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Guest post: A progressive Portland developer’s plan for an affordable infill policy

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Greenwood Avenue Cottages (Ross Chapin).
(Photos courtesy Eli Spevak)

This is a guest post by Eli Spevak of Orange Splot. Spevak, who the Portland Mercury once described as “the coolest condo developer ever,” develops small, often freestanding homes in single-family neighborhoods with a goal of increasing the city’s supply of housing that’s both affordable and environmentally low-impact.

Neighbors bemoan the demolition of older homes and the scale of new ones – and worry for the character of their neighborhoods.

Demographers see the trend toward more and smaller households – and wonder where they’ll be able to find enough right-sized and affordable homes.

Planners recognize that we can’t rely only on high density centers and corridors to accommodate all expected new residents; neighborhoods will need to play a role too.

Environmentalists know that space-efficient housing (ie. less square footage per person) is the most important thing we can do for our climate in the residential sector, yet average new home sizes are back up to record levels.

And EVERYONE is concerned by rising housing costs, displacement, and the prospect that Portland’s real estate might be heading in the direction of Seattle and San Francisco.

We’ll need help from planners to address problems this large, dire and urgent. Fortunately, there are several regulatory changes that would support traditional neighborhoods and simultaneously open the door for the creation of market-based affordable housing. Let’s prioritize this for the next zoning code update package Portland takes on. If we’re going to avoid the fate of the eight major US cities with significantly higher housing costs than ours, now’s the time to act.

Home purchase costs in 50 largest U.S. cities.
Data: U.S. Census. Chart and research: Portland Budget Office.

Allow internal conversions of older homes to 2 or more units in single dwelling zones, so long as their exterior is minimally altered and they retain their single dwelling appearance. The zoning code already allows this for homes on the state historic register. That same provision could be extended to any home over a certain age (say, 80 years old). This would allow existing housing stock to be adapted to changing market demand and reduce market pressure to demolish well-built older homes.

Density that doesn’t leave a mark: a large home that’s been converted to a triplex.

Allow a second home to be built on the same lot as an older home, so long as the existing home is preserved and the combined square footage of both homes is no more than the size of an average new home (about 2,400 square feet). This would be a way to preserve smaller old homes and support the creation of small and more affordable new ones.

Remove the definition of “household” from the zoning code to open up spare rooms for occupancy in larger homes. This would legalize “co-living” and other innovative, community-oriented housing models being pioneered in the Bay Area. It would also get our zoning code out of the “who’s married to whom” and “who’s living with whom” business. We’d rely instead on existing noise, nuisance and building code regulations to address life safety and community impact concerns associated with larger households.

Are there any “households” in Portland left to fill up this 11-bedroom house?

Implement Inclusionary Zoning in Portland (after the state does their part). Inclusionary zoning is a common land use tool, used by hundreds of jurisdictions across the country to ensure that developers integrate affordable housing into larger residential developments. Unfortunately, Oregon is one of 2 states in the US (the other is Texas) that bans the practice. There’s a decent chance our state legislature will remove the ban this session. Given Portland’s hot housing market, rising home prices, and scarcity of public funds to buy down the cost of housing for lower income residents, this could be a great tool for getting the private market to build affordable housing in both neighborhoods-scale and higher density developments. If it’s looking promising that the ban will be lifted, Portland should immediately start writing code to match this tool to our immediate needs for affordable housing.


Support Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) as a popular, affordable, flexible, and discreet form of in-fill housing. This can be done by:

Sabin Green ADU, developed by Orange Splot.

Support small house ‘Pocket Neighborhood‘ or ‘cottage cluster’ development by offering density bonuses in subdivisions or planned developments in exchange for house size and bulk limits. This would provide a financially feasible way for developers to build right-sized homes for smaller households and support community-oriented site plans.

Scale system development charges (SDCs) based on home size instead of the current situation, where builders pay identical SDCs for 1,000 or 5,000 square foot homes. Scaling should be revenue-neutral, meaning that SDCs would be reduced for smaller homes and increased for larger ones. This will remove a significant (and perverse) incentive to build larger, more expensive new homes.

These two homes currently pay the same development fee.

Create a legal path for tiny homes. OK, this one might piss off a few neighbors. But it shouldn’t, given the aesthetic pass we grant to thousands of (much uglier) Tuff Sheds and other un-permitted small structures in backyards all over the city. Tiny homes would need to meet standard sanitary and life safety standards, could be on wheels or ‘ground bound’, could be on their own or in small community pods, and would typically share a lot with a primary dwelling. Codes could regulate design, placement, and buffering – and ensure that they’re safer than most older homes (which, we should remember, often quite legally have knob-and-tube wiring, single pane windows, no insulation…). A more detailed proposal can be found here.

Tiny home designed by Portland Alternative Dwellings.

Originally posted to the Orange Splot blog, republished with permission.

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