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One woman's plan to solve the Bay Area's housing problem: 10,000 tiny, backyard homes

Marisa Kendall, The Mercury News on

Published in Home and Consumer News

What do these two places have in common: Hale County, Ala., one of the nation's poorest communities, and Silicon Valley, one of the nation's richest?

People can't afford homes in either place, says Pam Dorr, director of affordable housing at Menlo Park-based nonprofit Soup.

That's why after spending 15 years helping to produce affordable homes in Hale County, Dorr is bringing the lessons she learned in rural Alabama to the Bay Area, eager to try her hand at solving the region's housing woes. Her goal is to build 10,000 homes in 10 years, by erecting prefabricated granny flats in backyards or on other unused parcels. She hopes eventually to produce these tiny units for less than $100,000 each for homeless or low-income families through Soup, which has tackled issues from clean drinking water in Africa to children's fitness in East Palo Alto, and now is focused on low-income housing in the Bay Area.

Dorr sat down with this news organization recently outside of a two-bedroom, 700-square-foot granny flat Soup recently built in a Menlo Park backyard for about $250,000 -- the organization's first one -- to talk about why backyard units are part of the solution, and the hurdles that still stand in the way of that dream. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What led you to get involved with anti-poverty work in Alabama?

A: Moving to Alabama helped me recognize that the things I really struggled with were kind of ridiculous. I started working with people that never had running water, never had power at their homes, and they were struggling on a very different level -- trying to live on $733 a month, which is a disability income. And what I decided to do was help people own homes at that income, and that became the $20,000 house project -- small homes or small cottages that people could own at a very low income using a federal loan.

And now that I'm here, back in the Bay Area where I'm from, I really want to make the $20,000 house a reality for families here in the Bay Area -- at a different cost. I think everything kind of scales up based on land cost. But what is the least expensive home we can build for a working family to help them stay in the communities where they were raised and where they want to live?

Q: Why do you think these backyard homes are going to be a big part of the solution to our housing crisis?

A: If we think of each of us as being a partial solution to homelessness, it's one way we can help. So if I own a home and I'm not utilizing my backyard fully, but recognize that I could house someone who's on the street in my backyard, that's a really quick way to increase my income and also help someone else at the same time.

Q: Have families moved into any of your units already?

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