Hi, I’m Mike—a new senior fellow at Sightline, based in Portland and writing in the coming months mostly about ways to untangle the bramble of problems that make so much housing in our region expensive and unjust. But for starters and before all that, I wanted to capture the essence of the argument currently raging in neighborhoods across Cascadia and beyond.
On Tuesday night, 85 Portlanders testified at a three-hour planning commission hearing about the city’s proposal to re-legalize duplexes and corner triplexes on most of the city’s residential land. By the tally of veteran housing advocate Doug Klotz, 44 people said more homes in lower-density areas would be good; 41 said those additional homes would be bad.
But two testimonies crystallized the debate, and in fact they pretty much summed up the entirety of today’s urban housing debates. Here’s the first, from tenants’ attorney Nikki Thompson:
The vast majority of my cases in eviction court are for nonpayment of rent. In this kind of case, the tenant is typically served a 72-hour eviction notice for not paying rent that month. Then the process moves rapidly. … The tenant will then have an eviction on their record. After working with numerous tenants, I can say evictions are an emotionally devastating and traumatic event. They also create a nearly impossible barrier to finding housing, which can lead to homelessness.
So how does this relate to the discussion around the residential infill project? Housing solutions are a continuum. By creating more available, diverse and affordable housing for middle-income families and individuals, it will shift the market to free up more available housing for renters like my clients. This will take the pressure off, placing my clients at less risk of eviction and the harm that comes with it.
It’s crucial we do whatever we can to help our fellow Portlanders avoid facing evictions, and I believe that adding housing options in residential neighborhoods will lessen the evictions of low-income tenants.
Here’s the second, from South Tabor homeowner Jane Smiley:
When we create an environment like Manhattan, where I have lived, it’s like we’re talking about who’s going to move here. Do I care about the person in Phoenix, Arizona, who hasn’t moved here yet, who’s going to degrade the quality of life here? Not really. To me, the people you should be talking to are the people who live here.
And as far as all the trickle-down economics bullshit. I don’t believe any of this, that “oh it’s all hearts and flowers” … OK, my time is up, but you get it. Most of these people are developers! I’m not that stupid. I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday.
Other highlights from Tuesday included Restore Oregon Executive Director Peggy Moretti, who said that San Francisco’s housing problem had been caused by building too many homes; and John Liu, a Laurelhurst homeowner and U.S. Bank portfolio manager who said that re-legalizing duplexes “takes housing from the poor to build housing for the rich” without mentioning what happens when a capitalist society has been failing to build enough homes.
Those voices were slightly outnumbered by people like Chris Chen, an Eastmoreland homeowner and Portland State University research assistant who said the duplex re-legalization proposal could “begin to reverse a century of exclusionary policy” and noted that his first few homes in Portland would be illegal to build today; Liliya Jones, director at a financial planning startup, who said she didn’t want Portland to become a place where “the only way a young family can afford a house is to inherit it from other family members”; and Tanner Baldus, a Northeast Portland tenant and software engineer, who compared the city’s 1959 ban on small multi-family housing to “those weird meat Jell-O salads … probably wasn’t a good idea then, not a good idea now.”
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Interestingly, people on both sides seemed to agree that because of new caps on building size intended to reduce demolition, the current proposal would do almost nothing to increase the total number of homes in Portland.
Some people felt this was a reason to continue Portland’s duplex ban, while others felt it was a reason to incentivize buildings with more homes by letting them be slightly bigger for each additional home they contain.
Zoning debates are complicated. What most of them eventually come down to is this:
Some people accept that rising prices in existing buildings cause at least seven times more involuntary displacements than demolition, and therefore feel that everyone in our society would benefit if we made it legal again for our cities to build enough housing, especially in ways that won’t harm vulnerable tenants — adding more seats to the regionwide game of musical chairs.
Other people see a colder, crueler world. If one person gets something, that must harm someone else. Every millennial in favor of more housing must be a secret developer.
So far, Portland’s planning commission has heard more than 700 comments on the subject from both sides. Online testimony is open until Friday, May 18, at 5 p.m., and the commission will offer its recommendation to city council after that.