The daffodils are blooming and the days are getting longer here in the Pacific Northwest. Last month David and I talked about transportation, cars and Amsterdam and bad Portland drivers.
This month, I return once again to housing…..sigh. You see, unless you have been living in a cave, you probably know that Portland is going through a housing crisis. I’ve been thinking about the topic even more than usual this week because I have been holed up in a little trailer at the Sou’wester Lodge in Seaview, Washington for a writer’s residency. I’ve been thinking about housing because I came here to work on my next book, and guess what? I wrote a nearly forty-page essay about the changes we’ve been experiencing in Portland over the last 15 years or so, in regards to housing and gentrification.
I’ve also been thinking about housing because, as I told my friend Kela last night, I am in a brand new phase in my life right now. It’s exciting, but also a little overwhelming. If I were to characterize this phase as being anything in particular it would have to be that it’s a goal-setting phase. I am doing really well in all aspects of my life and being happy and feeling secure is necessary to being able to plan for the future in any meaningful way.
So, this relates to housing because, as you may know, I am living in one half of my parent’s duplex. And planning for the future, looking to the future, making positive plans etc., is mostly about housing for me right now.
As a real estate agent I’ve been helping a lot of clients try to find housing that fits their needs within a certain budget. For anyone looking within the Portland city limits, this has been challenging, to say the least. Folks are getting outbid left and right. For anyone who is looking for houses for less than $350,000, it is likely their competitors are folks with sizeable amounts of cash. This matters because, say you find a house you like for $230,000 in a desirable neighborhood. Let’s say the max amount you can spend is $250,000, so you put in an offer on the house for that amount. Competition is fierce and you want to ensure you will get the house. Well, that’s all fine and dandy except your lender has to appraise the house as being worth $250,000 and they send out an appraiser who determines that the house isn’t worth that much. They think that the house is only worth $230,000. So, unfortunately someone else who has $250,000 in cash comes along and gets the house instead. Fair? No. Reality? Yes, indeed.
Seeing what my clients have been going through has been a learning experience for me, and it has made me think a lot about my plan for housing. As much as I would like to rest on my laurels and never move out of my parent’s duplex, I also want my own place and know that real estate is a good investment.
The advice I would give my clients is the advice I would also follow myself: save as much money as you can for a down payment, and be flexible. Being too attached to the kind of house you want, or the neighborhood you would like to live in, will seriously limit your options. There is simply not enough houses on the market for you to be too terribly picky about condition, size or location. I don’t see the lack of inventory being resolved anytime soon. There is just not enough housing to go around. Some folks think this is a housing bubble, but I disagree. Portland has been the number one destination for interstate migration for the last three years! If you’ve been wondering about all the new condos and apartments going up, if you’ve been lamenting the inevitable closing of the food cart pods – this is why; land is more valuable as housing than nearly any other use. It’s more valuable as apartments than as parking lots, or restaurants, or food cart pods. It’s simple economics.
So what does this have to do with my stay at the Sou’wester? Well, I have been staying in this little 57 Jet trailer and it’s been cozy and pleasant. I currently live in a one-bedroom apartment and am used to small spaces. I was thinking to myself: what about buying a plot of land and putting a tiny house or a trailer on it?
First off, I have generally been turned-off by the tiny house “movement.” It seemed to me to be mostly about middle-class virtue, stuffy anti-consumerist snobbery and holier-than-thou hippie bullshit. Like that book, written by that Japanese woman, about how you should only keep objects that “bring you joy.” Barf. You have to ask yourself about the privilege involved in a worldview where your most pressing concern is that you own too much crap. Can you imagine a single mother asking herself: does this plastic spatula bring me joy, does my fifteen year-old car with 200,000 miles on it bring me joy? Of course not, but it get’s the job done and I can’t afford a nicer one, so well, fuck you!
But since staying in this trailer and having a lot of time to think about my goals this week, I have been thinking that a plot of land with a trailer or a tiny house, might be the answer to the present unavailability of decent housing.
