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Speak up or sprawl out: “Missing middle” housing proposal hits the planning commission tonight

Posted by on May 8th, 2018 at 10:28 am

The “safety in numbers” phenomenon works in housing too.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus)

This is a guest post by Michael Andersen, BikePortland’s news editor from 2013 to 2016. He’s a writer for 1000 Friends of Oregon’s pro-housing campaign Portland for Everyone.

There are two ways for more Portlanders to live in bikeable neighborhoods.

One way is to add good bike infrastructure to neighborhoods without it. The other way is to let more people live in neighborhoods that have it already. Portland should be doing both.

A proposal to increase the number of small and mid-size homes in Portland’s bikeable areas — allowing “gentle density” like duplexes, corner triplexes and double ADUs in the neighborhoods we banned them from in 1959 — is at the city planning commission this month, and it needs your help.

Duplexes and triplexes = cheaper family-size homes

A duplex on SE Salmon.
(Photo: Michael Andersen)

Longtime BikePortland readers may remember watching, a few years ago, as I gradually became more and more obsessed with housing policy. In 2014, we were sounding the alarm on Portland’s deepening housing shortage; the next year, the average Portland monthly rent shot up $100 … with even faster hikes in older buildings.

Thanks to a big wave of new apartment buildings since — made possible in part by the falling demand for parking garage space that has made thousands of low-car homes financially viable — we’ve finally seen rents flatten out, at least on average. But that just means the housing crisis is no longer getting worse. If we’re going to bring Portland’s housing prices back down and prevent future crises, we need to change the game. We need to find ways to get more homes for the same cost.

Duplexes, triplexes and narrow lots do this. Two-story wood buildings are 19 percent cheaper to build per square foot than five-story apartment buildings, which means they’re the best path to creating new family-size housing that doesn’t cost a fortune.

The main reason we don’t have more of these small homes is that it’s mostly illegal to build any more of them. Today, 59 years after the city banned attached housing from most of its residential areas, that last generation of duplexes is still sitting in front of us, doing their jobs as the only homes on the block on sale for less than $260,000 each (for example).

More proximity = more biking

Data: 2017 NHTS. Chart: Michael Andersen.

My predecessor Elly Blue wrote in 2007 that proximity is the key to Portland’s bikey future. Data released last month by the 2017 National Household Travel Survey shows that she was right.

The closer people in a neighborhood live to each other, the more likely they are to get around by bike. Moving from an area with 2,500 residents per square mile (like, say, Tualatin) to one with 5,000 residents per square mile (like Parkrose) roughly doubles the chance that you’ll use a bike for a given trip. Moving from Parkrose to a place with 12,000 residents per square mile (like the Belmont, Hawthorne, 28th or inner Alberta districts) doubles it again.

How close you live to other people is a much better predictor of your biking habits than age, race or income. And it’s more effective at increasing your biking habits than a lot of possible street improvements.

This isn’t really a surprise. Even most Dutch people don’t bike for more than three miles or so. The thing about Dutch cities is that they don’t have to. Residential density means the Dutch aren’t far from a lot of the other people they want to visit, and because more people live nearby, there’s enough demand to support lots of businesses within biking distance, too.

Most of Portland’s east side is in that 4,000-10,000 range on the chart above — the third bar from the right. But Buckman, Sunnyside, Kerns and Richmond (Portland neighborhoods with some of the highest bike-commuting rates in North America) are in the 10,000-25,000 range.

Why the difference in density? In part, it’s because those were all neighborhoods we built before we banned small multifamily buildings from most residential areas.

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Weigh in now for more duplexes and fewer McMansions

(Image: Michael Andersen)

I’ll spare you the fine print of the city’s “residential infill project” proposal unless you want it. (And if you do, I would love to talk to you about the possibility of using a modest FAR bonus and a bonus unit to create an affordability incentive targeted to households at or below 80% MFI.)

The short version is that the plan would re-legalize duplexes, corner triplexes and double granny flats (one attached ADU, one detached ADU) in the middle parts of the city.

This is a deeply controversial concept among people who become upset about the possibility of sometimes needing to park down the block from their house, and those who didn’t seem worried about Portland’s changes until they started to affect buildings instead of just people.

