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Up for rent in Portland, February 2015: a tiny purple structure in someone’s backyard, apparently a converted garden shed. At 165 square feet, it had the same area of 5 sheets of plywood laying side by side. The price was normally $1200/month, said the ad, but could be reduced to $950 for renters interested in helping organize in the main house.
Pop quiz! Was this:
a) An outrage, fully worthy of its own often-hilarious Facebook group, “That’s a Goddamned Shed”? ;
b) a classical demonstration of the dynamics of supply and demand? ; or
c) a sign of grassroots creativity in housing?
Don’t answer that right away, because the Portland housing market is absolutely crazed right now. Anyone who tries to rent, buy, or sell here finds themselves in a surreal world where the formerly inconceivable is now, well, the norm. And in my opinion, the path back to sanity goes right by that purple shed. With a few twists, such dwellings are a solution for urban density that’s radical and reasonable at the same time.
THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY
That purple shed ad is not unique. Other recent craigslist ads have offered garden structures as residences. The competition for rentals has become so frustrating and ridiculous it’s inspired a whole new genre of literature, the satirical housing ad. For example, as featured on Curbed, one ad offers a place with “Industrial feel with open floorplan,” while it pictures photo of a sidewalk with gray fence and box.
Satires like these have become common on forums like craigslist, reddit Portland, and facebook. They’re wonderful relief from the real stress and pain of gentrification and densification.
But just beyond the comedy is rage. There are dozens of examples, but here is the most visual one, a flyer stuck on a “For Rent” sign in the North Mississippi area of Portland:
Real estate isn’t just a financial topic in Portland, it’s an emotional one. There’s a sense of betrayal among the kind of creative, idealistic people who helped make Portland desirable. Rising rents are pushing many further to the fringes. Portland is getting richer and whiter, according to a city report – does that mean some of its creative blood is leaving too? On reddit and Facebook, there is talk of moving to Detroit, Chicago, or even, god forbid, Eugene.
In San Francisco, home to even more extreme housing prices, someone posted this clever lament for the old days.
Perhaps Portland will have its own milk-carton victim soon — how about a prize winning barista on a tall bike?
Those looking to buy receive their own humiliations. Reports indicate that when bidding on a house, it is no longer enough to simply bid far above the asking price. To beat out cash-laden investors, you must include a heartfelt letter/selfie combo demonstrating why you are most deserving. Portland Monthly created a mad lib to help you get started.
Meanwhile, those who already own houses can’t just hunker down and avoid the fray, because the city changes around them. Those in proximity to transit corridors watch one-story houses get demolished and turn into much bigger structures, which occasionally blot out the sun, as this piece of activist filmmaking, “Den$ity,” shows:
WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE
There’s a palpable sense of despair in “Den$ity,” among those trying to slow the juggernaut of densification and gentrification.
But from another perspective, this is what success looks like. Decades ago Oregon and Portland made strategic long-term decisions in the interest of environmental conservation and quality of life, such as the creation of urban growth boundaries to prevent sprawl and save rural land, a commitment to transit, and (one of my favorites 🙂 ) public ownership of the Oregon Coast.
And now it appears to have worked: Portland is a great place to live, and everyone wants to move here. There is simply a lot of demand for housing and a limited supply. A city report projects that between 2005 and 2035, the number of households in Portland will grow by more than 100,000. Those people have to live somewhere.
Because the growth boundaries constrain development geographically, new housing supply in Portland often comes from “going up,” as in multistory apartment blocks, or “filling in,” as in vacant lots. Projects like this one, replacing a one-story house with a 3-story apartment building, kinda do both.
This is basically the plan. The city is supposed to get denser, especially near transit. No one in “Den$ity” seems to say it’s possible or desirable to stop densification. But its citizens seem desperate for a way to steer Portland’s growth in a gentler direction — in particular, away from looming examples of “going up,” like this one.
“There [has] to be a happy medium,” says a Richmond neighborhood resident in the film.
CAN UNPROFESSIONAL BE GOOD?
As luck would have it, my friend “Kylie” was looking for a place to live when the purple shed ad came out. It was a good location, and for better or worse the price of $950 was competitive. Kylie had been looking at a room in a shared house, which was going for $700, but would require her to share a kitchen and bath. In contrast the purple shed had its own four walls, shower stall and kitchenette.
Kylie couldn’t work out a deal with the purple shed’s landlady, because there wasn’t enough room for Kylie’s kids to sleep on their weekend visits. No big surprise there. But then, something remarkable occurred.
The landlady tried to help Kylie.
