Support BikePortland - Journalism that Matters

Why are these 11 buildings illegal in most of Portland?

Posted by on June 19th, 2015 at 10:53 am

2314-16 se salmon duplex built 1927

2314 and 2316 SE Salmon: built in 1927, illegal to build today. A ride this week took a closer look at “The Missing Middle.”
(Photos: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

Most of Portland’s conversation about ways to create enough new homes to defuse our deep and ongoing housing shortage has focused on the four-story apartment buildings rising along a few main streets.

But there’s a growing awareness in Portland’s housing policy community that low-rise apartment buildings — let alone the taller buildings rising in the Lloyd, Burnside Bridgehead and Pearl — aren’t the only buildings that can increase the supply of housing in the walkable, bikeable parts of Portland. In fact, the other options might be more popular with neighbors, too.

The only problem: in almost all of Portland, creating such buildings is forbidden.

They’re called duplexes.

Last weekend, Portland micro-developer Eli Spevak led 20 people on a Pedalpalooza ride called “The Missing Middle,” focusing on what Spevak sees as the forgotten stepping stone between Portland’s sleepier, yard-and-driveway past and the bustling urban future being built on SE Division, North Williams and elsewhere.

Spevak borrowed the phrase from Berkeley-based Daniel Parolek of Opticos Design, whose website MissingMiddleHousing.com promotes many classes of housing that were popular in the cities of the early 20th century, but largely eliminated when the modern age of auto-oriented urban planning arrived.

MMH-diagram-w-lables-for-featured-image2-1100x350

(Image: Daniel Parolek, Opticos Design)

When Portland’s first zoning plan was approved in the mid-1920s, local planning historian Steve Dotterrer said, what we now know as “single-family” zoning “was only applied in Laurelhurst, Eastmoreland, Overlook and a little bit of the West Hills. Everything else [away from rivers and streetcar corridors] was Zone 2, which allowed any kind of residential, from high-rise to single-family.”

High-rises, always expensive, were built only in the very heart of the city. Multiplexes, though, became common.

“But in 1959 the code was completely rewritten and for the first time autombile restrictions came in,” Dotterrer said. “The single-family zones were actually expanded to cover lots of the city.”

spevak intro

Portland microdeveloper Eli Spevak, right, talks about the history of Portland zoning before the Missing Middle Pedalpalooza ride this week.

Fortunately, Portland’s bike-friendliest neighborhoods still retain a memory of this sort of housing — because it’s still very much in use. In fact, these are the housing units that Portland’s bike-friendliest neighborhoods are built on.

Not only do these buildings tend to cast shorter shadows and offer more bedrooms. Because they’re only one to three stories tall, they can be built with wood frames, which makes them significantly cheaper to build than taller concrete or steel apartment and condo structures.

1408 se 22nd ave 7 apartments in mansion built 1904

1408 SE 22nd Ave: one building, seven apartments. Built 1904.

During Sunday’s ride, Spevak led participants around a few blocks of inner Southeast and Northeast Portland, showing off building after building that would be illegal if it were built today, but remains in so much demand that nobody has wanted to use it for anything else. In some cases, they seemed likely to be the most affordable homes remaining in this part of Portland.

And maybe even more remarkable: they fit right in.

1039 se 25th archways built 1926

1039 SE 25th Ave: attached one-story homes, built 1926.

To be fair, these duplexes, four-plexes, internally divided homes and courtyard buildings weren’t small, and may well have changed the feel of the neighborhood when they were built. But compared to a three- or four-story apartment block, they’re next to nothing.

2328 se salmon nice facade duplex built 1907

2328 SE Salmon St: duplex, built 1907.
2104 ne wasco corner duplex built 1926

2104 NE Wasco St: corner duplex, built 1926.
2315-17 SE salmon shady duplex built 1904

2315 SE Salmon St: duplex, built 1904.

Today, Portland’s most common residential zone, R5, allows duplexes in only one situation: when they’re on a corner lot and one door faces in each direction.

