BY BRIAN LIBBY
Chances are you've noticed Kevin Cavenaugh and his Guerrilla Development company's last project, the Fair-Haired Dumbbell office building, with its prominent location at Burnside and MLK and its wildly colorful mural-covered facade. It's also hard to miss some of Guerrilla's other recent projects, like The Zipper on Sandy Boulevard with its lenticular facade graphics or the Burnside Rocket, its red metal exterior including artist-painted window screens.
One associates Cavanaugh, who is trained as an architect but carved out a unique development career, with funky-festooned and boldly conceived projects that are as much creative experiments as business endeavors. His projects seem to make profits but that is, refreshingly, clearly not his only measure of success. Guerrilla Development often eschews buildings that rise to meet height limits in favor of something more intimate and iconoclastic, reminding us that it's a mistake to conflate density and height.
With that in mind, the developer's latest project, called Jolene's First Cousin, is visually quite tame. With frequent collaborator Brett Schulz as architect, the project is comprised of a pair of small two-story buildings sitting side by side in Southeast Portland's Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood south of Powell Boulevard and comprising just 6,500 square feet on a 50x100-foot lot, they seem to mostly recall a kind of neighborhood storefront vernacular that exists outside of the downtown core on boulevards and avenues acting as retail centers for otherwise residential neighborhoods. There are no arresting primarily colors and nothing too challenging about the forms.
Instead, Cavenaugh and Guerrilla are saving their boldness for the development approach and the social mission behind it, and the crowdfunding financing plan first utilized with the Fair-Haired Dumbbell (which inspired a popular New York Times story).
Quite simply, Jolene's First Cousin is a mixed-use affordable housing project that doesn't use a dime of public subsidy. Instead, this small development's 750-square foot market-rate apartments and the ground-floor retail are intended to privately subsidize eight micro-sized apartments with shared showers and kitchen — basically single room occupancy. Guerrilla sees this as a way for some homeless or nearly-homeless people to make the transition back into permanent housing and as catering an under-served market of renters, largely young people but potentially retirees as well, willing to trade square footage for a more centralized urban location.
Recently I visited Guerrilla Development's offices in its own New New Crusher Court building on Sandy Boulevard, where the Eighties songs playing throughout the office — Springsteen's "Dancing In The Dark" and The Pointer Sisters' "I'm So Excited"—seemed to express the developer's enthusiastic, iconoclastic approach to buildings. Following is a conversation with Cavenaugh and Guerrilla Development's Anna Mackay about Jolene's First Cousin and the broader vision it's part of.
Portland Architecture: Tell us about the concept behind Jolene’s First Cousin.
Mackay: The concept here is that it’s a mixed-use project combining market rate and this very inexpensive single room occupancy [housing] arrangement. The ground floor has three market units facing Gladstone Street and 28th Place. The second story of the north building has two market-rate one-bedroom apartments. The shared space on the ground floor is a shared kitchen, dining and living room. There is also an ADA-accessible unit on the ground floor. They share this courtyard. You head up the stairs and you have 10 additional bedrooms that are about 100 square feet apiece. They share showers, toilets, washer-dryers. In the rooms there is a sink, a bed, a desk, a closet.
Cavenaugh: It’s in the tradition of a flophouse, an SRO. In Old Town, all those buildings were built as SROs for guys working on the docks. And they did that because it was so cheap and affordable. It’s the bare minimum of housing. This is about safe, clean, warm, sanitary housing. But there is a big-screen TV and a pretty badass kitchen.
And what about the market-rate units?
Cavenaugh: Plans [by most developers] have been squeezed down to the most efficient footprint, and I think it’s sad. We’re contrarians here. Those are big one-bedrooms, 750 square feet, and they’re market rate. We want to charge a lot of rent for those. This is a study in internal subsidization. It’s how we pay for our affordable housing.
Who do you imagine living in the micro units?
Mackay: the neat thing about how we’re filling these rooms is maybe logically you’d put all 11 in conjunction. In our case, Street Roots will be providing the names of their vendors that can move in. Then we’re going to split that dynamic by posting five of the rooms on Craig’s List for $425 a month, the same it’ll cost the vendors. There must be students or young people interested in having a $425-a-month room in close-in Portland.
Cavenaugh: The 25-year old me that moved to town in 1993 site unseen with skis and a duffle bag of clothes: I would’ve lived here in a heartbeat. Studies show when you put a monolithic type of housing in one place it doesn’t work. We talk about the emergency state of homelessness in Portland right now. A handful of solutions involve putting 1,000 in a tent village out by the airport. That’s a fine temporary solution, but a horrible long term solution because you’ll never break the cycle of poverty. But if we get some people living in their cars in Jolene’s First Cousin, or other people who wake up and scuttle off to work, it’s a healthier organism.
Do you see this as a one-off or the first of multiple such hybrids of market-rate and affordable housing?
