May 17, 2018

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

Marissa Kendall Bay Area News Group

Article originally published in Mercury News (

What do these two places have in common: Hale County, Alabama, 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?

We probably have 25-30 families that are waiting to have their units now. And so trying to create quicker ways to deploy units in people’s backyards is going to make a big difference.

Financing is always kind of a struggle, to figure out how we’re going to pay for it. The other part is how we actually get it done. Sometimes each city and county might have their own requirements that make it hard to get a permit, and nobody has a year of their life to waste trying to get a permit. So finding project managers that can actually be a one-stop shop, where we assess a parcel, somebody goes out and gets the permit, and then working with the local jurisdiction to get the foundation and site work completed quickly — that’s a nice way to get these deployed.

Q Will these homes mostly go to low-income families?

A What we’re doing is proposing that if they’re willing to rent to somebody with a Section 8 voucher, like a formerly homeless family or an extremely low-income family, eventually we’ll be able to offer a decrease in the cost of the unit to do that, by working with cities that might have some affordable housing money. Ideally we start just reproducing quickly and having a team of people that are ready to deploy them. I think always if we can book time in a factory where we can do 10, 20, 30, 100 units at a time it becomes much more cost-effective for the factory to service us.

Q What are some worries people have about these backyard units?

A I think a lot of us are concerned with density and whether we have the infrastructure to support extra units. We all worry about parking, we worry about the crushing traffic, we worry about can we get utilities to our ADUs (accessory dwelling units.) If the family isn’t using a car and is using public transportation, if they use a bicycle, it makes it a lot easier to have extra homes around without making it a problem for all of us. I think we’re all worried about traffic. None of us want to make that problem worse.

Q What are some hurdles that still stand in the way of wide-spread adoption of backyard units in the Bay Area?

A I think whenever you talk about an ADU unit, you really start with an engineer, an architect, professionals that might be costly. And for a lot of us that are lower-income people or families, that may be a barrier. When you start hiring an architect to design a unit, and you start hiring an engineer and a soils engineer, it gets really complicated. And I think one way to fix that is one-stop shopping. You get your project management with all the trades included with the price of the unit, and it’s a known entity.

Q New state laws have started to make it easier for people to build accessory dwelling units. What regulatory hoops might someone still have to jump through to install an ADU in his or her yard?

A To place an ADU in Menlo Park I need to pay a surveyor three times to come visit the site. And then I have to have my soils engineer, and then I need wastewater retention or drainage on the site, and I need arborists. There’s things you don’t even think about that you’re going to need to pay for. And that’s a really difficult thing for a lot of us that are really living from paycheck to paycheck trying to make our mortgage and trying to make things affordable. It’s hard for us to think about ways to help others when we’re struggling ourselves. So I think as cities and counties get more comfortable with ADUs, it’s all going to become a lot more affordable for us. But I like the direction that our state is moving in, which is encouraging ADUs through legislation.

Q How have people responded to the first backyard unit you’ve built?

A The first thing we did, is we kind of assembled a team of subcontractors that could do trades — electricians, plumbers. Every one of them is now getting one in their backyard because they’re so excited about it. Nobody wants to go without.

Pam Dorr

Age: 56

Education: She received her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from San Francisco State University

Residence: Half Moon Bay

Title: Director of affordable housing at Soup

Past positions: Dorr previously worked as a project manager for Victoria’s Secret Catalogue and BabyGap. She then joined Auburn University Rural Studio in West Alabama as a fellow, and stayed for 15 years helping to develop affordable housing and small businesses in her community.

Family: Dorr lives with her niece and her niece’s 2-year-old son.

Learn more: To find out more about Soup, visit

Five facts about Pam Dorr

  1. She recently broke her leg while walking her dog, and was wearing a boot during her interview. It was her first broken bone.
  2. Like the people she’s trying to help through her work at Soup, Dorr hasn’t been able to buy a home in the Bay Area. She’s renting a small apartment while she hunts for a place she can afford.
  3. Before joining Soup, Dorr was working to jump-start the economy in rural Alabama by backing local businesses. Because the area had a surplus of bamboo, she helped launch businesses selling everything from bamboo skateboards to bamboo paddleboards to bamboo bicycles.
  4. Dorr loves to grow plants, especially those that produce food. She enjoys the idea of using backyards to feed the community — much like her current line of work, in which she’s trying to use backyards to house the community.
  5. She’s also training as a master food preserver through the UC Cooperative Extension, and intends to begin teaching others how to make salted meats and jams.