It’s easy to see how, if the city were to re-legalize mid-block duplexes and internal home divisions in residential neighborhoods, central Portland could gradually absorb thousands of these small but often family-sized units without massive changes to the way the city looks or works.

Advertisement

Spevak also argues that legalizing such buildings could reduce 1:1 demolitions by making it more profitable for developers to add units inside existing houses rather than tearing old ones down.

2133 ne wasco four mailboxes built 1907

2133 NE Wasco: The only tipoff that this building is internally divided is the four mailboxes on the porch. Built 1907.

While looking at all these older homes, it’s worth keeping in mind that Portlanders built cheap, flimsy homes in the 1920s, too. We don’t see very many of those because they’ve all been torn down by now. The best-built homes must have cost a fortune in those days; decades later, they’re often the best bet for an affordable home in Portland’s much-loved middle.

2250 ne flanders garden condos built 1930

2250 NE Flanders: garden apartments, now condominiums. Built 1930.
2116 ne flanders 4-plex built 1950

2116 NE Flanders: 4-plex, built 1950, a few years before Portland banned anything but freestanding homes in most of its inner neighborhoods.
623-37 NE 21st garden apts built 1925

623 through 637 NE 21st: garden apartments. Built 1925.

Here’s an extra bonus home we stopped at during Sunday’s ride. It’s not attached to any other home. Can you guess why it’s illegal?

310 se 27th ave not enough parking built 2007

Scroll down a bit for the answer.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Not enough car parking.

For decades, city code has forbidden the first car length away from the sidewalk from being the only auto parking space on a single-family home, except in the case of single-family homes that sit within a block or two of frequent transit lines. According to city filings, a local green architect went through a special design review process in 2007 to persuade the city to waive the extra parking space requirement as part of his extra-low-impact home.

Would it be possible for Portland to re-legalize homes like the ones above? Maybe.

Responding to spiraling housing prices and residents’ worries about increasing home demolitions, the city is in the early stages of amending its code for residential infill. And next Tuesday, the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission will discuss how and where Portland is going to fit new residents over the next 20 years. If you’d like to comment on whether some of the housing types that have made central Portland what it is should be re-legalized, you can email psc@portlandoregon.gov before then.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

110
Leave a Reply

avatar
30 Comment threads
80 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
48 Comment authors
BankermanKaiser BasileusVeronica MarchGregCadGuy Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Tom
Guest
Tom

Excellent! I sent an email to psc@portlandoregon.gov

I live in a triplex – works great, but make the shared walls thick!

Ben Schonberger (@SchonbergerBen)
Guest
Ben Schonberger (@SchonbergerBen)

Great coverage and a really fun ride. As someone pointed out on Sunday, opening up housing rules to allow Missing Middle types doesn’t guarantee that beautiful examples like this would result, but we’ll never know as long as they are illegal.

Minor wording quibble about your quiz: in 2007, the City allowed the architect to modify the *location* of the off-street parking space. That is, they allowed it to be in the front setback, which is usually forbidden. It doesn’t look like he asked for a waiver of the *quantity* of parking, i.e., 1 per house.

ethan
Guest
ethan

I was walking by a house the other day and they had 6 cars in their driveway, two of which were blocking the sidewalk completely. As I was walking by, someone parked in front of the driveway.

The requirements for parking are pretty ludicrous. The house I live in has room for about 4 cars in the garage + driveway, but it is normally only used by 1 car (my roommate’s car) and ~7 bikes in the garage. No one ever parks in the driveway in case someone needs to get out of the garage (even though there is a ridiculous amount of space to go around), and the neighbors complain about “their” parking spots being taken up by our house guests.

Pretty recently, one of my neighbors came over to my house and demanded to know who parked in “their” spot and then watched our house to see if anyone was coming or leaving so they could berate them.

