Editor’s note: This post was originally published by Portland for Everyone.
True with housing policy as with jam labels: Always read the fine print.
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Through two years of deliberation, Portland, Oregon’s anti-McMansion residential infill project has been built on a simple compromise for the city’s lower-density residential areas: cap the size of new buildings, but also increase the total number of homes by re-legalizing duplexes and corner triplexes.
But as the project nears completion — the city planning commission is hearing final testimony this Tuesday, May 15, after which it’ll make a final recommendation to city council — some Portland housing advocates are saying the plan’s fine print isn’t living up to its stated goals.
The four subtle but powerful policy tweaks they’re recommending could also inform Seattle’s ongoing efforts to re-legalize “missing middle” housing–and other Cascadian cities’ parallel efforts.
Here’s the gist of the Portland advocates’ complaint: Sure, you can re-legalize duplexes. But that means nothing if small homes on shared lots become financially impossible to build because of new rules you’re creating at the same time.
“This will only actually allow increased density on a tiny additional fraction of our city,” housing advocate Holly Balcom wrote April 4. “Most of the pages of the proposal are restrictions on height, setback, etc. Reducing possible development rather than increasing options. I’ve watched every draft become more and more restrictive.”
According to a new city-commissioned economic study of the current proposal, Balcom is right: The chance of creating more than a pittance of “missing middle” housing under this set of rules is grim.
We’re going to have to get a little technical here.
Below is a key table from the new study. It compares four ways to develop a piece of land: a freestanding home, two homes on “skinny” lots, a duplex and a triplex.
The table considers each of those options in two legal situations. “Current zoning assumptions” means the status quo, where there is essentially no cap on building size. “New zoning assumptions” means a scenario after the residential infill project has capped the size of new buildings but re-legalized midblock duplexes and corner triplexes.
Now check out the four cells outlined in orange in the lower right, labeled “RPV/SF.” They represent the value per square foot of land that new housing on that land could create after the proposed reform. The higher a number in one of these boxes is, the more likely it is for homes to get built.
According to these rough calculations, the likeliest redevelopment outcome under the residential infill project would be a pair of homes on skinny lots — an option that isn’t currently legal on most lots and would become legal on even fewer under the current proposal. So that one wouldn’t happen much.
The second likeliest outcome would be a 2,500 square foot duplex, but not by a wide margin — at $28.91 per square foot, it’s only 11 percent more viable than a freestanding 2,500 square foot house. (And each half of the newly built duplex, it’s worth noting, would need to sell for $375,000 — cheaper than anything being built today, but not exactly cheap.)
Slightly less likely than a freestanding house would be a triplex, which under the current infill proposal would become legal in the common “R5” zone — that is, on most of the city’s residential land — on corner lots only. So triplexes like this one would be neither economically viable nor generally legal:
To restate the above: according to its own analysis, Portland is about to overhaul its entire low-density zoning code to legalize small homes, and then make it financially unlikely that a meaningful number of smaller homes would get built.
(It’s worth noting that Johnson’s calculations assume that two exceptions to the proposed size cap, described here by infill opponents — not-quite-daylight basements and low finished attics — either get removed or are economically meaningless. Maybe those exceptions should be removed, at least for one-unit homes! The city needs to address this issue, and hasn’t.)
There’s another problem: According to these figures, by far the likeliest thing that would happen to any given property under the current proposal is nothing.
That’s because even the “skinny lot” scenario can pay only $32 per square foot, or $160,000, for a 5,000 square foot lot. Unless you could find a 5,000 square foot lot anywhere in Portland for $160,000, nothing would happen at all. The new size cap would effectively prevent nearly all redevelopment.
To be sure, there’s nothing inherently good about redevelopment. At other moments in Portland’s history, preventing redevelopment might be fine.
But Portland is booming. Only seven of the 50 largest US metros have been adding jobs faster. Homeownership in most of Portland is already out of reach for 58 percent of Portlanders, including a vast majority of Portlanders of color.
According to Johnson, the net impact of the infill project on Portland’s housing count would be 86 extra homes for each of the next 20 years.
Portland needs more small homes than that — and if it’s going to get them, they need to be more than just legal. They need to actually get built.
Four steps to a more pro-housing residential infill project
So what could help more small homes get built?
And even better, what could the project do to help low-income Portlanders in particular?
In 2016, I wrote that duplexes are mostly about housing affordability for the middle class, and that Portland’s residential infill project as proposed wouldn’t do much for low-income Portlanders.
Some opponents of the project seized on those words to claim that the project was fundamentally flawed, without mentioning the 1,200 words that followed: all ways to make the project better and avoid preserving the even more flawed status quo.
Two years later, Portland still has the same basic set of options for making its residential infill project better. The Portland for Everyone coalition has been saying all these things for months.
