“The housing choices facing Portland’s future boil down to stemming the demand for housing or feeding the supply while better utilizing the land that’s available, so Portland continues to be an attractive and inclusive city,” said Morgan Tracy, project manager for the Residential Infill Project at the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
Stating the obvious, Portland is growing and our housing needs are changing. The planning bureau projects growth of 123,000 new households in Portland by 2035, with about 20 percent of new housing units located in single-dwelling residential zones. As the city’s population ages and becomes more diverse, the composition of households and housing needs will change, with the average household projected to be smaller with fewer children. Initiated in summer 2015, the infill project’s stated goal is to adapt single-dwelling zone rules so that they better meet the needs of both current and future generations. The project addresses overlapping concerns with these changes, including the number of demolitions and size of infill houses; increasing housing costs and loss of affordability; lack of housing choices, especially in high-opportunity neighborhoods; and the impact of the “narrow lot” development rule on both neighborhood character and loss of opportunities for needed infill housing.
The bureau sought input from a committee of 26 stakeholders, including neighborhood coalition representatives, home builders, architects and advocates for affordable housing, historic preservation and equity. Further input from the community was provided through two online questionnaires and a series of open houses held in summer 2016. Public hearings were held before City Council in the fall, and a final concept report was adopted in January 2017. The report recommended expanding density citywide, limiting the size of new houses, and improving affordability of homes in Portland.
City Council directed bureau staff to develop zoning code language and map amendments required to implement the report.
By the numbers
The bureau estimates that about 20 percent of new housing would come from currently allowed development in single-family house neighborhoods by building Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), constructing houses on unused lots and other development. The remaining 80 percent could be achieved by building multi-family dwellings on commercial corridors such as Northeast Sandy Boulevard, North Williams, Southeast Division and Powell and town centers including Lloyd District and Gateway.
Infill project rules would reduce the maximum size of new houses and remodels by approximately two-thirds (63 percent) from 6750 square feet on a typical 5000 square foot lot to only 2500 square feet for duplexes and 2000 square feet for single-family homes.
On November 4, 2016, seven members of the Residential Infill Project Stakeholder Advisory Committee (RIPSAC) published a minority report, “RIPSAC 7 – Neighborhood Building in Neighborhood Context,” stating that the RIP concept report did not provide viable solutions to the problems it intended to solve and that its supporting analysis was fundamentally flawed. The seven dissenting members acknowledged the city’s effort to consider how and where to focus housing density and guide future growth of the city, but concluded that if RIP is implemented, “Portland will be a less livable, sustainable, or affordable city.”
Among their concerns is that RIP deeply compromised the 2035 Comprehensive Plan goals (see sidebar, below) and eroded the zoning code. “RIP is not a recipe for affordability, but a recipe for an investor-owned, renter-occupied city.” In summary, “the RIP encourages wasteful demolitions of smaller houses, displacement, neighborhood destabilization, reduced affordability, and loss of character.”
2035 Comp Plan
The 2035 Comprehensive Plan is a long-range land-use and public facility investment plan to guide future growth and physical development of the city. The new 2035 plan was adopted on June 15, 2016. This is the most significant update of the plan since the original was adopted in 1980. Subject to state review, the plan will take effect on January 1, 2018.
The RIPSAC-7 recommended that the city (1) reject the concept report and return to basic tenets of the 2035 plan with respect to housing scale based on neighborhood characteristics; (2) address the appropriate placement of higher density housing around designated centers and corridors, where there is commercial and retail activity and frequent transit; and (3) avoid the use of overlay zones as a bypass or override for the comprehensive plan map and neighborhood and district planning.
Jim Heuer, one of the early proponents of National Register historic designation in Irvington, characterized the infill project rules as “draconian,” essentially reversing the 2035 Comprehensive Plan, which was designed to preserve single-family housing zones while concentrating increased density along major transit corridors.
Last fall, Heuer testified extensively against the proposed infill project rules during hearings before city council. Heuer said there is no sound economic analysis to support the infill project and that infill project rules won’t help with affordability. He supports increased density that conforms to “elegant and graceful infill” but opposes construction of duplexes, triplexes and cottage clusters that don’t fit the size and scale of neighborhoods such as Irvington and Laurelhurst.
Heuer is concerned that infill project rules will incentivize demolition of smaller, more affordable single-family structures in favor of building high-cost homes, condominiums and multiplexes for luxury-level buyers, including skinny houses on split lots, that will displace current residents (including renters) while eroding the neighborhoods’ human scale and livability. He predicts that implementation code language being developed by the planning bureau will result in another heated round of debate.
Constance Beaumont, who favors National Register status for Laurelhurst, believes there are solid reasons for promoting density, but she cautioned that density can be handled well or ineptly.
“Historic multiplexes on side streets off Hawthorne Boulevard are well-accepted because they are attractive and harmonize with neighboring structures. They exemplify density done well. But many new buildings going up are so ugly that they have given density a bad name.” She notes that the infill project does not require new homes replacing demolished ones to be affordable and believes that it may intensify the developers’ practice of targeting smaller, more affordable homes for replacement with twice-the-price, auto-centric McMansions that degrade the pedestrian-friendliness of older neighborhoods.
Opportunity overlay zones
Embedded in the infill project is a Housing Opportunity Overlay Zone, which added allowable housing types in selected areas near centers and transportation corridors that have good access to neighborhood services. According to Brandon Spencer-Hartle, historic resources program manager at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, the overlay zones will increase the likelihood that house demolitions will result in greater density. The overlay zones add one more unit per lot than is allowed today, e.g., an interior lot would allow for a total of three units (a house and one ADU are allowed today). In Laurelhurst, for example, a homeowner could add two 400-square-foot ADUs on a lot that today only allows one. For existing houses that are internally converted into multiple units, one more additional unit would be allowed inside the house.
Spencer-Hartle refers to “middle housing” as one opportunity to balance density needs within historic districts. Citing large Victorian-style homes in the Northwest Alphabet District, he said, “Middle housing works very well in designated historic districts, as long as the conversions and new buildings fit the look of the neighborhood.” Spencer-Hartle notes that internally converting historic houses into condominiums can also meet the needs of first-time home buyers seeking to buy in established neighborhoods.
Implementing rules statewide
Oregon’s state legislature is currently considering House Bill 2007 which is intended to speed approvals for affordable housing statewide. According to activist John Liu, who supports historic designation of the Laurelhurst neighborhood, HB 2007 imposes Portland’s high-density Residential Infill Project goals statewide, in a “one-size fits all” approach which ultimately restricts protections for National Historic Districts. Tracy is following HB 2007 developments closely, but noted that some features such as accessory dwelling units and duplexes are already allowed in Portland.
Opportunity for public input
Planning bureau staff are currently developing zoning code language and map amendments to implement the Residential Infill Project concept report recommendations. They plan public outreach in September and October of 2017, incorporating feedback and presenting a proposed draft to the Planning and Sustainability Commission by January 2018. The bureau will solicit the commission’s recommendations and prepare a revised draft to take to city council for final decision by May or June 2018. For more information about RIP, see www.portlandoregon.gov or email firstname.lastname@example.org.