In response, I’m begging the city to turn the whole street into a bike corral. That will teach them to whine about parking for their cars when there is no bike parking.

Anyway, back on the topic: I see these kinds of middle houses a lot (my friend just moved into one), and they are pretty cool. If people could learn to share, these housing units would be great to have more of in our city.

Brad
Guest
Brad

I really don’t understand why single family homes are required to have a double length driveway. That seems so silly. My wife and I LOVE our 1909 4-plex in Kerns. And since biking is so easy in our neighborhood, the 6 people living in our building only have 2 cars between them.

gutterbunnybikes
Guest

Aren’t the skinny houses kind of duplexes? just with a 4′ gap between the two units (much appreciated since I lived in a triplex years ago), I know many (skinnies) are being built out here in the midland East side Portland.

Also isn’t the ADU’s also leaning towards multi family units within one. ADU’s aren’t just tiny homes, often they are converted attics, basements, and garages?

Spiffy
Guest
Spiffy

city code has forbidden the first car length away from the sidewalk from being the only auto parking space on a single-family home,

one benefit is that there’s no cars blocking your view down the street as you’re leaving your driveway… you don’t have to creep out and block the sidewalk while checking to see if the street is clear…

however, since everything became car-centric we moved the garage from the rear of the house to the front, making the main feature of most houses the large garage door… now suddenly people are blocking the view with their cars because they have nowhere else to put it…

gl.
Guest
gl.

“Today, Portland’s most common residential zone, R5, allows duplexes in only one situation: when they’re on a corner lot and one door faces in each direction.” Oh! That helps explain the structure of my house, which has an attached mother-in-law unit with the door/address on a different street. We have two other similar houses in my neighborhood.

chris
Guest
chris

I love Portland’s one-story garden apartments, and they would probably be my ideal dwelling, in that I don’t really want anything bigger than a one bedroom apartment, but would like to have some green space outside and nobody living above me.

If multifamily dwellings that were only 1 to 2 stories were legalized on the side streets, I think that this could potentially increase our housing supply at a much faster rate, given that fourplexes, townhouses and garden apartments don’t take very long to build. For example, I live in the Gulch near the Lloyd Center, and I recently saw a quarter block of four townhouses built to completion within two months. In contrast, they have been building the mid-rise Hassalo apartments kitty-corner from the Lloyd Center for over a year and a half now, and they still aren’t quite done. They have two more massive complexes planned in that area, but they will likely take at least another year and a half to build. Additionally, the construction costs of such massive buildings essentially mandate that the units be sold/rented and high prices in order to even break even, much less profit.

I’m not sure if legalizing smaller multifamily units on neighborhood streets is more or less politically feasible than what we are currently doing. Neighborhood groups have a tendency to oppose anything new, regardless of how benign it might be, but they’ve obviously been incapable of effectively opposing recent developments on the main streets, so perhaps the time is ripe.

davemess
Guest
davemess

“While looking at all these older homes, it’s worth keeping in mind that Portlanders built cheap, flimsy homes in the 1920s, too. We don’t see very many of those because they’ve all been torn down by now.”

Michael, where would these have been? Most of the more established neighborhoods in town were prior to that, and there are MANY houses that are at or nearing 100 years old now.

Mixtieme
Guest
Mixtieme

Folks at 2250 ne Flanders love to use their garages as storage and park over the sidewalk. I am all for low impact, high density but that neighborhood, my neighborhood, needs zoned and permitted parking and regular tickets handed out. All the intersections around there often have a car parked perfectly square on the curb corners. I call them in but it’s not enough.

soren
Guest
soren

Portland has among the most conservative zoning of any larger city with large swathes of central Portland restricted to detached single family homes. Portland’s atavistic zoning code also creates a single family house versus apartment building false dichotomy. Every other major west coast city has a far broader range of code that make density much less controversial and far more feasible.