1) Let buildings with MORE homes be bigger than buildings with fewer homes
Here is a simple way to get more small homes built in Portland: let buildings get a little bigger for each additional home they contain.
Each home in a triplex would still be smaller, and therefore cheaper, than each home in a duplex, which would be smaller and cheaper than one-unit homes. But it should be fine for a triplex to be a bit bigger than a duplex, and for a duplex to be a bit bigger than a one-unit home.
The proposed 30-foot cap on height, meanwhile — measured from the lowest point on the lot to the average roof height — could still prevent three-story buildings.
Allowing a little bit more total square footage for each home in the building is the way to end wasteful, unpopular 1:1 demolitions, which replace one small house with one giant house. According to Johnson, the current infill proposal would let those continue.
2) Let buildings with CHEAPER homes be bigger than buildings with expensive homes
Portland has inclusionary housing for its busy corridors. It could have inclusionary housing for its quiet neighborhoods too.
One key to making this work is the four-plex.
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 — the point at which nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity and Proud Ground can team up to help a lower-income household own a modest family-size home.
The current infill proposal gestures in this direction, allowing a corner triplex to reach a total of about 3,000 square feet of building, plus an attached ADU, on a corner lot if at least one of the homes is affordable to lower-middle income people. But that allows only 733 square feet per home on average — not much space for a family.
Just 500 extra square feet of space “doesn’t get you anywhere,” said Travis Phillips, director of housing development for the affordable-housing nonprofit Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives.
3) Apply its benefits everywhere, not just in wealthier areas
It’s good that city officials are aware of the risk that residential infill can trigger site-specific housing displacement. Even in luxury-zoned areas where homes without yards and driveways are forbidden, there’s plenty of rental housing, some of it with low-income residents.
Unfortunately, the city’s current plan for dealing with this is mostly just to drop a line on a map, as if all of Portland’s vulnerable residents live on one side and not on the other.
What’s more, although new missing-middle housing would still be banned outside the “housing options overlay zone,” new building sizes would be capped … a change that would tend to reduce East Portland property values without any offsetting benefit in the number of homes that could be built.
Instead, Anti-Displacement Portland (ADPDX) recommended requiring that any property owner looking to redevelop should have to pay into a housing affordability fund or offer at least one below-market-rate unit … measures that, combined with the higher unit counts ADPDX also supports, would create income-integrated housing citywide.
“I really strongly believe that they should apply this citywide,” said Nick Sauvie, executive director of the nonprofit affordable-housing developer ROSE Community Development in outer Southeast Portland. “Basically their exemption of East Portland will leave a bunch of crappy housing there. … East Portland is excluded from this, but there is no real plan for how these neighborhoods develop.”
Diane Linn, executive director of Proud Ground, said a recent meeting of nonprofit affordable-housing developers about the latest infill proposal had ended with a unanimous consensus: “Don’t downzone any part of Portland, especially East Portland. … That would be the wrong direction.”
4) Stop prioritizing parking over housing
The latest proposal waives on-site parking requirements for duplexes and triplexes inside the “overlay” area. That’s good.
But why should a city facing a housing shortage — and desperately trying to help prevent catastrophic climate change within the lifetimes of our children— require car storage on any lot at all?
Ending off-street parking quotas would not prevent households from having a garage or driveway on their property. But there is no good reason for the city to force people to have car storage if they prefer to save money by owning fewer cars, or simply by parking in the street.
Portland still has time to fix all of this
Until now, balancing all these details has been mostly in the hands of city staff.
Now it’s time for elected officials and their appointees to start weighing in. Which means the role of public input is about to get much more important.
Portland for Everyone supports abundant, diverse, affordable housing. You can follow the group on Twitter and Facebook or get new posts by email a few times each month.
It should come as no surprise that the residential INFILL project is not going to promote wholesale destruction of the housing in Portland as a means for creating missing middle housing. Contrary to the opponents rhetoric about the demolition of neighborhoods (not happening), what the Johnson report proves is that the City’s initiative will not accelerate that nonexistent trend. For what it’s worth, the City’s effort delivers what the City said it would: the legalization of housing types heretofore not allowed in many residential zones.
However, Anderson is right about the arbitrary and counterproductive size limits included in the proposal to further mollify angry neighbors. The proposal is still based on the assumption that Portland’s most desirable and prevalent housing type will be the so-called “single family” home, based on a notion of “family” dating back generations and a kind of housing built before the consequences of unfettered sprawl even had a name. More work needs to be done and though the Residential Infill Project is a good first step, it cannot be allowed to be the last action.
Thanks, Ethan. As this article notes, it’s not too late for the infill project itself to get better! Hopefully every Portlander reading this is prepared to weigh in when it comes to city council, probably in the fall.
There is a problem with parking on streets that are unimproved, narrow(no parking now) and on steep slopes. One cannot assume that “one size fits all” by saying, oh just park on the street or give up your car in all parts of Portland.
Flexible housing that leaves some green space is the most livable. No one really needs more that 2,500 sq. ft. for a small family. When creating ADUs on small lots (5,000sq. ft) it would be prudent to allow for tree canopy.
Seems to me the “one size fits all” rule is when we say “you must have off-street parking whether you need it or not.” The city should definitely allow anyone in residential zones to put parking on their property if they want/need it.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac consider up to 4 units a “residential single family” mortgage. There is no reason not to allow 4-plex lots within the fabric of our residential neighborhoods. These exist throughout older established neighborhoods like Irvington, before they were banned in residential zones in Portland in 1959, and people don’t even realize they’re there because they fit in so well. 4-plex buildings would build in even deeper affordability, spreading out land costs over more units while increasing the efficiencies of economies of scale.
Of course, just as with triplexes, 4-plex buildings would need an increase in allowable building area in order to be financially viable and thus, to get built at all.
The table above is actually quite conservative and not completely accurate. Cost per sqft would be higher for a triplex or 4-plex within 2,500 sqft of building area than it would be for a single residence or duplex. That’s for 2 reasons:
1) Kitchens and bathrooms are most expensive to build on a per sqft basis. So a 1,250 sqft duplex would likely not save a buyer much money on a per sqft basis over a 2,500 sqft house.
2) The Oregon building code currently considers 3 units and above as “commercial” structures–subject to the more rigorous and expensive commercial building code, including sprinkler systems (among other stringent requirements).
Because “single family homes” (SFHs) are the least risky residence type to develop, and they are quickest to permit, build, and sell, those are what will likely get built within a 2,500 sqft (0.5 FAR) restriction.
In any case, Portland is effectively downzoning the entire city during present and projected population and job growth. By switching to Floor Area Ratio for low density zones, they are making the planning and permitting process more complicated for homeowners, more time-consuming for city staff, and more expensive for the city/taxpayers.
There have been “rumblings” that many of these staff proposals (including the upcoming “Better Housing by Design” for multifamily zones) that switch from building enclosure/unit count standards to FAR (combined with unit count maximums in “single dwelling zones”) are designed to create more work/job security for city staff and increase revenue for the city. (System development charges hover around $20k per unit, regardless of unit size. Eliminating density minimums in multifamily zones while halving FAR will result in many very small microunits built–at the expense of family-sized units–despite the city’s token 25% FAR bonus for 3 bedroom units (which won’t result in 3 bedroom units). That’s a huge short-term revenue boost for the city, even if it will ultimately result in long-term housing shortages for Portland’s future residents.)
While I’m no conspiracy theorist, after having worked in government myself, such a bureaucratic chess move by city staff (to design needless complexity in order to create job security and increased costs for Portland taxpayers) would not surprise me in the slightest.
I think you make some good points here, Dani. I’m actually working on a post about four-plex barriers right now. I’ll email you to be sure I get your take for that.
On the higher cost per square foot for building smaller homes, I asked Johnson about that. He said there are arguments in the other direction, too. I do think this bears more attention.
I’d be curious to learn his reasons for believing that, on a per square foot basis, it’s less expensive to cram a kitchen and two bathrooms into, say, 833 sqft, versus spreading the overall cost for 2 bathrooms and a kitchen within, say, 1500 square feet of living space (by building more storage and bedrooms, which are significantly cheaper per square foot than kitchens).
833 sqft is not what most families of 4 would choose to live in (though it’s a moot point because builders will build a 2,500 sqft SFH over a 2,500 sqft triplex 99% of the time). Through zoning, Portland staffers and elected officials are systematically pushing out middle income families. In the new Portland, only wealthy families and high-income childless individuals will be able to afford a place to live without roommates.
Though I personally am childless, there is already much research about why cities need children for their economic and cultural vitality.
This sounds more like destroying the village with the attempt and expectation of saving it. Portland is an attractive livable city by and large do to the preservation of traditional 20th century single family home neighborhoods that have big mature trees and green yards where children can play under the watchful eyes of their parents. Minimizing setbacks and paving over the greenery and open spaces with larger footprint foundations is placing density the over a quality of life in Portland’s urban environment. The most affordable homes are the ones already built. Affordability without subsidies can not be accomplished by throwing up even shoddy new structures on the demolished rubble of what is already in place. The big mature trees, green yards and open space that heavily contribute to a quality of life in our urban environment need to be protected for out children and their children and so on – because once it is gone it is gone forever!
Lastly, with the construction of big multi-residential unit structures in town centers and on corridors adjacent to shingle family home neighborhoods, it is short-sighted not to require off street parking for all new residential development. The cars of the future are likely to be powered differently than they are today, but they are going to be with us for generations to come. With the streets full of parked and stored cars, where, are the visitors supposed to park and how are emergency and delivery vehicle supposed to get through?