By Calley Hair, Columbian staff writer Published: June 15, 2019
A neighborhood of tiny homes is in the works in Vancouver, though you wouldn’t know it to look at the proposed site.
Located amid brambles just off the railroad north of Fruit Valley, the 1.5-acre chunk of land is currently home to just one structure: a railway switch station, built in the late 1800s.
But this little piece of history might soon be home to very modern solution to the affordable housing crisis. The planned development would include 27 tiny homes — 23 new structures, plus four residential units in the renovated rail station.
Each residence would be around 300 square feet, with water and electricity, and are best suited to a single person, a couple or a parent and child living together. The new structures would meet accessibility standards. The proposed location, at 1901 N.W. 69th Circle, is about 10 minutes away from downtown Vancouver by car.
It’s the rent, though, that’s unbeatable: around $600 per month, with no deposit.
“We are not in the market of making a profit off people,” said Chris Thobaben, a member of local housing nonprofit Community Roots Collaborative.
The idea is to create a place where low-income residents can age in place. Unlike transitional housing, there won’t be a time limit for how long someone can live in their Fruit Valley tiny home. Thobaben said he hopes the neighborhood can start to feel like home for its tenants, not just a place to survive.
“Personally, I hope that people are able to move to something that they choose, rather than something that is necessary,” Thobaben said.
To apply to live in a unit, prospective tenants would need to make less than 50 percent of the area’s median income and be referred by a partner group, like Kleen Street Community Club, he added.
“There will be controls into how it is entered, but we anticipate to have 100 percent occupancy very early in the process,” he said.
Community Roots Collaborative hopes to close on the property sale by the end of July, Thobaben said. If all goes according to plan, they’ll break ground on the project around September, and have residents moving into the units before the end of the year. The collaborative plans to work with Wolf Industries, a Battle Ground company that specializes in building tiny homes.
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It’s an ambitious timeline, he acknowledged.
“We want to create this as a template. If this is a template for success, as small as it is… if it’s 23 (homes) at a time and it works, so be it,” Thobaben said.
The effort also isn’t new. It started back in 2017, when Community Roots Collaborative announced an effort to build 200 tiny homes in Clark County to help reduce homelessness and ease the affordable housing crunch. The Fruit Valley development would be the first tangible step toward that goal.
On Monday evening, the nonprofit held a fundraising dinner at Elements Restaurant. The next fundraiser will be held at Gather and Feast Farm on July 20.
The project is expected to cost $2.2 million.
The Community Roots Collaborative effort is being spearheaded by Thobaben, a supply chain consultant; Stone Soup Community Meals program founder Hector Hinojosa; Dan Whiteley, who runs an executive recruiting firm; and Aideet Pineda, a health care outreach coordinator.
Nobody on the project is an affordable housing expert, but together the group’s varied range of expertise translates nicely to the Fruit Valley project. And Thobaben said their relative inexperience actually works to their advantage.
“If we can prove it can be done here, it can be done again. There’s nothing exceptional about any of us or this project — it’s just doing it,” Thobaben said.
‘All we need to do is better’
For all the hype around tiny homes, they’re not really all that common.
The highly-Instagrammable and efficient living spaces got a lot of buzz starting around 2014, bolstered by real estate shows like HGTV’s “Tiny House, Big Living.”
But they have rarely been deployed as a practical solution to the affordable housing crisis. In Vancouver, at least, the conversation surrounding standalone tiny homes has revolved almost completely around accessory dwelling units, or ADUs — supplemental structures that sit on the property of a larger home — and how they might affect parking or zoning in a given neighborhood.
Wolf Industries is building tiny homes for a variety of circumstances including ADUs, guest homes, short-term rentals, and situations their website calls “hardship cases.”
But as a solution for homelessness, tiny homes are few and far between, deployed only in a few test cases. The Fruit Valley development would be the first tiny-home neighborhood of its kind in Vancouver, Thobaben said.
“That’s first, as far as I know. There’s no permanent housing income solution on the low-end side of things where people can move in with no deposit on $600 a month,” he said.
And he’s not convinced tiny homes are the silver bullet.
“The lesson in all of this is: If it’s taken this much work, this much volunteered time to produce affordable housing, how far off is scaled affordable housing? It’s a sobering question,” Thobaben said.
It would be a folly, he added, to pretend like Vancouver or any other town facing an affordable housing crisis could completely build themselves out of the predicament. The city will need “a diverse portfolio of solutions” to overcome homelessness and its affordable housing shortage, he said.
But the only thing worse would be not to try.
“All we need to do is better. We don’t need to do perfect. And that’s the biggest thing standing in the way of a lot of this.”