'Granny Pods' Help Keep Portland Affordable As rents rise, Portland is making it easier for homeowners to build small houses in their backyards and enable people who would be priced out to stay.

'Granny Pods' Help Keep Portland Affordable

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And now, how one family found a way to stay in their neighborhood, even after their rent doubled. They moved into someone's backyard. This is the latest from the NPR Cities Project.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I was a part of the community.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You need to move out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Fix up these properties.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: A wide range of incomes living with each other.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I may not afford the rent.

GREENE: Portland, Ore., is ranked the fastest-gentrifying American city by Governing magazine. But the city is working on ways to keep at least some housing affordable. Amelia Templeton of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on one solution.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: No more landlord greed, housing for human need.

AMELIA TEMPLETON, BYLINE: This was back in February outside an apartment complex in Portland - hundreds of people protesting a rent increase.



TEMPLETON: The Normandy was an aging complex of two-story yellow buildings with siding coming loose in places. It's on the main drag in Cully, a neighborhood of mobile home parks and ranch houses. About 20 families, most of them Hispanic, lived in the complex, including Michelle Labra's family.

MICHELLE LABRA: (Through interpreter) We are me, my husband and two kids - my son, who's 8 years old and my daughter, who's 5.

TEMPLETON: The new owner sent Labra a notice doubling her rent from around $620 a month to more than $1,300. Talking about it brings her to tears.

LABRA: (Through interpreter) My son, he said, I really don't want to leave this area. My friends are here. My school is here. And I realize it would be destabilizing to him.

TEMPLETON: The owner of the Normandy declined to comment for this story. But Labra and the other tenants did win a small concession. The rent increase was delayed by several months. They still had to move out eventually. Community organizers helped about half the families find new homes in the neighborhood, including Michelle Labra and her kids.

DAPHNE LABRA: This is our yard.

TEMPLETON: You might be surprised where they ended up - a little house in somebody else's backyard, a cottage - 800 square feet.

LABRA: (Through interpreter) When we first came in and I saw this beautiful house, I was really amazed. My kids loved it. We've never had a place that's sort of new like this.

TEMPLETON: The Labra's new home is known as an accessory dwelling unit, or an ADU. They're becoming trendy in Portland.

ELI SPEVAK: We're coming up to the first accessory dwelling unit that I know of on this street.

TEMPLETON: To find out more about ADUs, I took a walk with Eli Spevak. He builds smaller homes, including ADUs.

SPEVAK: An accessory dwelling unit is a fully legal, independent structure that has its own front doors, own address and its own kitchen.

TEMPLETON: Spevak lives and works in Cully. In true Portland style, there is a flock of chickens right outside his office.


SPEVAK: I'm not the expert on the chickens.

TEMPLETON: Cully used to be a place you went to find cheap rent or cheap land. Then its big lots at the edge of the city started attracting urban farmer types. Now Spevak points out expensive new homes going up.

SPEVAK: So this is the house that was built as a spec development, and it sold for $720. That was an eye-opening change for this Cully neighborhood, where we realized many new people who want to live here might be able to afford to outbid anybody who lives here already.

TEMPLETON: Spevak says Portland's zoning code is contributing to its housing problems. On much of the city's land, it limits how many units you can build on a lot. So developers build the biggest house possible to turn the most profit. ADUs help sprinkle some smaller, lower-rent housing into single-family neighborhoods.

SPEVAK: They allow neighborhood to have people at a wide range of incomes living with each other.

TEMPLETON: Portland has some of the most permissive zoning for ADUs in the country. Almost any homeowner is allowed to add one. And the city has encouraged property owners to build them by exempting them from certain fees and parking requirements. That's led to a backyard construction boom in Portland. Last year, the city issued building permits for about one ADU a day.

SPEVAK: And the numbers seem to be climbing, still.

TEMPLETON: It's catching on in other places, too. Seattle, Austin, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco all recently made it easier to add a second unit, or granny flat.

DAPHNE: Look. This is my mom and dad bedroom.

TEMPLETON: Oh, it's really nice.

Back with the Labra family, the kids are settling in to their cottage. 5-year-old Daphne likes showing visitors around. There's a queen bed that her brother Jose likes to jump on.

JOSE LABRA: I'm going to do it right now. You do a flip in the air.

TEMPLETON: The rent here is still a stretch - $900 a month - more than half what the family earns. But Michelle Labra says it's worth it because her kids get to stay right here in Cully, and they didn't have to leave their school. In a backyard in Portland, I'm Amelia Templeton for the NPR Cities Project.

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