For example, Seattle has broad range of zoning codes that facilitate higher -density and less-controversial residential development:

http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/cs/groups/pan/@pan/documents/web_informational/dpds021570.pdf

http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/cs/groups/pan/@pan/documents/web_informational/dpds021571.pdf

Why is Portland so restrictive and backward when it comes to its housing policy?

Esther
Guest
Esther

This brings up a question for me: who would likely be the owners and/or tenants of a new missing middle? It seems like most of the faker foursquares and skinny houses are built for, owned and occupied by homeowners. If developers were to be able to build multi unit housing, who would buy it, and would they rent it out? Would it create more investment opportunities for upper middle class people to be landlords, or would it be owned by corporations? Would it create a higher proportion of rental units than fake foursquare do?

paul g.
Guest
paul g.

Michael, nice posting, and it’s silly that duplexes and fourplexes are not code. But can you validate this quote, I think this may not be accurate. You seem to be comparing the total cost of a duplex vs. a four or six story condo or apartment complex, but isn’t the appropriate comparison based on per-unit cost?

Because they’re only one to three stories tall, they can be built with wood frames, which makes them significantly cheaper to build than taller concrete or steel apartment and condo structures.

TJ
Guest
TJ

Kinda off topic, but since developers are eager to demo, split, and flip older vintage homes that have now illegal parking, green space, and room for ADUs, I’d love to see a rule that somehow only allows current and occupying owners to pay the $30k lot split fee and demo.

While I do think TALL skinny houses are too often hideous and only a win for developers, I also more truly believe we’re pushing over a lot charm that has greater potential to meet the city’s growing need than single-family skinny homes. ADUs and duplex conversions open-up rentals and protect neighborhoods and investments.

The problem with the ease of demos, is infill is not occurring — just mcmansion pushing every corner of the property line. Skinny homes or not, we can built homes that work better for the community than the current crop of cookie cutter boxes.

Champs
Guest
Champs

The entitlement to street parking space in front of your home is a uniquely West Coast attitude. It wouldn’t work in New York, and even in Minneapolis they’d laugh at the very notion. Catering to that mindset would explain the problem with Portland’s housing stock.

Change is in order. $1500 studios with community rooftop gardens, kegs, and dog wash stations are doing nothing positive for affordability. “Increasing supply” is a BS argument because you and I were never going to pay $3/sqft: it just makes $1000 apartments look much more attractive than they did at $700 a few years ago.

maccoinnich
Guest

I think it’s a shame that there aren’t more condos under construction in Portland. There have been barely any built this decade; almost everything being built now is either single family homes or large rental apartments. Someone looking to buy a newly built home has few options other than a skinny house on a lot that’s been divided.

Holst Architecture did a really nice contemporary three story condo building at NE 7th and Knott back in 2007. I would love to see more buildings like this across the city.

lop
Guest
lop

That was supposed to be nycha, not NYC HPD. Waiting list is 270k.

http://nypost.com/2015/05/28/the-real-way-to-save-new-yorks-public-housing/

S
Guest
S

Thank you so very much for posting this. This is.. it’s just wonderful. This, Portland, this is what we already are, and this is what we need to be more of. This is why our streets feel so good to simply be on. This is exactly what so many have been aiming for.

I testified twice and lobbied repeatedly to get the Infill Design project funded. It’s miserable that it’s going to take a good 18 months to finish it, and it’s utterly jacked that the code had been caught in this single-family-with-auto pattern since 19 freaking 59 – but having tried to whack at the requirements for short-term fixes to relieve pain, I now understand fully why everything will take so long, and how tightly wound everything is to everything else.

Now it’s up to us to activate, keeping the bureau’s eyes on the prize – fulfilling what Eli and other planners have so amply demonstrated.

(There are a few housing measures that were not funded, and need to be. I’ll find their names and requirements, and hopefully also what could possibly be done at this stage, and post again.)

