice of grassroots organizers see houseless villages (also known as tiny-home villages and transitional shelter communities) as a potential interim solutions amongst the suite of other efforts. The argument here is that permanent long-term solutions are necessary, but require large amounts of time and is resource intensive.

Table 1. 10 Fastest Appreciating Neighborhoods in Portland
(Single Family Home Values from 1996 – 2016)
Source: Zillow Home Value Index 1996-2016

On the other hand, interim solutions like houseless villages are cost effective, and provide immediate shelter that can help residents in the interim period before long-term solutions become available.

Houseless villages have traditionally been established as an ensemble of ad-hoc housing structures typically on vacant public land. Houseless villages are formed from residents that band together through some level of community organizing, and shelter can take the form of tents to more durable infrastructure such as mobile tiny homes or self-constructed units. This article focuses on houseless villages that utilize more permanent structures rather than tents.

Although houseless villages are seen as “temporary”, many have existed for a number of years. These include: Dignity Village (established 2001), Right 2 Dream Too (R2D2; established 2011), and Hazelnut Grove (established 2015). You may have heard of the more recently established projects: Kenton Women’s Village (established 2017) and Clackamas Veteran’s Village (currently under construction). The physical and organizational capacity of these villages vary – some like Dignity Village are able to house up to 60 residents while others like Kenton Women’s Village can house 14 residents. And while R2D2 focuses on short-term housing, villages like Hazelnut Grove welcome more long-term residents. Each village has their own unique structure and niche.

From a regulatory perspective, many of the houseless villages that exist in Portland today are not officially sanctioned by the city. However, support from the city does come in the form of providing some basic services such as garbage pick-up, access to water, fencing, and port-potties. for some of the villages.

While the city continues to fight the housing crisis, advocates of houseless villages see a need to balance expensive long-term solutions with quicker, cheaper, and more temporary solutions. The perspective here is that too much involvement from bureaucracy ultimately ends up being costly, time consuming, and not addressing needs that should be met now. Instead, resources need to be given to push solutions from the ground up. Houseless villages provide that interim solution between living on the streets, and permanent affordable housing.

Solutions to the housing crisis from public agencies often use dedicated funds, follow a bureaucracy and regulatory framework, and aim to deliver permanent results. Given the mounting pressure to address the affordable housing crisis, how does the city reconcile the legitimacy of houseless villages and the traditionally informal role that they serve?

Houseless villages are not new. Early houseless villages like Dignity Village emerged out of protest, clearly against the laws and regulations of the city. Policies and regulations weren’t in place to support these “prohibited” uses, and to a large extent, they still aren’t now. A fundamental change to how houseless villages have been allowed to operate came with the state of emergency housing declaration. Recognizing the rampant increase in housing costs, Portland City Council first declared a housing emergency on October 7th, 2015. This ordinance is important in many ways: it grants the city direct access for additional funding for affordable housing projects, allows for expedited permits for the construction of affordable housing units and shelters, and waives certain city codes to temporarily accommodate housing options.

While newer houseless villages like Kenton Women’s Village still defy and go against regulations to some extent, they are different from past villages in a number of ways. These newer houseless villages:
– Utilize the loosened regulations provided by the emergency housing ordinance to create a more legitimized framework for operation
– Involve stronger public agency oversight and investment
– Seek rapport with community residents to get public approval
– Are more politically out in the open
– Have contracts that dictate terms of operation (basically the acknowledgement that they are temporary)
– Involve partnerships with other non-profits to ensure the provision of social services (ie. Catholic Charities)

From a public agency perspective, there are many factors pushing officials to consider a more permanent presence of houseless villages. While sweeps are still common practice for houseless villages hoping to establish themselves (eg. Village of Hope, Forgotten Realms), there is a growing recognition that the costs associated with conducting sweeps are unwieldy and ultimately unproductive. Proponents of houseless villages (especially those with public agency oversight) see value in providing a stable environment for houseless individuals to live. Constructing a houseless village is less expensive than building one unit of permanent affordable housing, and having services like portable bathrooms and dumpsters reduce the cost of cleaning up.

Note: The cost of constructing Clackamas Veteran’s Village was $300,000 (about $10,000 per unit). While the price of affordable housing units fluctuate wildly, they are usually 10x more expensive (

Even with the extension of the emergency housing ordinance (currently set to expire in April 2019), it is necessary that future work surrounding the housing crisis address how city regulations and policies mesh with housing typologies that are wholly independent from public agencies. Especially with a looming expiration date for the emergency housing ordinance, projects like Kenton Women’s Village and R2D2 that were established with relaxed regulations will soon be “prohibited” once again. Given the urgency of the issue (and in lieu of more permanent solutions in planning policy and zoning regulations), city bureaus are working to understand how to best accommodate houseless villages in the current regulatory climate. There are many factors to consider, given that houseless villages are difficult to site due to restrictive land use categories, high potential for LUBA appeals, and the relative unprecedented nature of their existence under public agency management.

In order to understand the spatial patterns of where suitable parcels are that could accommodate future tiny home villages, a map was created that followed the criteria listed below:
– Within 500 meters of a light rail station
– Zoned General Employment 1 (EG1) or General Employment 2 (EG2)
– Under a slope of 25%
– Vacant

Tiny Home Villages Site Suitability Model

In total, 117 parcels are able to meet the criteria. Of these, 88 parcels are under private ownership, and 29 parcels are under public ownership. EG1 and EG2 zoning are the most amenable for siting temporary structures given limited regulations within the base zone for housing development requirements. While EG1 and EG2 zones are the most flexible, future research could look at other base zones that are less flexible but would still allow for tiny home villages. These include: R3-R1, IR, RH, RX, CN1, CN2, CO1, CS, CM, CO2 and CG.

* A panel discussion was held on May 29th to explore the social and political dimensions of houseless villages. To learn more, please visit the event page.