Admittedly, there are problems associated with living in a tiny house, especially if you don’t own land to put it on. I found this interesting website (https://padtinyhouses.com/workshop-follow-up-codes-and-tiny-houses/) that basically consults with people on how to design, build and live in their tiny house. Hidden on the FAQ page is the real deal about living in a tiny house in someone else’s backyard:
“Second, you need to recognize that most municipality workloads are complaint driven. They respond only if there is a nuisance like sewage dumped on the ground, alley-ways being blocked, wood smoke, noise, unsafe living conditions, congested parking and the like. As I’ve offered in my e-book, Go House Go, “most code enforcement offices aren’t going to bother you unless you’re throwing your poop in the alley, cooking meth in the kitchen, or are otherwise pissing off your neighbors.”
“The key is in recognizing that long-term occupation of a little house only works if it is done appropriately with minimal impact to your neighbors and the environment. This is as much a mindset and practice, as a strategy for avoiding a run-in with code enforcement. Living in a little house invites the chance to connect with your world in a new way – with a sense of reciprocity and humility – that allows you to do things differently. Accepting that mindset allows you to re-consider water use, electrical demand, the need for space and things so as to minimize your impact to a site.” – padtinyhouses.com
I think this explanation is a bit disingenuous. Basically it is technically illegal to have a tiny house (which is considered an RV) parked in your backyard and have someone live in it. What they don’t mention, it that it’s also illegal to host homeless people in tents in your backyard. So why do we have such a double standard here? It’s because, as the site states, code-enforcement is complaint driven. Meaning, the city isn’t gonna do shit about it unless your neighbors complain, or if a city worker happens to drive by and see something they deem shady. And what do your neighbors have a problem with? Well, they will probably have more of a problem with people who look like they’ve been living outside, that don’t seem to have jobs and are essentially “bums” living in tents in your backyard, only because of the stereotypes associated with homeless people and their supposed “lifestyle”.
Might your neighbors also have a problem with a cute tiny house inhabited by a young family with full time jobs? This is less likely, even if the inhabitants of the tiny house are doing hella drugs and not even paying the landowner rent. It’s totally hypocritical. Yet, tiny house proponents, implicitly endorse this double standard by not explicitly recognizing or being outspoken allies with others that are experiencing houselessness, evictions, and rent hikes. It is important that tiny house boosters see their lifestyle as less of a choice, and more as a practical solution to our housing problems. For many people, myself included, living in a small space is not a virtuous and self-satisfied decision – it’s a necessity.
That being said, the idea appeals to me. I don’t mind living in small spaces and owning my own house, even if it’s a tiny one, is preferable to renting indefinitely. It’s also preferable to maintaining a regular-sized house or living in a condo. I figure if I wanted to entertain, have a party, or a family dinner, I could always wait for good weather and throw up a canopy over a picnic table.
My plan to buy land and put a tiny house on it, however, has its downsides: it’s almost impossible to buy bare land using a lender. Banks don’t like to finance bare land because they don’t want to be in the business of owning land should you default on your loan. So I would either have to have buy the land with all cash or enter into an owner-carry contract. This basically means that with some interest, I would be buying the land from the seller over time. If I miss a payment, the land goes back to the seller and I lose all of my investment. Not the greatest deal, but better than nothing at all. And I think owning the land is preferable to operating in a legal grey area subject to the whims of my landlord and neighbors.
Another thing to consider is water and electric. Unless I plan on being a homesteader, the land would need to be connected to a water and an electricity source. Also, say I spend about $80,000 dollars on a plot of land and another $15,000 to $20,000 on buying and assembling my tiny house. That’s still $100,000 in cash (or some combination of financing) that I am on the hook for. You can’t find a house in Portland for that cheap, but does that really matter when either type of investment seems so out of reach?
So, it’s a lot to think about, and now I am getting hungry again and have to wrap up this Portland update so I can shower and eat a snack. I am off to the Astoria Column with my sister.
Even if the housing situation is a nightmare, I am very grateful for what I have. Life is wonderful in Oregon and we should all remind ourselves that even though it has been changing, Portland is still an amazing city and I am so glad to call it home.