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New project aims to build 'cottage clusters' for senior citizens to prevent homelessness

United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley said seniors are the nation's fastest-growing homeless population by age group.

SALEM, Ore. — There's an effort underway in the mid-Willamette Valley to help seniors who are at risk of becoming homeless.

The effort is called "The Market Street Affordable Housing Project" and it's run by the United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley. The idea is to help prevent the elderly and most vulnerable from becoming homeless.

“We actually started looking at this issue about four years ago,” said Rhonda Wolf, CEO of the United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley.

“One of our biggest issues here in our community and lot of communities is lack of affordable housing,”

For seniors who are on a fixed income, affordable housing is crucial.

"The average social security is just over $1,500 a month [...] You're considered housing-burdened if you're paying over 30% of your income on housing,” Wolf said.

When you do the math, using the average social security amount of $1,500 a month, the amount seniors would have to pay in order not to be burdened by housing costs works out to about $350-$450 dollars a month. That kind of low rent is not easy to find.

“If you think of someone living on $1,500 a month, it doesn't take much to wipe you out,” said Brent Neilsen, who is helping the United Way with its project. 

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Neilsen is an independent consultant with Emerald Flash Consulting, which consults with nonprofits and helps them bring innovative ideas to fruition. He also sits on the United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley’s affordable housing committee.

“There has been a significant underbuilding of affordable housing in Oregon for the last 10 to 20 years,” said Neilsen, who has researched Oregon’s trends in homelessness. Neilsen referenced an ECONorthwest study that suggested a connection between homelessness and the availability of affordable housing or lack thereof. 

Wolf said seniors are the fastest-growing homeless population by age group. Even so, they’re not always seen living outside on the streets. Neilsen said that’s part of the problem: Elderly people who are homeless are often less visible.

“I think a lot of the elder homeless will couch surf. They’ll stay with family. They’ll stay with friends. But they don’t have a place that’s theirs,” said Neilsen.

To keep more elderly from becoming homeless, the nonprofit hopes to build what are called "cottage clusters." Images from Propel Studio Architecture and Edomo illustrate the general concept and ideas.

“They're 395-square-foot units,” said Neilsen.

“We have an agreement now signed with the City of Salem, who is helping provide some properties out on Market Street, which is really going to allow us to kick off this project,” Wolf said.

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The area Wolf is talking about is across from Swegle Elementary School on Market Street NE near 45th Avenue NE. It's comprised of six usable lots.

“We're looking at seven units for the first lot,” said Neilsen.

He said at most, there could be up to 50 cottages. But United Way board member, Jordan Truitt said it's still early in the process.

“Right now at this point it is still in the development and design phase,” said Truitt.

The plan is to break ground in the fall with the hope that the housing concept will take off.

“As much as we're trying to house seniors, we're also trying to prove it's a viable model so then hopefully other developers can say, ‘okay well I’m going to take this thing to scale,” said Neilsen.

When asked how many cottages are needed, Neilsen said more units are needed than the United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley can build alone.

“So we need a lot of people kind of getting together and helping on this, and hopefully what we can do is start that ball rolling down the hill,” Neilsen said.

Truitt said once the first cottages are built and they figure out a sustainable funding model, the concept can be used to help any group of people in need of housing. Truitt hopes the idea may help wildfire fire survivors from last year.

“Trying to provide a housing solution for a wide variety of people that can be replicated pretty much anywhere,” said Truitt.

“This is not the only or last project that we’re working on. We’re already in discussions with Marion County for housing projects up in the burn areas up in the Santiam Canyon. There’s dialogue with some satellite communities around the area,” he said.

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A 2019 bill that gives more flexibility in residential zoning is what's allowing this type of development. Currently, larger cities are updating zoning rules to conform with the new law. Neilsen said it’s a waiting game as they wait to finalize the paperwork on the property and apply for zoning.

Neilsen said “cottage clusters” were popular prior to World War II, but afterward, single-family homes were the favorites for residential lots zoned for single families, so cottage clusters were disallowed. He said trying to apply for an auxiliary dwelling unit (ADU) or multi-family lot were difficult. Now, with the new zoning allowance, duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, and cottage clusters will be allowed on single family lots.

For more information and ways to help or donate, you can visit the United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley's website. Neilsen said if people want to donate specifically to the Market Street Affordable Housing Project, they can designate their donation go to affordable housing.

Truitt said he hopes local organizations and businesses get involved too.

“One of our main goals here is to use local resources for this project. We have a local designer, a local builder, we’re working with architects and zoning professionals in the Salem area who are assisting on this,” said Truitt.

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