When Jennie MacMillan first arrived in Cottage Grove four years ago, she says she knew immediately it would be home. She loved the small community, the restaurants and the parks, and thought it would be the perfect place to raise her daughter.
But last year, when circumstances out of her control forced her to leave her house, MacMillan and her 13-year-old, Rain, thought they would have to abandon their rural roots for Eugene, where more housing services are available. Then, someone told MacMillan to apply to live in Cottage Village, a new group of tiny homes available for homeless and cost-burdened people.
MacMillan was approved, and moved with her daughter into her new community in September.
“Cottage Grove was looking out for me,” MacMillan says. “Cottage Grove said, ‘We want her back.’”
Last week SquareOne Villages, which helped pilot the project, announced the completion of the final units in Cottage Village, a $1.7 million dollar enterprise. These 13 brand new tiny homes give people like MacMillan a fresh start while living in a self-managed community. Those in charge of the project hope Cottage Village will serve as an example for affordable housing in other small communities and encourage rural governments to invest in more shelter options.
“The idea with Cottage Village was to create a rural model that can be shared with other rural communities,” says Amanda Dellinger, community relations director with Square One.
After the success of their first two villages in Eugene — Emerald Village and Opportunity Village — SquareOne staff was looking for a spot to build their next village when they heard about a coalition of people in Cottage Grove, called the Cottage Village Coalition, who were advocating for more housing solutions in the community, says Dan Bryant, executive director of Cottage Village. SquareOne worked with the coalition and the Cottage Grove City Council to purchase the 1.1 acre parcel in 2017.
“What’s really interesting that I’ve learned about Cottage Grove is their housing crisis is as great or maybe even greater than here in Eugene,” Bryant says. He adds that generally people do not find housing in the community they prefer because there is not enough of it, forcing people to flock to places like Eugene.
Dellinger says a large percentage of people live above federal poverty level but are still not able to afford basic necessities of living, even if they are working full time. Dellinger notes that in Lane County, 44 percent of people fall within that category, but in Cottage Grove it’s 50 percent.
“Before we proposed Cottage Village to the city of Cottage Grove, there hadn’t been an application for an affordable housing development in 15 years,” Dellinger says, adding the housing vacancy rate in Cottage Grove is only 1 percent, making it nearly impossible to find housing.
In SquareOne’s housing communities, including Cottage Village, each resident pays a carrying charge ranging anywhere from $350 to $500 a month. But this is more than just rent, Dellinger explains, because residents get an ownership share in their homes.
“It’s set up as a housing cooperative,” Dellinger says. “So people serve on one of the committees that help run the housing cooperative. They manage the house and the grounds and navigate new member applications.”
Both Dellinger and Bryant agree there needs to be more affordable housing in rural areas. But planning and building a community like Cottage Village in a more rural area does come with different challenges when compared with developing affordable housing in Eugene.
Dellinger says SquareOne received pushback from neighbors during the project, who had misconceptions about who would be living in the homes and didn’t want this type of affordable housing in their small town.
“One neighbor literally wanted us to build an eight-foot cement wall to keep the ‘druggies out,’ even though there are no drug addicts. These are well-functioning, working, generous and wonderful people,” Dellinger says.
MacMillan says she gets neighbors’ perspective, because of the low-income label associated with Cottage Village.
“But whether people are rich or poor, you know, it doesn’t say if you are a good person or not and it doesn’t say if you’re clean or not.” She says that those who live in Cottage Village have to follow a specific application process that checks references and that residents also have to write and follow their own bylaws.
Another difficult aspect of creating affordable housing projects in smaller communities is the funding. When building Emerald Village in Eugene, Bryant says, they received larger donations from private donors. In Cottage Grove, SquareOne received support from the local community, but depended mostly on grants and funding from Lane County than private donations.
“There is going to be more of a need for grant writing,” Dellinger says, “Because, like we’ve talked about, there is more economic frailty and there’s not as many people in rural areas, so there just isn’t enough money.”
Dellinger says in rural areas, local governments might also need more convincing. When the coalition of Cottage Grove locals first tried to create an alternative shelter, the city wasn’t ready for it, Dellinger says, and the City Council didn’t approve the request. She adds they were more open to the Cottage Village idea, because it provides permanent housing rather than a temporary place for people to go.
But the success of Cottage Village opened doors for homeless solutions in the community, and the city is working on building a transitional shelter in Cottage Grove. As of now, Dellinger says, the shelter will only be available during low temperature nights and there isn’t a local organization that can help run it.
“But it’s a really, really great step forward and is helping pave the way for these kinds of options for people,” she says.
And these options help people like MacMillan, who struggled to find a place to live in her town. A tattoo artist, MacMillan now has a job in Cottage Grove, and says her life has changed drastically for the better.
“I left with everything,” she says. “And the planet is new. I could not be happier”