Tiny Homes, Big Community
Words by Sarah Hovet, Photos by Johnny Hammond
Opportunity Village is situated between several pairs of railroad tracks, across from an industrial supply compound and past the Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood. Once inside the barbed wire-lined gates, the tiny homes contrast with the looming surroundings.
Some of the homes have curved roofs, others slanted. Occasional turquoise and mint green walls add splashes of color. A birdhouse sits on a telephone pole. Strawberry plants rise from the small garden and a wagon holds lettuce, cabbage, and tomato plants.
The interior dimensions of a tiny home range from 6 by 8 feet to 8 by 8 feet, not much larger than a king size mattress. The space accommodates a bed, shelves, and plastic bins for storage under the bed. Villagers refer to them as “walk-in closets” and the organization of their possessions in the storage bins as “tetris.” Villagers like Liz Bolter enjoy the challenge.
To reach Bolter’s bungalow, a visitor has to walk by the communal sink and food preparation area. Peppers and apples sit on the covered dining table. A radio plays the Red Hot Chili Peppers. On one end is the pantry, stocked weekly by Food For Lane County. The cramped kitchen smells of thyme.
Four large plastic containers neatly stacked on top of each other line Bolter’s front step, which is clear except for a glass jar full of rocks and a black container holding her mother’s ashes. A pile of driftwood from the Oregon coast leans against the wall.
Inside, her possessions are rigorously organized. A plastic bin holds her book collection, with titles ranging from Build and Repair With Concrete to Aquaponic Gardening. Billed hats hang from pegs in the wood beams composing the narrow loft above her bed. One reads “Chill.”
Bolter explains hats are big in Opportunity Village, where daily events are weather-dependent. Waking up in the winter tends to be a choice between the discomfort of a full bladder and a walk through the rain to one of the two toilets shared by the villagers.
The villagers also sign up for 30-minute slots in the single communal shower. Bolter describes trying to pack as much as possible into that half hour: pedicure, shave, hair trim, and yoga.
Other routines bring seasonal joy: a fresh, warm load of laundry this time of year is more inviting than in the heat of the summer. With no air conditioning or electricity for fans inside the tiny homes, Bolter advises spray bottles, buckets of water, and waking up before sunrise to conduct chores in the predawn cool.
“Most of the time, I’m victorious,” Bolter says of negotiating these tasks.
Tiny house villages are found throughout the country, from Portland to Ann Arbor. They crop up as the lack of affordable housing borders on epidemic. In Seattle, the homeless rate increased by 19 percent between 2015 and 2016, with 4,500 people found sleeping outside during an annual One Night Count, where volunteers walk the streets and keep tally. The city of Eugene estimates that nearly 3,000 people in the community have no home to sleep in on any given night.
The sustainable and social philosophy of a model like Opportunity Village vitalizes these collectives “to make a small space have as many people live on it as possible and thrive as much as possible,” according to Bolter. The goal is forward momentum to a more lasting housing situation. The village application requires villagers to subscribe to “the goal of self-sufficiency.” In addition to providing a safe, stable environment while villagers seek employment and/or wait to move up on housing lists, the village features a self-managing structure.
Before applying to live in Opportunity Village, Bolter spent four months homeless in Eugene, from June to October 2014. She navigated homelessness with camping skills from her childhood and military service.
Bolter had previously immigrated to Canada after one of the National Guard units she had been in was activated post-9/11. She lived there as an illegal immigrant for almost five years. Although she had moved on to another unit that was not active at the time, she describes associates who could not adjust back to daily life after spending time overseas and lost their jobs, homes, and families.
“My disgruntlement with being an American had been growing for many years, but it had finally reached disgust,” she says.
Now she is waiting for a new contract from DePaul Security, her long-time employer. During her homeless period, she relied on her work for necessities such as running water and refrigeration.
In addition to her external work, she staffs the front desk by the gate at Opportunity Village eight hours a week and contributes to two weekly hours of beautification. In addition, she contributes $30 monthly for utilities and attends Tuesday night community meetings as a requirement to remain a villager.
The application for Opportunity Village can be found online at the SquareOne Villages website. It includes a background check and a skills inventory, asking about prior experience in areas from small engine repair to spiritual leadership. Alongside standard application questions, the form has a space for “Where did you sleep last night?” “How did you become unhoused?” and “Have you been active in houseless issues/activism?” An applicant must also sign that they understand the five basic rules: no violence to self or others, no theft, no alcohol, drugs, or paraphernalia, no persistent disruptive behavior, and the imperative to contribute to the village’s continued integrity.