A couple more ideas to throw into the missing middle mix that have floated across the wires of late:

– Slimmer streets. My street, though platted in the 1870s, is sixty freaking feet wide. I do not need a sixty foot wide street. Nobody does. A four Clydesdale open sleigh doesn’t need a sixty foot wide street. I wondered how we might go about demolishing the asphalt, which would nicely get rid of that impermeability, then building three-unit flats in the streets, leaving greenery and walking paths on either side. Then I stumbled across this quite similar idea: http://www.fastcodesign.com/3046212/slicker-city/could-slimmer-streets-help-solve-san-franciscos-housing-crisis

– Lift a one or 1.5 storey house up, add one or two new floors in underneath for maximum flats or rooms to rent – without increasing the impermeable area trapped under concrete. http://www.excavatorsnorthwest.com/projects.html
Bonus: if your foundation had problems that would have ultimately meant the loss of the house without repairs – now you get to pour yourself a new one that will last another 110 years.

We’re not just talkin’ ‘a basement ADU’ anymore, which is all that can be done with our current code. This is taking us right back to when a single structure could contain as many rooms as met the Fire Marshal’s requirement for life safety escape routes.

For those of you who are newer to Portland… close-in living like that, with so many sharing an old house?

Not only is it, hands-down, the most environmentally friendly way for humans to dwell (reference: Kol Peterson mentions this fact during his 3hr ADU class), but that shared existence between like-minded people lead to the rise in artistic, musical, and intellectual collaboration that for so long defined the Portland existence.

It persisted for decades after the switch because by then, we had a sizable stock of buildings made with the finest, strongest building material we have ever known (some people want to fight about whether Upper Midwest pine homes, which were the catalog homes, or Northwest wood was better – you know what? It’s ALL GONE NOW, so drop it. Milkshake was drank up. All we can do now is try to conserve those resources), and that ever will exist in ours or our great-grandchildren’s lifetimes. Old growth wood, a material that cannot grow to that strength unless given several hundred years. It has lasted, and lasted, and continues to last. So let’s make sure we deconstruct, or better yet disassemble to store for later reassembly – http://circaoldhouses.com/property/the-montgomery-an-1840-english-wood-frame-house/ – yes that’s a thing, no we can’t do it. It’s illegal in Oregon. 🙁

bjamin
Guest
bjamin

Good post- I would add more consideration of ADUs- isn’t one ADU allowed by right in these zones? Also, Portland can get more aggressive on ADUs- allow one detached/one attached ADU per lot by right, or even enact minimum density overlay requirements for select single family areas to mandate new ADUs are included with new construction.

Billb
Guest

I can answer your question with 2 words, …..Joe Bloody Weston. The Man built many many nasty cheap ‘six pack apartments’ on many residential streets.

The next gen planners set out to outlaw his building type [thank gaud].

Also I have done a number of skinny homes that are nice, and let me assure you the issue you have with them is that the ones you hate [and I do too]
are poorly designed and cheaply built. It is a useful TYPE when done well.

JP
Guest

Great article. Informative and right on the money. Thanks Michael.

Jim Howell
Guest
Jim Howell

The Albina Community Plan of 1993 reduced the density of the Eliot neighborhood by one-half by re-zoning it from A-1 (now R-1) to R-2 to help stabilize it from decline due to the then frenetic flight to the suburbs.

Now the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission will recommend to City Council to further down-zone it to R-2.5 in spite of the recommendation of the authors of the 1993 Albina Plan to “Revisit the issue of housing density in 10 to 15 years after Albina Community Plan neighborhoods have been stabilized. Seek opportunities for increasing housing density and accommodating a greater share of the region’s growth.”

I testified before the PSC last November in favor of returning Eliot’s zone back to its historic multifamily status but evidently they were more interesting in appeasing the neighborhood Nimbys.

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

I think you have to consider the economics. If duplexes were permitted, would they be built?