Mackay: That concept scales with Jolene’s. We’re aiming to have Jolene’s Second, Third and Fourth cousin, and the intent is to drop them into established neighborhoods.
Cavenaugh: Where this is done successfully in Europe, every neighborhood does their part. Look at all the pushback on Dignity Village. Nobody wants it in their backyard. We showed this to the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood association, and they were like, “Awesome. Cool.” Because there are six rooms housing people currently without homes, not a hundred and six. I want to put these in Montavilla and Portland Heights and Irvington. In Europe it’s a given that everyone does their part to absorb these into the community. The success of those models is really high. We’re not reinventing the wheel here. We’re dusting off a centuries-old model.
Jolene's First Cousin floor plans (Guerrilla Development)
Architecturally it’s not as bold or as colorful and graphic as past projects of yours like the Fair-Haired Dumbbell, The Zipper or the Rocket, which perhaps says something about the different context. It's not on such a thoroughfare as the Dumbbell or other Guerrilla projects.
Cavenaugh: It looks super vernacular. It doesn’t look like the Dumbbell or the Zipper by any stretch. If we do one on Sandy, it’ll be more exotic. But it’d be a dick move to do something that was…the program is exotic enough. The architecture should be a thoughtful nod.
Even so, Jolene’s First Cousin is like the dumbbell in its being broken down into two smaller buildings instead of one larger building.
Cavenaugh: It is about positive and negative space. The Dumbbell does this. The Two-Thirds Project does it. I don’t think we have a project that extends to the lot line. Even here [Guerrilla's New New Crusher Court] it was zoned to go taller than this. We’re leaving FAR [floor area ratio] on the table. But it’s our first ‘Cousin’ building. We were frankly expecting more controversy for it. We didn’t want to be perceived as pushing the physical as well as the programmatic envelope. When you look up and down Gladstone Street [at a similar vernacular], that’s why it exists.
Mackay: It does feel like a counterpoint to the building across 28th Place.
Cavenaugh: I remember someone critiqued The Zipper for being one story when it could go six. I said, ‘We go to Paris and Amsterdam, and we see three stories next to five next to one. And that’s what makes it great. Density for density’s sake—600 people a day go to the zipper. It’s dense-just not in terms of square footage. And this will be dense too [in the number of people]
Could you talk a little bit about the funding? The Dumbbell was unique in its crowdfunded component and small investors. Will you be taking that further with Jolene’s First Cousin?
Mackay: Yes, it’s partially funded through crowd-invested equity. At the time we were looking at a max investment of $250,000. Now it’s $300,000.
Does the investment strategy affect how you lay out the units?
Cavenaugh: No. We always start with the napkin sketch, then the pro forma. If it works, we go with it.
Mackay: You mentioned crowdfunding, but I make the distinction: it’s crowd investing. This is not Kickstarter. You get real equity in a hard asset. You invest in your community and you get more than one kind of return.
Kevin, could you talk a little bit about the motivation behind the crowd-funding? With the Dumbbell I know it started as a way to fund the project and then became more about providing an opportunity to small-scale investors.
Cavenaugh: There’s this massive wealth gap in America. Most crowd investing is about still getting high-net-worth individuals to the table. And that’s not interesting to us. If you invest in this, your dividend is better than you’d get most anywhere else: five percent. But also on the Dumbbell a lot of investors said, ‘Gosh, we wish we could ride the appreciation train.’ On this, it’s ten years of five percent. At the end of ten years, we assume a sale and those people get paid off. Whatever it has appreciated, they’ll get a percent of that.
Mackay: I think with each new crowd investing effort we are creating the kind of financial opportunity for folks that they just can’t find anywhere else. Yes, an unaccredited investor can put in $1,000 and look at all their charts and see it go up. Here it’s more like a traditional real estate investment that the fat cats tend to have access to, but the common me or you not so much. There’s also this socially responsible aspect to it. Your money is going to this good cause and you’re going to get a return. That’s’ social-impact investment.
Cavenaugh: If I used an online real estate investment platform like Fundrise, I’d own part of a strip mall in Plano, Texas.
Mackay: We are banking on the fact that people want more and deserve more in this new economy.
Are there minimum and/or maximums to the crowd-investing?
Mackay: $3,000 is the minimum. $50,000 is the maximum. We don’t want someone to take it all.
Cavenaugh: With the Dumbbell a few people came in and took big chunks, but the majority came in at more like $3,000. It’s easier for us to deal with one, but that’s not the experiment.
Mackay: After the big fish at $250,000 and $150,000 on the Dumbbell, and about three investors around $1,000, the average investment was $6,500. Eighty-five percent of those investors came from Portland, even though it was available to four states and DC. It’s only Oregon residents eligible with this one.
When are you breaking ground?
Mackay: We are deconstructing the house there now through mid-January. Our contractor is aiming for February or March. That’s contingent on finalizing our permits.
Cavenaugh: We want to be done by end of summer but who knows? It’s not a complicated building.