Argyle Gardens

Argyle Gardens, a sleek new modular apartment complex in the Kenton neighborhood, opened at the very start of the pandemic, just in time for its 71 low-income residents, many formerly houseless.

Five years in the making, the building—designed by Holst Architecture and backed by the nonprofit Transition Projects—is a departure for affordable housing in Portland, both for a space that wouldn’t look out of place in a glossy shelter mag and its low-cost, quickie modular build, designed to be easily copied.

To cope with its seemingly ever-growing houselessness crisis, Portland needs more projects like this one, but so far the money and political will to replicate it aren’t surfacing.

What sets the project apart? Start with its experimental cohousing model, which covers about half the development. (The rest are thoughtfully designed studios.) Instead of separate apartments, six residents share kitchens, bathrooms, and common spaces. Rents are between $300 and $700.

Residents get their own room with a locking door, with a built-in bed, storage, and desk. To maximize energy efficiency, the staircase that connects the floors is encased in greenhouse-like material, an effect that architect Dave Otte says protects it from weather and makes the whole complex “glow at night, like a beautiful beacon.”

When the project began, the goal was to, “come up with something that can work on any residential lot in the city,” says Otte. Finding public dollars to underwrite their untested concept was difficult, he says, but a state program that grants a 9 percent tax credit to affordable housing was a catalyst.

Kitting out the entire complex took only eight months, because Argyle Gardens is like real-life Legos: the modular boxes that make up the buildings were constructed off-site, every light fixture, toilet, and window put in ahead of time, then shipped to the Kenton location and snapped together

Tony Bernal, the senior director of public policy and funding at Transition Projects, says the nonprofit hopes to build a sister project to Argyle Gardens on adjacent land. But despite his pitching the project every chances he gets, Otte says there are currently no plans for a round two. Portland and the county’s recently passed bonds for affordable housing and social services are a good start, he says, but are not enough on their own. “The problem is bigger than what we can achieve at the local level,” he says. “The unfortunate fact right now is that what we are doing is making sure things don’t get worse.”

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