With parks off the table in Portland zoning code update, RVs and tiny homes in the spotlight

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
April 15, 2021 12:57 a.m.

Supporters of the plan say legalizing RVs and tiny homes on wheels are critical to provide low-cost housing options. But at least one prominent advocate had big concerns.

Portlanders had one last chance to weigh in Wednesday on a zoning code change that would allow for more shelter and housing options across the city before the proposal heads to a vote in the coming weeks.

The package, officially called the Shelter to Housing Continuum project, would make it easier to site shelters and legalize low-cost housing options like RVs and tiny homes on wheels by relaxing the city’s zoning restrictions.


The project has earned the support of a wide array of homeless service and advocacy organizations, who view the code change as an effective way to help people off the streets and into shelter and mobile housing.

But on Wednesday, one prominent homeless advocate invited to testify voiced serious concerns over a large chunk of the project. Dr. Marisa Zapata, the director of Portland State University’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative and an associate professor of land-use planning, said she wasn’t convinced the housing portion of the shelter-to-housing project would help.

Zapata said she was doubtful that the tiny homes on wheels and RVs soon-to-be legalized as housing options by the code change would effectively tackle the city’s affordable housing crisis.

“This is supposed to be a policy focused on people experiencing homelessnsess. ... The people who’ve been pushing for this particular issue tend to be housed and middle class,” she said. “I’m honestly still not sure how this ended up in a bill.”

Since the city began holding public meetings on the project, concerns about the shelter portion have dominated the discussions. Some residents were worried the code change would lead to more shelters popping up in city parks and clustering on the city’s east side. The city ultimately tweaked the code change to bar parks from outdoor shelters and promised the public that shelter providers had no plans to congregate on the east side where residents felt a disproportionate percentage of shelters were built.

On Wednesday, the council set aside two hours for the public to weigh in more on the housing portion of the plan as well as an amendment that would let religious institutions host small shelters in single-dwelling zones without requiring special permission.

Under current city rules, Portlanders are not allowed to live in RVs or tiny houses on wheels, which are considered vehicles by the state — though the city has not enforced this rule since 2017. The code change would add a provision to city code that explicitly allow these options in residential areas — one per lot.

Many who testified Wednesday spoke in support of these mobile-housing options.


“This kind of housing is providing an important role in meeting the shelter needs of Portland’s least affluent residents all on private property and with no public funding,” said Eli Spevak, chair of the Planning and Sustainability Commission.

Others suggested small tweaks. The current code change would require a utility hookup for RVs and tiny homes on wheels, which some warned would be prohibitively costly to install. Supporters of the group “Portland: Neighbors Welcome,” a pro-housing advocacy group, asked the council to eliminate the requirement.

“At least some will balk at these new major costs and risks and simply stop hosting these homes,” said Henry Kraemer, a member of the advocacy group and owner of a tiny home. “This would mean avoidable displacement of many people.”

In an interview with OPB, Zapata said she feared that city planners were effectively saying that Portland’s poorest residents should be satisfied with this mobile housing — and may no longer pursue other avenues for affordable housing.

“If our purpose is basic human dignity and respect, then why are we expecting lesser housing for people who have experienced or are experiencing houselessness,” she said. “... My biggest fear is we’re going to say we’ve got ‘x’ amount of people experiencing homelessness, let’s go buy ‘x’ number of tiny homes on wheels and be done with it.”

“To me it’s a way of avoiding the bigger questions, which is: how do we get to the affordable housing that’s needed faster?” she continued.

She also questioned whether the city had dug into the details of the plan enough to see how it might shake out over the coming years.

“I didn’t see any of the analysis to say ‘here are the concerns, here are the potential unintended consequences, here’s how we could respond to those.’ I didn’t actually see anything that it would in turn [have] intended consequences. We put some RVs out there — does it do anything?”

Eric Engstrom, the principal planner for the project, wrote in an email that part of the analysis had been looking at the last five years when the city waived many of the zoning rules during the housing state of emergency. He added that Kol Peterson, an RV and tiny house advocate, had done an informal count of people living in tiny homes and SROs.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said he believed the code change would assist Portlanders who would now have their housing choice made legal by the city.

“I want to acknowledge that RVs and tiny homes on wheels on private property are definitely not the panacea to solving homelessness,” he said. “But I do believe they can play an important role in providing middle housing.”

The council has not yet scheduled a date for a final vote on the proposal.


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Portland considers zoning change to allow for cheaper housing options, more shelter beds

The proposal, called the Shelter to Housing Continuum project, would provide more options for people at risk of houselessness or already living on the street. The project has been in the city pipeline since February 2019 when the council voted to extend the city’s State of Housing Emergency, a declaration that eased zoning code restrictions for shelter providers.