“She went to great lengths to try to find a solution for me…” Kylie writes in an email. “…including trying to put me together with her sister and another good friend who had extra space. It was a valiant effort… I found [my new] apartment while she was investigating options.”
I can hardly imagine a corporate or government landlord going to such lengths. But it doesn’t surprise me, when I study some other ads for rented sheds. The “unprofessional” nature of shed development could be one of the best things about it.
“Small, insulated, and ventilated shed with a sleeping loft, in the backyard of an intentional community full of hippies,” reads one ad, with a rent of just $350 in the Cully neighborhood. “Must be queer friendly, kid-tolerant (preferrably enthusiastic about both), and don’t make a mess… We have one indoor/outdoor cat and one very large, very calm dog. Your pets are negotiable if they get along with ours.”
“I am a 68-year-old gay man,” reads another ad. “The only way I can remain financially independent and stable is to create and rent 2-3 small units on my property.” The owner is offering an interesting deal: if you can convert an outdoor structure on his property into a detached bedroom, you can live in that room rent free as a reimbursement. The effective rent is $400/month, including wifi and utilities.
I don’t know any of these “landlords,” but they don’t sound like real estate barons to me. Some of them sound like really grounded and interesting people. And in the context of Portland’s real estate frenzy, their offers look downright reasonable for a creative person. Considering that dogs aren’t allowed at some places renting for >$1000, I’m sure that Cully shed – $350/month, with compatible dog allowed — was snapped up in a flash.
HAIL TO THE SHED
We all know what’s wrong with sheds as places for people to live. They weren’t designed as dwellings. Some of them don’t have essential features such as sinks and toilets. Places like these are unlikely to be inspected or permitted. Therefore there are fewer legal protections for tenants.
Nonetheless, I see a lot in these shed offerings that’s right, especially in contrast to larger multifamily developments.
Finally, it’s clear that some of these landlords are not ruled solely by their monetary interest. They are interested in creating a bit of community. This is an utterly distinct quality from, say, a big landlord with professional property management. The latter might provide good service, but everyone knows there is one ultimate intent: return on investment.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a better version of the backyard shed, let’s call it a “supershed,” one that was inspected, legal, fully habitable, and protected by landlord-tenant law? If so, it could have a huge impact on both the supply and architectural scale of Portland housing.
DRUM ROLL PLEASE
Of course, I’m just funning here. “Supersheds” already exist and legally contribute to Portland housing. I’m just using a fake name, because in the roiling discussion over densification, neither activists nor planning professionals seem to take these kind of dwellings seriously as a form that could add thousands of units to the city. In reality, supersheds are known as :
For example, consider Nan Haemer’s ADU…
There is real evidence for the benefits of such structures.
There remains a significant barrier to their widespread adoption: construction cost. According to Eli Spevak, a co-editor of accessorydwellings.org and a Portland developer behind many innovative projects, the cost of a permitted shed-size dwelling, built to code and hooked up to services, can easily be as much as 20x the cost of a prefab shed of similar size — say, $40,000 instead of $2000. (Of course tricked-out ADUs can cost far more than $40,000, but they are often much larger than shed-size.) Part of the shed-vs-ADU cost differential is features (windows, custom baths, etc), and part is code requirements. In a future post I hope to explore code changes that reduce these expenses — but even at current costs, ADUs look economical compared to commercially built public housing.
I’m not going to say ADUs and detached bedrooms are magic. They aren’t the complete solution to Portland’s housing frenzy. To house >100,000 new households, Portland is going to need every form of housing, and perhaps a whole new vision. Not every homeowner is going to be an angel. These structures don’t guarantee you a decent flat for the price of a cheeseburger. If that’s what you want, you need to live with your mom. 🙂
But ADUs and detached bedrooms should be a much bigger part of the mix. These forms of housing are remarkable in that they are the only form of “infill” an average homeowner can actually create themselves. Instead of merely begging or fighting developers and government to do something less offensive, ADUs allow citizen homeowners to show the government and developers how to “do density right.”
A groundswell of economical ADUs, detached bedrooms, and (if a legal backyard setting can be made for them) tiny houses on wheels will make it more credible for citizens to object to oversized developments, without being labelled NIMBYs or sticks-in-the-mud.
Purple sheds provoke a lot of emotions, but they also point us towards a grassroots solution. Citizens concerned about the direction housing is taking should turn a bit of their real estate rage into creativity, and seize the means of housing production. If they don’t, well, the results will be predictable. 🙂
You can see a range of real ADUs on the upcoming tour.