The current proposal would reduce demolitions citywide by setting a new cap on building sizes that would apply no matter how many homes are in a building. (This is why, contrary to the wild-eyed claims of Stop Demolishing Portland activists, it wouldn’t result in mass demolition of existing homes for monster duplexes — new small buildings would rarely be able to sell for enough to pay for both demolition and construction of something new, so current buildings will almost always remain.) This would end most of the 1:1 demolition/McMansion projects that only accelerate middle-class displacement.

At $400,000, 58 percent of Portlanders are essentially excluded from homeownership. Data: Metro. Images: Mike Sellinger.

The Planning and Sustainability Commission is hearing live testimony for the first time this evening. The online comment deadline is next Tuesday, and the commission’s second and final public hearing will be that night.

There are ways to make the proposal better for density and affordability; if you’re interested, I gave my take on the four most important changes halfway down this post. (The last one: End mandatory parking requirements citywide.) But the bottom line is that in tomorrow’s Portland, for the sake of both housing and transportation, we’re going to need more homes. We should make it legal to fit them in.

The online testimony form is here.

— Michael Andersen: (503) 333-7824, @andersem on Twitter and michael@friends.org

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Bjorn
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Bjorn

I urge people to oppose the way in which the city has excluded some neighborhoods from the benefits offered by this proposal. Cully along with a few other places have been artificially removed from the RIP overlay, meaning that the negative parts of the RIP put in place to molify anti development types like an increase to the front setback from 10 to 15 feet will apply to our properties but we won’t get the benefits. It is totally inappropriate for the city to be picking winners and losers with the overlay like this.

bikeninja
Guest
bikeninja

All these changes to zoning are wonderful ways to help improve density and bring down housing costs, but we should not minimize the effect of financial policies on the cost of housing. We have had 38 years of steadily declining interest rates which have given the illusion that house prices always appreciate thus encouraging homeowners, flippers and investors to pay more assuming their purchase is a good investment. But since interest rates hit a theoretical bottom a year ago we will inevitably see a long ( perhaps decades) of gradually increasing interest rates. This will affect the cost of mortgages and thus act as downward pressure on home prices. A change in zoning coupled with the end of declining interest rates will usher in a new era of more affordable home prices.

SD
Subscriber

Hating on urban McMansions should be something that we can all get behind. The rise in popularity of these structures is the most palpable evidence of poor zoning policy and perverse financial incentives.

SD
Subscriber

BTW, instead of designing AVs, car manufacturers should be designing cars that can be parked on top of each other if parking is so f* sacred.

Champs
Guest
Champs

The city mailed a Cliffs Notes version of this to us about our R2.5a lot a few weeks back.

A detached ADU would finance itself but it doesn’t pencil out if our legacy (pre-renumbering!) duplex gets reassessed. That’s just how our broken tax system works.

Matthew in PDX
Guest
Matthew in PDX

Another issue facing Portland, Multnomah County, Metro and the other local governments in Oregon is the inability of property taxes to keep up with rising costs. Residential property tax increases have been capped at unrealistically low levels since measures 5 and 50 were passed in the 1990s. However, when a new house is built, or a major capital project undertaken on an existing house, the tax base is reset to current market value. For example, we live in one of two houses that a developer built in 2014 after demolishing a 1950s ranch on a 10,000 sf lot, the new houses are around 2,000 sf each and have 5,000 sf lots (not McMansions by any stretch of the imagination). The property taxes on the old ranch house were about $1,800 per year, each of the two new houses pays north of $6,000 per year, a six-fold increase. In my neighborhood a lot of really dilapidated housing is being bought up, demolished sub-divided and rebuilt, the new homes are, to my taste at least, more aesthetically pleasing than the old, they are usually two-storey, meet modern building codes etc., and often allow for greater numbers of people – a neighboring corner house was demolished after we moved in and was replaced by three new houses, where one person lived, now four live, $1,500 in taxes became $13,500.

I like the services the city has to offer, but they have to be paid for somehow, short of repealing measures 5 and 50 (did I see a flock of pigs flying by?), the only way to substantially increase the tax base is to encourage the demolition and replacement of old, worn out housing stock. I don’t think anyone will miss the houses being demolished in my Portsmouth neighborhood, and homes with real architectural value usually don’t get targeted for demolition. I think the opposition to infill is basically fear mongering and trying to freeze the city in time (NIMBY, but my aesthetic values are superior to yours type). I think that the 1959 ban was either consciously or subconsciously racist and classist and I think that the sooner we get rid of it the better. Personally, I love the aesthetics of row housing, but not everyone shares that view.

soren
Subscriber

The residential infill project is a NIMBY delight. Height limits, density limits, and essentially no missing middle expansion of exclusionary zoning. It seems to me to have been specifically designed to discourage creation of affordable rental housing units. Given the exclusion of tenants and tenant advocates** from this process, this is no surprise.

