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After Rent Doubled, This Portland Family Found A New Home In Their Neighbor's Backyard


When Michelle Labra read the notice that said her rent was increasing from $620 a month to more than $1,300, her first thought was for her kids.

Labra’s husband works in construction. There was no way they could afford the rent hike. 

“My son, he said, ‘I really don’t want to leave this area,’” Labra told OPB in an interview conducted in Spanish. “‘My friends are here, my school is here.’ I realized it was destabilizing to him to move out of this area.”

Labra’s son, Jose, is 8. Her daughter, Daphne, is 5. They’ve lived in this northeast Portland neighborhood, Cully, their whole lives.

Jose goes to Rigler Elementary. His parents know the teachers and the principal there. Daphne is in a Head Start program a few blocks away. 

So Labra and the other families living at the Normandy fought the rent increase. They got help from a local community development organization called Living Cully. The group is trying to help low-income families stay in the neighborhood even as it gentrifies.

They organized marches. They got a lawyer involved.

The Normandy’s owner, Ira Virden, agreed to postpone the rent increase until July 1. Virden didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Living Cully posted a message on the social media site Nextdoor seeking other landlords in Cully with affordable units.

Labra and her family got lucky. For about $900, they’re moving just a few blocks away.

Architect Nancy Hiss is their new landlord — and their new neighbor. Labra’s family is moving into an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, that Hiss built in her backyard a few years ago for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, and her father, who had heart trouble.

Michelle Labra and her daughter, Daphne, enter their home, an affordable dwelling unit in their landlord's backyard.

Michelle Labra and her daughter, Daphne, enter their home, an affordable dwelling unit in their landlord’s backyard.

Amelia Templeton/OPB

“What really worked about it was that they had their own space,” Hiss said. “It was a sense of privacy, but we were really close.”

Hiss’ house and her husband’s record shop sit on the front of the lot. In the back, about 20 feet away, there’s the ADU, which is painted the same light yellow. The unit has its own parking spot and a patio that looks out over Hiss’ garden and bird feeders.

After her parents died, Hiss and her husband tried to rent the backyard unit to a refugee family. Hiss’ mother-in-law fled the Nazis to the U.S. as a child. The couple wanted to pay that forward.

But Hiss said they couldn’t find a refugee family to rent. So when they saw the notice that Living Cully was looking for units for more than a dozen families, they wrote back. A few days later, Labra and her family came to take a look.

“And they could have said, ‘Well, we’re in a desperate situation, we’ll take it.’ But they said, ‘It has really nice light, we like it. We like the birds.’ I was like, ‘OK.’ There’s just this gut connection.”

The accessory dwelling unit behind Nancy Hiss' house is the new home for a family priced out of their Northeast Portland apartment complex. 

The accessory dwelling unit behind Nancy Hiss’ house is the new home for a family priced out of their Northeast Portland apartment complex. 

Amelia Templeton/OPB

The ADU is small, about 800 square feet, but it doesn’t feel that way. It has two bedrooms and two bathrooms, and high ceilings with skylights that Labra likes. 

“When we first came in and I saw this beautiful house, I was really amazed,” she said. “My kids loved it. We’ve never had a place that was new like this, and they were wanting to get their stuff together, and saying, ‘Mom, when can we move in?’”

There are just under 2,000 ADUs in Portland.

As affordable housing — and undeveloped land — becomes more scarce, Portland is looking to ADUs as one strategy to get the private market to create new units that will rent at a lower price.

The city has waived some building fees for ADUs and given homeowners more flexibility to make them larger, up to two stories.

Hiss, the architect, said it’s a good way to add housing in Portland’s single-family neighborhoods, places that aren’t zoned for apartment buildings.

“It’s kind of an in-between density solution within neighborhoods,” she said.

Nancy Hiss and Daniel Berkman constructed an affordable dwelling unit, or ADU, in their backyard.

Nancy Hiss and Daniel Berkman constructed an affordable dwelling unit, or ADU, in their backyard.

Amelia Templeton/OPB

Multnomah County is also getting into accessory dwelling units. It plans to design and build ADUs in privately owned yards to house homeless families.

County officials hope to have the first four ADUs built by the end of the summer.

Back in Cully, Labra and her family moved into the backyard cottage earlier this month. She’s hoping it’s the last move her family makes for a long time. 

economy housing homelessness rent oregon portland ADU Accessory Dwelling Units

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