United Way breaks ground on affordable cottages for seniors

In a few weeks, Cara Warnock’s home will be surrounded by construction equipment.

But the mother of two is looking forward to the chaos — and not just because her toddler, Oliver, loves excavators.

The Warnocks’ east Salem home borders the neighborhood’s latest affordable housing development, a community of tiny homes intended for seniors who struggle to afford rising rents on a fixed income.

Dubbed Cottages United, the project sits across from Swegle Elementary School on Northeast Market Street and will eventually provide 25 400-square-foot homes renting for about $500 per month.

The Warnocks’ home sits in the middle of the first site to be developed. Soon, they’ll be surrounded by 10 cottages due to be completed by the end of May 2024, part of a new community that plans to give seniors an affordable place to thrive.

United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley, which is developing the site, also owns the family’s rented home. Warnock and her family moved in from an apartment in south Salem because they wanted to be a friendly face in the neighborhood.

“I’m really happy this will just be an opportunity for our kids to see we can serve our community without being part of an organization,” she said.

It’s part of the idea behind the cottages. United Way leaders want to provide a place where seniors can age without becoming disconnected or isolated from the wider community.

“We don’t want people to come here and walk in their door, never to be seen again,” said Rhonda Wolf, CEO of United Way, at a groundbreaking event Tuesday morning.

The project was conceived to address growing rates of senior homelessness spurred by retirees being priced out of market-rate rentals because Social Security checks haven’t kept pace with rising rents.

“I couldn’t be happier that this project is coming to east Salem,” Mayor Chris Hoy said at the groundbreaking. He said the project reminded him of his late father, who lived on a fixed retirement income in his later years.

“He would have thrived here,” Hoy said.

An empty lot in east Salem across from Swegle Elementary School on Northeast Market Street will house tiny cottages for seniors (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Cottages are designed for accessibility, with walk-in showers, no steps and doors wide enough for wheelchairs. All plumbing and electricity will be on one side of the home to keep costs low, said Russ Monk, owner of High-Impact Technologies, a Salem company that worked on the design for the units.

They’re intended for singles or couples.

“The spirit of this is what attracted me to it,” said Monk. His company has also built micro shelters for Church at the Park.

The lots next to Swegle are part of the plan to build community. United Way purchased three parcels from the city for $60 in May 2021.

The neighboring elementary school will provide opportunities for seniors to interact with kids through volunteering at the school, and could allow students to work on projects with residents.

“The kids can be part of the community and the community can be part of the kids,” Monk said.

United Way has been fundraising for the cottages and has raised $1.3 million of the $1.5 million needed to develop the first site with 10 units, Wolf said.

Work will begin on two other sites on the south side of Market Street once funds can be raised. Wolf said each of those will cost about $1 million to develop.

Actual work on the site will begin next week. Wolf said United Way expects no trouble finding tenants.

“When we open up, they’ll be filled by the end of the day,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.