My quick and dirty analysis is:
– Need a buildable lot. Essentially no vacant lots in close-in Portland’s residential neighborhoods. So you buy a dilapidated single family house, if you can find one. Assume we are talking about an okay neighborhood. $400K to buy and demo? If you are very lucky?
– Build a duplex of 3,000 sq ft (1,500 sq ft per unit). Maybe costs $250/sq ft. So $600K, if not more including permits, separate utilities, two of everything.
– $1MM of cost, and you’re a year into it. Construction loans are generally higher rate than mortgages, call it 1 year interest at 7% on $1MM, or $70K interest cost. So $1.07MM invested.
– A developer is going to want a good return on that investment. 20% is the minimum I’d think. That is after real estate broker commission, 6%. So the duplex has to sell for $1.36MM.
– Who is going to buy this duplex for $1.36MM?
– The people who spend that kind of money on their own house don’t want to live in a duplex, don’t want tenants sharing a wall, and probably don’t want to live in an “okay” neighborhood. You spend $1.36MM, you want a trophy house in the best neighborhood, like the West Hills etc, lots of parking for your BMWs, privacy, etc.
– How about an investor who is looking for rental property? Maybe he can rent the duplex for $6,000/mo ($3,000 each unit). Ignore the rental expenses. On $1.36MM, that is a capitalization rate of barely above 5%. That’s not very good. The investor can do better owning an apartment building. Why would they ever choose to invest in this duplex?

This is why I think all these pages of debate over zoning and whatnot are sort of irrelevant. The duplexes we’re talking about are not economically viable. End of story.

Cycle dad
Guest
Cycle dad

What about the influx if AirBNB investors in Portland? They are coming in and buying up available real estate close to Dowtown.

wkw
Guest
wkw

Lucky me, I own a duplex, and live in it – am not a real estate investor. I currently don’t rent out the other side. It needs improvements in the plumbing at minimum.

I also have a standalone garage that could eventually be a 500 sq ft ADU. Problem is I am in a R2 zone, where ADU’s are not allowed, even though the next door neighbor is in a R2.5 zone and has a four-plex (how they approval to build that years ago, I don’t know).

Flo
Guest
Flo

There’s another interesting place, multiple small homes around a garden courtyard, across from Ainsworth School on SW Vista.

John Liu
Guest
John Liu

I’d like to see clear regulations permitting “tiny houses”. These are basically houses on trailers, about 200-250 sq ft. Typically they include a small kitchen, a bathroom with shower and composting toilet, and a sleeping loft which adds to the sqft. They just need a water hose, an extension cord, and a bit of level ground with trailer access. They cost from $20K to $40K depending on how handy you are. Tiny houses seem to me like a flexible way to add housing in the yards of existing houses – think of them as mobile ADUs. I understand that renting the space for a tiny house is typically about $500/mo.

Chris Wilson
Guest

7950 E Burnside was built in 2014. It’s a traditional tri-plex. So there are being built and it’s not horrible.

Angela Zehava
Guest
Angela Zehava

Those of us who oppose middle housing opoose it because it encourages DEMOLITIONS. Small, sustainable, affordable starter homes/empty nester/grandma homes are knocked down to put up enormous, expensive boxes/middle housing. Demolitions 1. Poison neighbors with lead, 2. Eliminate affordable housing, 3. Destroy the character of established communities that are built on long term ownership, not a succession of short term renters, 4. Are a terrible waste of resources in an age of energy descent and environmental degredation. It is sad to see these concerns pushed aside by developer money. My 124 year old home is besieged by letters from developers itching to knock it down and throw up a triplex on our large corner lot. The lies they tell in these letters are as disgusting as their motives. They don’t care about our community, only their bottom line.

Kaiser Basileus
Guest
Kaiser Basileus

I find it interesting that the article didn’t mention green-space being used for required parking spots or that there’s no option to not need parking at all, or that duplexes are not nice places to live, etc. etc. The issue isn’t as simple as how to cram people into smaller and smaller spaces.