Eli Spevak '89: Building Change One Small House at a Time

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Eli Spevak '89: Building Change One Small House at a Time
Dina ElBoghdady

After graduating from Swarthmore College, Eli Spevak ’89 headed west to Portland, Oregon to pursue his growing passion for building affordable housing. Three decades later, he’s still in Portland and still building affordable homes, with an emphasis on community and climate-friendly design.

Eli’s work is turning heads, gaining media attention, and winning awards. His company, Orange Splot LLC (named after the children’s book about a man who repaints his house and breaks with the conventional norms on his street) won a prestigious American Institute of Architects award in 2017 for Cully Grove, the multi-generational community where Eli and his wife Noelle live with their two children.

Eli Spevak '89 info

“I really had no idea coming out of college that land use was even a field,” Eli said. “Looking back, I think GDS helped me keep an open mind about the various career paths I might take, and gave me confidence to go after what interested me.”

Spevak discussed the guiding philosophy that dictates how he lives and what he does for a living with Georgetown Days. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.

Eli and Dan in 1989 yearbook

Eli and Dan in 1989 yearbook.

IN COLLEGE, YOU MAJORED IN PHYSICS AND MINORED IN PHILOSOPHY, SO HOW DID YOU PIVOT INTO HOUSING DEVELOPMENT?

After I graduated, I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in West Philadelphia for the summer because I enjoy working with my hands. I learned a lot about carpentry from my mom, and I knew how to use woodworking tools. I expected that I would eventually get into renewable energy development, maybe wind turbine design. But I loved construction, and I ended up being really good at leading residential projects.

What I found most gratifying was meeting low-income home buyers and giving them the keys to their new house. I wanted to continue with Habitat, but somewhere near the backcountry because I enjoy backpacking. I had spent a summer during college at a research lab in Oregon, so I decided to go to Portland. After working at a Habitat chapter there for a year, I shifted to managing larger income-restricted apartment projects for other nonprofits.

Interspersed with that work, I got a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from Portland State University. I then took a break to work as a backcountry ranger. But after a decade developing affordable housing, I missed the hands-on work at construction sites. So I started my own company, Orange Splot, in 2006.

Cully Green, Eli's latest community project

Cully Green, Eli's latest community project.

WHAT ARE THE DEFINING CHARACTERISTICS OF THE HOMES YOU DEVELOP AT ORANGE SPLOT?

Community and green design are the big drivers that set my projects apart. I don’t build isolated single-family homes, only clusters of relatively small homes with shared elements. For instance, a larger project of 23 homes on 1.5 acres includes a substantial common house where the community can gather to share meals, watch movies, and host friends and family in the two guest bedrooms. All the projects, regardless of size, have shared outdoor areas for gardening, kids play, and just relaxing.

Since going out on my own, I’ve built or significantly renovated over 80 homes across nine communities. About a decade ago, I shifted to building homes powered entirely by electricity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve indoor air quality, and reduce utility bills for buyers. I locate the communities in walkable neighborhoods, close to amenities, so that people don’t need cars for every little errand. This allows me to limit the number of off-street parking spaces and make homes more affordable. I also build smaller homes on existing lots, using building materials that last a long time, such as hardwood floors. What I’m trying to do is provide examples of how to build sustainably so that people can live their values.

 

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO TAKE ON THESE KINDS OF PROJECTS?

Partly my parents, particularly my mom, who really cared about the environment. But it was also sparked by my frustration with the home-building industry, which keeps building huge, inefficient, homes that consume a lot of energy to construct and consume exorbitant amounts of fuel to heat and cool. The average size of a single family home today is about 2,500 square feet compared to roughly 980 square feet in the 1950s, when family sizes were bigger. There’s a demographic mismatch between the kind of housing that zoning codes typically support and the kind of housing we need. 

WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF BUILDING SMALLER HOMES IN EXISTING NEIGHBORHOODS?