Opportunity Village opened in July 2013. The site was originally an RV park, which provides benefits such as availability of outlets because the villagers do not have electricity or running water in their tiny homes.
The property currently contains 29 residential units, 20 bungalows of 8 by 10 feet and nine conestogas of 8 by 8 feet.
Opportunity Village is owned by mother company SquareOne Villages, an organization confronting the lack of affordable housing in Eugene. They also have plans to create a second site, Emerald Village.
The co-founder of Opportunity Village, Andrew Heben, lived in a homeless tent city for a month during college as a field study for his thesis project. He later wrote Tent City Urbanism to explore the overlap between tent camps and tiny housing villages. Most of the book explores different homeless communities around the country as case studies and addresses advocacy for villages.
Just as Heben gathered data from various models, housing coalitions now look to Opportunity Village as a model. In Oregon alone, Medford adopted the Opportunity Village model in November to design its forthcoming Hope Village and Cottage Grove has plans to do the same. In December, the International Code Council approved the first tiny-house-specific appendix for the 2018 International Residential Code. In other words, tiny homes residents may now receive Certificates of Occupancy if their state or local government implements the measure. SquareOne Village intends to open its second project in Eugene, Emerald Village, on an acre of land in the Whiteaker in 2017. Tiny houses are up and coming, and Heben is on the forefront.
Bolter describes Heben as someone who “became passionate about the plight of homelessness” and also had a degree in urban planning. “He’s done good on his degree. He’s a homeless advocate.”
Innovation is at the heart of Opportunity Village. Resident Gilbert Hayes characterizes himself as an “innovator of stuff.” He arrived at Opportunity Village in August 2016 and adopted the role of master gardener and herbalist. He can name a favorite healing herb — plantain — and laugh about the challenge of convincing villagers to eat the mustard greens he grows. When he arrived, the village was having trouble watering its crops of blue corn, beets, carrots, basil, and other culinary herbs. So he designed a drip system to hydrate the gardens.
In addition to the drip system, Hayes has conceptualized Smartphone apps, crafted pipes out of scrap rock, and acted as the village hair stylist. He plans to move to Emerald Village when it opens to continue his goal of creating and consulting micro-businesses that work with co-ops and companies like SquareOne Villages.
Sitting on a couch in the yurt where the weekly community meetings take place, Hayes pulls up news articles about Emerald Village on a communal computer. A small dog with a patch of dyed fur drowses on the cushion next to him. He pulls up a YouTube video of the groundbreaking at the Emerald site. Once there, he envisions a “farmacy” of supplements and tinctures.
“I want to help heal people and create jobs,” he says.
After two years in the village, Bolter says the pressure to move on is mounting. She intends to maintain a nomadic lifestyle by purchasing an RV or a truck with a trailer. Once she gets her wheels, she will pursue seasonal work, such as trimming marijuana by the coast. A “rockhound wannabe” with a glass jar of Oregon sunstones in her bungalow, Bolter also wants to gold pan.
She describes Sharp’s Creek and Bryce Creek south of Cottage Grove, where she hopes to explore the bedrock and identify the replenishing sites. At first her sister demanded, “You want to be a hermit?” But after Bolter explained that she hoped to return to the hotspots for years to come, her sister approved of gold panning the riverbeds as Bolter’s version of a “retirement plan.”
Although a grateful recipient, Bolter says she hopes to move on from Opportunity Village in spring 2017. In such close quarters, politics are always in the air. Heated disputes can develop over issues such as what constitutes a valid excuse for missing a community meeting, how to go about collecting emergency contact info, and how to regulate villagers’ assistance animals.
Bolter says that people who suffer from rage issues or a of lack self-control will not last at Opportunity Village. As villagers learn about the rules, they recommend the community to acquaintances with these qualifications in mind, resulting in an elevated quality of villager applicants over the years.
Despite holiday dinners and a new Wednesday game night, Bolter admits the average villager is antisocial, and an individual who has been chronically homeless for 20 years would most likely be too antisocial to be part of the village. Accountability and reliability can be issues, but Bolter contends that the homeless are not lazy.
“When you’re out there, it’s a hustle to survive. It’s work,” she says. “The American dream doesn’t work for us and there’s a thousand and one reasons why it doesn’t.”
After living in Canada, she calls the disparity between homeless resources in Canada and the United States “night and day.” Eugene, however, ranked ahead of the other cities in the country, with resources like the mission. Still, she lived without housing for four months, had her bike stolen, and dealt with the pressure of an approaching winter. Opportunity Village provided her with a space where she could safely set down her possessions, take shelter from the elements, and have a space similar to the centered place she reaches when she practices yoga: “sanctuary.”