Even the language that Michael uses in his accompanying piece underscores the focus on “ownership”:

Because they split the cost of Portland’s increasingly expensive land four ways, four-plexes could bring more new home prices beneath the magic number of $250,000 

Apart from the questionable math that a fourplex condo would pencil in at $250,000*, a “drop in the bucket” ownership model will do little to address our chronic and continuing affordable housing shortage.

I was a tepid supporter of RIP but I can no longer support it.

RIP may very likely benefit high income people who hope to own a small house, row house, or condo but it does nothing for housing insecure tenants. If RIP ends up largely producing expensive owned housing, it may even provide a further boost to the price of land (and rent) resulting in further economic displacement of tenants.

**Affordable housing nonprofits are developers, property managers, and landlords. Affordable housing providers are allies of tenants but they do not speak for tenants and their interests do not always overlap with tenants.

#Fourplex condos are selling for 400K+ in RIP overlap neighborhoods.

billyjo
Guest
billyjo

How is it that the increased density is helping anybody? A house in Irvington can build a 400 square foot ADU and rent it out for $1800.

A developer can buy a $500,000 house, tear down the building, divide the land and build a 4 plex where each house sells for $750,000 (7th and Thompson) As these projects make money, there is more pressure on the other properties that could sell for $500,000 and displace more people.

Mike Sanders
Guest
Mike Sanders

The speed at which Sellwood is becoming a place where you can’t buy a house for less than $400k or $500k, according to the above animation, tells its own story. Pushing working class people beyond the Urban Growth Boundary (and Tri-Met’s as well) isn’t the answer. But that’s what these ever increasing rents and housing prices are doing. And many of these fringe areas don’t have good ped/bike facilities, either.

N
Guest
N

I can’t figure out the online testimony link – it seems to just be for the in-person meeting information. I would love to write the city in support of this.

Daniel
Guest
Daniel

Maybe your browser isnt’ displaying the whole form? Here’s what I’m seeing:
https://dl-postcarbon.tinytake.com/sf/MjU4MDMxNV83NzYyNDUx

At this link:
https://www.portlandmaps.com/bps/testify/#/rip

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

We need to see more of Michael here.

turnips
Guest
turnips

tough issue. made tougher because it isn’t a problem entirely of Portland’s own making. I’m not yet convinced that the increasing concentration of wealth that is driving housing trends in this town is something that can be effectively addressed locally. local development policies are certainly part of the picture, but I don’t think they constitute the lion’s share.

in a different economic environment, allowing or encouraging incremental increases in density–as proponents suggest the RIP will do–might be a viable solution. I don’t believe it will solve much of anything in this case. barring a major upheaval in the way things are going (locally and globally), I don’t know what a better option is.

q
Guest
q

GlowBoy
But those lot-filling monstrosities typically don’t house three generations. Realistically, greater density of units correlates with greater density of people.Recommended 0

“Greater density of units correlates with greater density of people” sounds obvious, but think it’s often not true, at least in the case of 2 units on a lot vs. one, which is a focus of the RIP.

In my own immediate neighborhood, it’s certainly not true. My immediate neighbors are three houses–housing a four-person family, a three-adult family, and a house shared by four roommates–and a triplex, housing two adults and a mostly-vacant illegal airbnb. There are several other two-unit properties, all with one or two adults, and again often-vacant illegal short-term rentals.

So in general, the single-unit properties average more residents (not per unit, but for the whole lot) than the two- and three-unit properties.

And the topper is affordability–the four roommates in the single-family house each probably pay well less than half the rent that the triplex residents pay.

NoPo dad
Guest
NoPo dad

I’ve read the article and the comments and I’m still unclear on how the RIP will effect my neighborhood. I’m a homeowner on a corner lot and I’m thinking that if fourplexes go up on every other corner, we’ll probably lose the “family neighborhood” vibe. Maybe my kids will be in college by then and not want to play catch out in the street… The question that keeps popping up in my head is, where is the discussion on rent control? Wouldn’t that have a positive effect on rent, housing prices and development? Maybe not for landlords…but for working class folks?