Historically in Portland, racial covenants recorded on property deeds routinely barred non-White people from owning or even renting in certain areas of town. The covenants eventually became unenforceable, but zoning laws that restricted residential land use to one single-family home per lot had a similar effect: pricing people out of certain neighborhoods by income rather than excluding them by race.

This type of restriction basically wiped out accessory dwelling units (A.D.U.s) in portions of Portland and many other cities. Accessory units, sometimes known as “granny flats,” are self-contained homes that share a lot with a larger primary home. They were fairly common and served as relatively affordable housing in more upscale neighborhoods. In more recent times, the lack of accessory units has left few choices for seniors and younger people who want to live in smaller homes they can afford and maintain in the neighborhoods that they love.

I’m trying to bring back accessory units in Portland and nationwide because they’re discreet and inexpensive with small carbon footprints. Also, the best antidote to rising housing costs is to have more homes. The A.D.U. concept is now catching on in many states, and the economics of it work well. Homeowners can rent out A.D.U.s, make them available to family members, or move into them and rent out their primary residence.

Eli Spevak '89 at a climate march in Oregon.

Eli at a climate march in Oregon.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO RALLY SUPPORT FOR SMALLER, MORE SUSTAINABLE HOMES?

In 2010, I led the charge to make it easier to build A.D.U.s in Portland. We waived fees, simplified zoning, led bike tours of existing A.D.U.s so people could look inside and get inspired, provided training for real estate agents on legal options to build them, and launched the accessorydwellings.org website to share best practices. A.D.U. development has ramped up from about 20 per year to more than one per day in the past few years.

Two years later, I was selected as a Loeb fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, which allows people to study issues in their field so that they can advance solutions for urban challenges. That was my chance to step back and think about all the zoning obstacles to smaller homes. I wrote a sign-on letter that led to the formation of a new organization and an advocacy campaign that successfully pressured Portland to re-write the rules of residential development. The effort gained momentum. Now, all cities in Oregon allow up to four homes on a lot, subject to size constraints, and the industry has responded by building more affordable homes in existing developments.

I also serve as a consultant to AARP, which works nationally to rally support for smaller and more affordable housing for seniors, and I’ve helped found an initiative called Electrify PDX to help people power their homes with 100% clean, renewable electricity.

DID SKILLS GAINED AT GDS PROVE USEFUL IN YOUR CAREER?

Everything I learned from my history teacher Sue Ikenberry about social movements and the power of organizing really made an impression on me, even if I didn’t realize it back then. I drew from all that knowledge when I decided that we needed to change the rules of the game for residential neighborhoods in Oregon.

I also appreciate that GDS put an emphasis on critical thinking and writing concise and powerful arguments that are meant to influence people, all of which continue to be essential in my advocacy work. I can’t tell you how many ways that skill has helped me in writing persuasive policy papers. 

Eli with daughter Ozora, wife Noelle, and son Sidney.

Ozora, wife Noelle, and son Sidney.

HAS YOUR WORK EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR LIFESTYLE?

I’m one of the rare developers who actually lives in the communities I’ve built. My first foray into development after leaving the nonprofit sector was when a friend and I bought a 1938 courtyard-style building with seven apartments and converted it into a co-housing community with six condominiums and one common area. We later tore down the building’s two garages and replaced them with three more units, a shared bike room and a guest room. This community allowed me to have my own front door while also living near friends. It’s where my wife and I met and where we had our first child.

Community living was nice for me as a single person, but the benefits multiplied with kids. We now have a second child, and for the past 10 years we’ve lived in half of a duplex on a two-acre, 16-home cohousing community that I co-developed called Cully Grove. The homes wrap around the site perimeter, and a shared common house is in the middle, with shared bike parking, a community garden, an on-site well for irrigation, a tree grove, a playground, and space for bees, chickens, and sometimes ducks. All the homes have solar water heaters. Now my neighbors and I get to live in a multigenerational community with everyone from toddlers to grandparents. It’s a treat to make a living developing places like this and to live in them with my family.

Eli Spevak '89: Building Change One Small House at a Time
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