Cottage Village welcomes first residents

SquareOne Villages Executive Director Dan Bryant spoke about the importance of low-income housing at a ceremony celebrating the opening of nine Cottage Village homes on Sept. 18.

With nine tiny houses completed and the first of its residents starting to move in, Cottage Village saw the realization of a dream years in the making last week.

The village is being developed by SquareOne Villages in collaboration with the Cottage Village Coalition (CVC) — a local extension and committee of SquareOne — with the goal of bringing a permanent, affordable tiny house cooperative to Cottage Grove.

“Ultimately, housing is so critical to everything in our society,” said SquareOne Executive Director Dan Bryant at a ceremony on Sept. 18. “When we cannot provide adequate housing, especially for low-income individuals, then there’s just so much else that does not work.”

The nonprofit’s stated goal is to create self-managed communities of cost-effective tiny homes for people with low incomes in need of housing.

Since 2012, SquareOne Villages has developed two tiny home villages in Lane County — Opportunity Village and Emerald Village — with Cottage Village now joining that list.

The conceptual seeds of the $1.7 million project were first planted nearly four years ago when a small group of Cottage Grove community members were discussing solutions to the town’s challenges with homelessness.

“We were just looking at the homeless situation and it has started a movement,” said CVC Vice President Cynthia Sharp.

With residents selected for the first nine houses of the village at 1430 E. Madison Ave., the project of settling in can begin.

Upon completion, the 1.2-acre site will host 13 tiny houses, each of which includes sleeping and living areas, a kitchenette and a bathroom.

The village aims to serve area residents with very low incomes (under 50 percent area median income) who are currently unable to access affordable housing or are at high risk of losing their current housing.

The application process has involved applicants attending an information session and qualifying for residency based on income, a background check, references and a demonstration that they are able to participate in day-to-day life and governance of the village in a cooperative manner.

Once accepted, a resident becomes part of the co-op and signs an agreement to abide by certain standards such as participation in monthly meetings and volunteering a minimum number of hours per month to the “common good” of the village.

Because residents are taking care of the property in lieu of a property management company, costs can remain low. 

This and other strategies have allowed the nonprofit to rent out houses in the range of $350-$450 per month and run the operation at-cost.

In addition to gaining the basic necessity of secure shelter, residents of Cottage Village will also be involved in the governance, operations and maintenance of the village.

By providing agency and control over one’s living space, the SquareOne strategy aims to instill residents with a pride of ownership and sense of community.

SquareOne Community Relations Director Amanda Dellinger drew parallels to successes in SquareOne’s Emerald Village in Eugene.

“There’s a lot of pride people have in being able to make their own way,” said Dellinger. “We’ve made both Emerald Village and Cottage Village affordable so people don’t have to necessarily wait for a Section 8 voucher.”

Part of SquareOne’s mission is to set its communities up for independence.

“The intention is for them to be autonomous,” said Dellinger. “Once they understand how to operate a housing cooperative, they’re not going to need us.”

Building Community

It’s hoped the Cottage Village model will leave its own unique fingerprint on Cottage Grove.

“The village here does a couple things,” said CVC Chair Bruce Kelsh. “It provides truly affordable and safe housing for people. But with that it also supplies community.”

As well as the time put into maintaining the community, it’s hoped the stability offered by this housing model will help to solidify bonds between members.

Kelsh looks to address what he sees as “crisis of loneliness,” especially in the current climate of the pandemic.

“One or two people have already expressed that they’re looking forward to it because they’ve been isolated,” he said. “They’re looking forward to being part of a community.”

The project is also addressing a well-known housing problem in Cottage Grove. The city’s 2018 Housing Needs Analysis identified a deep need for more housing availability at all income levels. Creating affordable housing has been a particular challenge.

“When we first started this project and started applying to the city, we were told we were the first application for low-income housing in 15 years,” said Kelsh. “So, that kind of tells you what the issue is.”

At the Sept. 18 ceremony, Mayor Jeff Gowing spoke to the issue as well.

“Is this going to fix our housing crisis? No, but it’s definitely a start,” he said, as he called for more projects of the kind SquareOne is advancing.

Though the residents of Cottage Village have barely begun their new lives in the co-op, there is already palpable impact on the new arrivals.

Future resident Aislinn Blackstone, 41, had effusive praise for the project and those spearheading it. For Blackstone, it presents to her a new lease on life.

“I wish there was a way to properly thank them,” she said, restraining her emotion.

Blackstone said she is on disability and living out of a trailer on her parents’ property, a situation owed to a complicated history of medical issues that began in 2006. She has since been through numerous hospitalizations and invasive medical procedures which have left her in a mode of physical and psychological recovery that has hampered her quest for independence.

“I’ve forgotten how to live like an adult in a lot of ways,” she explained. “I’m on a very, very limited budget. I’m very much living month-to-month. And so being able to afford a place of my own was a dream I just completely dropped. … I’ve put so many things that I’ve wanted to do and dream of doing on the backburner.”

With her newfound sense of agency, though, Blackstone is looking forward to focusing on thriving rather than surviving. For the first time in a long while, she said a future seems tangible.

“It feels like I’m actually going to have one,” she said. “There is a part of me that’s sort of scared to dream big, but I don’t want to close myself off, either.”

Eager to return to past passions such as writing and photography, she hopes to use her stability to pursue endeavors she’d given up on.

“It really brings this sense of ownership and pride,” she said.

Socializing, too, will become part of her life again.

“I’m really excited to have neighbors to work with and talk with and just be a community with,” said Blackstone.

The Cottage Village project is still not over, however.

Four more houses and a community center have yet to be completed on the property.

“We need to raise about $300,000 more to complete the whole project,” said Kelsh, who hopes to have residents into the final four houses by the end of the year.

While the project finishes up, momentum is already building for similar models to be implemented.

Looking to the future, Dellinger hopes to find more efficient ways to create affordable housing in the area.

“For so long, affordable housing has been about tax credits,” she said. “It’s just not a good use of funds.”

Dellinger is hopeful that more housing projects like Emerald Village and Cottage Village will help chip away at perpetual problems such as homelessness and families living on the edge of financial ruin.

“Getting people together who care about moving it forward — that’s the biggest thing,” she said.

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