Every year, providers in our community lift thousands of neighbors out of homelessness and back into permanent housing -- and then work hard to make sure they thrive.
That work hit new heights in the 2015-16 budget year, when our community-wide homelessness initiative, A Home for Everyone, placed more than 4,600 families into permanent housing. That was hundreds more than the year before, and well beyond the initiative’s goal.
But rising rents and budget cuts to vital housing programs could threaten that progress -- by making affordable housing that is already hard to find even more scarce. Although voters approved a $258 million housing bond in November 2016, it may take years before those units and others for low-income neighbors come online.
That’s why Multnomah County’s Idea Lab came up with one more option. A pilot project called A Place for You will help deliver accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to select homeowners willing to host homeless families.
A test phase, set to start as soon as this summer, would begin with just four units. There is no guarantee the program will grow beyond that. Nonetheless, the concept has captured the public’s imagination. More than 800 people have signaled their interest -- showing once more that Multnomah County neighbors are deeply willing to do their part to help end homelessness.
Here are some questions and answers that better explain why we’re exploring the concept and how it might work.
How might this project take shape?
Many details are still being nailed down, including construction planning, legal details and how homeowners will be chosen. But, the idea would work roughly like this:
The four homeowners selected for the test project would agree to have an ADU built in their yard, in exchange for hosting a homeless family for five years. The units will likely be just a few hundred square feet. But they’d come with plumbing and electricity -- and, no, they wouldn’t be so-called “tiny houses” on wheels. The final cost and design of the units have yet to be determined.
A local nonprofit, Enhabit, is managing the project on behalf of Multnomah County. Enhabit, formerly Clean Energy Works, has spent years working with governments, utilities and residential customers on energy-efficiency, seismic and other home-improvement projects.
Enhabit’s role in A Place for You includes overseeing design and installation, working on site selection, and serving as a point of contact for participating homeowners. The county would not own or directly manage any of the ADUs in the program. Anyone interested in learning more from Enhabit can visit www.enhabit.org/adu.
Family tenants would be referred through A Home for Everyone’s Homeless Families’ Coordinated Access system. During the lease period, families would receive social service support from provider partners working with A Home for Everyone. Because of the limited size of each unit, larger families may not be selected.
After five years, homeowners in the pilot project would be able to use their ADUs however they’d like. We are still working to ensure that installation of the ADUs comes at no cost to homeowners. We’re still vetting the project’s tax implications, but we’re hoping to offer a property tax abatement during the five years the ADU is covered by the program.
How does this help families experiencing homelessness?
In A Place for You, tenant families would benefit from the stability and privacy that come with leaving shelter or situations where they’re doubled-up with other families, sometimes in crowded and unsafe conditions.
Their children could count on spending formative years in the same school, and the family could escape the stress of constantly moving from place to place.
And, importantly, families and homeowners alike would have access to wraparound support services already provided by A Home for Everyone. That includes placement support and case management from our mobile housing team and access to the community’s Landlord Risk Mitigation Pool. Services will help parents develop the skills to have and keep a home, find work, and become independent.
Those outcomes are precisely why partners in A Home for Everyone work so effectively to place thousands of people into housing every year.
Why test out this strategy?
Our community is in the midst of a housing crisis. Prices are going up. Many jobs don’t pay enough. Federal assistance isn’t keeping pace. That’s created a profound shortage of affordable houses and apartments in Multnomah County. That shortage makes it more likely that people on the margins will become homeless -- while making it more expensive to help them once they are.
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Portland is now hundreds more dollars than a monthly disability check, for example. More working families, single women, victims of domestic violence, and people of color have become homeless.
To manage that crisis, we’ve had to add hundreds of year-round shelter beds over the past year. We’ve opened a no-turn-away shelter for families. But shelter beds cost $8,000 to $10,000 per bed every year. The more people we can keep from needing those beds, the more people we can help people find and keep permanent housing.
Government and partner agencies don’t have enough money to address all of the needs in our community right now, so we’re continually looking for ways to do more with less. We’ve also been hearing from the community that we need to be creative.
A Place for You is meant to serve as one more option to help families move from the street or a shelter to a home. A Place for You also provides one more way for the private sector to support ending homelessness.
How much will the pilot project cost?
The test phase of the program, looking at four units, is budgeted for $350,000. That money is provided by the Joint Office of Homeless Services and a donation from the Meyer Memorial Trust, a partner in the A Home for Everyone initiative.
The budget, managed by Enhabit, includes the cost of buying and installing the units, as well as costs associated with managing the project. It doesn’t include county staff time spent working on the project.
It’s a one-year pilot project, but you’re saying families will live in the ADUs for five years?
The one-year test is only to help our elected leaders and nonprofit partners decide whether the program should expand beyond the initial four units. We are committed to keeping the families participating in our project housed.
What if I’m interested in helping?
Hundreds of people have indicated their interest in learning more about the program at www.enhabit.org/adu. But, as we’ve said, the test phase will include only a handful of units. And at this point, it’s unclear what a full project might look like.
We’re still working through how we’ll choose our test homeowners. But we plan to close our list to new sign-ups as of Monday, April 3, and begin our selection process soon after. Some of the factors we expect to consider include how near a home is to services, shopping and transit; access to laundry facilities; and a homeowner’s prior experience as a landlord. County employees, to avoid perceived conflicts of interest, will not be eligible to participate.
Even though most people won’t be selected, we’re beyond grateful for the interest. The broad base of sites to sift through gives us tremendous flexibility and will make our test that much stronger.
What happens if a participant’s circumstances change during the five years?
If a tenant family finds a new and better housing opportunity in the midst of their five-year stay, we expect to move in another family. Families and homeowners would be free to continue their relationship, for rent, at the end of the five years. If a family must move on but hasn’t yet found another home, they would hold priority status for other affordable units.
Other details, including what might happen if a homeowner moves or wants to set aside the arrangement, have yet to be made final. But no ADUs will be built, or any families placed, until those details are worked out.
What if I already have a flat in my house or an ADU in my yard? Can I offer it to a homeless family, too?
We’re always looking for help with our ongoing work providing safe and affordable housing for the thousands of people served by A Home for Everyone each year. If you think you can provide an option, apart from any interest in participating with A Place for You, and want to work with our service providers, please contact A Home for Everyone at firstname.lastname@example.org.