Aerial view of Portland, Oregon

Portland Housing Stupidity Grows

Here’s an incredibly stupid idea to deal with Portland’s housing affordability problems: Multnomah County proposes to build tiny houses in people’s backyard. The people will get to keep the houses on the condition that they allow homeless people to live in them for five years.

That’s supposed to be an incentive. For five years, you have to share your yard with a homeless person who may be suffering from a variety of problems, after which you get to keep whatever is left of the tiny home. But as one Portland neighborhood activist points out, what homeless people need is healthcare and social work, not to be warehoused in someone else’s backyard.

I suspect homeowners are going to be wary of this offer because they will have little control who lives in their yard. Not only would the homeowners be required to maintain the tiny houses while the homeless person or people lived in them, Portland is making it increasing difficult for landlords to evict unwanted tenants.

Update: Despite my pessimism, 580 homeowners have “inquired about hosting a homeless family in their backyards.” Initially, the county will build four, and if it can raise the funds, it will build as many as 300 more.

More important, this plan is stupidly expensive. The county estimates that each 220-square-foot tiny house will cost $75,000. That’s $341 per square foot! There are an estimated 3,800 homeless people in Portland, so housing them all this way would cost $285 million. That assumes one person per tiny house; some may house two, but housing people in tiny homes will also attract more homeless people into the area.

There’s also a not-so-hidden agenda here: “creating a denser, more affordable city.” At least, that’s the plan. The reality is density doesn’t make cities more affordable. In fact, the densest cities tend to be least affordable.

In Portland, people who build tiny houses in their yards face a huge increase in property taxes. That’s because, under Oregon law, their existing home is taxed at its 1996 value, plus a small annual increase for inflation, while new construction is taxed at today’s value. Thus, a new, 220-square-foot tiny house may be taxed more than the 2,000-square-foot house it shares a lot with.

Multnomah County says it will “try” to waive property taxes for people willing to accept tiny houses for homeless people in their yards, at least for the five years that homeless people live in them. How generous! Mercy, thy name is Multnomah County! Except really, it’s name is Stupid.

Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute specializing in land use and transportation policy. He has written several books demonstrating the futility of government planning. Prior to working for Cato, he taught environmental economics at Yale, UC Berkeley, and Utah State University.

Photo: DubbaG [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons