…Jesse Russell, owner of Tongue & Groove in Bend, is a builder of tiny houses. He says Bend has an affordable housing crisis and that it’s time for action. “We need all the members of the City Council and the Planning Commission to stop talking and start writing code for tiny houses on wheels,” he says. “One thing is clear: the community believes that tiny houses are an immediate answer to the housing crisis.”
Russell thinks that the lack of affordable housing in Bend is driving people away. “It’s driving the wrong people away from Bend: Artists, ski bums, students, bartenders – people who we think make the community richer, not with their money but with their ideals and attitudes. We don’t want to become Aspen.”
One major barrier to building tiny houses in Bend, Russell says, is high system development charges – fees that help pay for roads, sewers, and parks. He says Bend’s SDC’s are $17,000 per unit which is cost- prohibitive for tiny homes. He thinks the city of Portland provides an example that Bend could follow. “Portland dropped their SDC charges for housing to stimulate urban infill, resulting in 12 times the applications for permits.”
Another barrier, he feels, is Bend’s cottage clustering code. Russell says he was excited to hear that the city had written new code to support cottage clusters. He designed a site mapping plan that allowed for four 400 square ft. houses on a standard size city lot, only to learn code for that would require a minimum of one acre—a lot size difficult to find in Bend. “The new cottage clustering code should allow for development on standard lot sizes that are less than one acre,” he says.
Russell is also frustrated with city bureaucracy. He says he met on July 1, 2015, with Assistant City Manager Jon Skidmore and City Engineer Russ Grayson to discuss tiny housing in Bend. He continued to correspond with them through the summer, inviting them to open houses at a tiny house the city allowed to be placed behind the old library building at 514 Broadway, one block from Skidmore’s office. The house was to be featured in the Bend Design Conference. Russell says city officials never accepted the invitation, and last fall he received this email from Skidmore: “Sorry—we’re buried with extremely high permit application volumes and issues such as street maintenance funding, marijuana regulation and some others. Russ and I will get a game plan together and get in touch.” Russell says he hasn’t heard from them since.
“What a bummer that the city is too busy with pot to deal with people not having an affordable place to live,” he says. Zoning changes, construction of traditional affordable housing and the expansion of the urban growth boundary are all viable options, these options take much more time to realize than the building of tiny houses which only take 10-12 weeks.
Tiny Homes: The City’s View
The City of Bend’s Affordable Housing Manager, Jim Long, says tiny homes may be a small component in answering the region’s housing crisis but not the sole answer. He has a nephew living in a tiny home near Ashland, and Long says he’s considering building one himself perhaps to use as a guest cottage. Though saying he’s not “anti-tiny home,” he has major concerns about them.
“Technically they’re an RV,” Long says. “As an RV, they’re going to have to go into an RV park. Most folks that are building them are more or less squatting on land they are being built on, and they’re not really hooked into any kind of sanitary system. That’s not the proper way to do it.”
Long says he has safety concerns about tiny homes, too. “They’re not covered by any kind of building code, and that’s the scariest thing that I find.” RV’s and manufactured homes are state and federally regulated to ensure occupant safety. “Currently there’s no licensing entity tasked with the formal regulation to ensure safety for tiny homes,” he says. “No one is checking them for access or regress.”
Most of the tiny homes he’s seen are of wood construction and use propane for heat. RV sleeping areas, he says, are constructed to have kick-out windows large enough for occupants to escape and to allow entry for a firefighter with a backpack. Long, who has been a volunteer fire fighter, says most tiny homes put their sleeping areas in lofts that “virtually have no way of getting out in case of fire.”