After months of deliberation, Portland’s planning commission gave other cities of the Northwest and beyond a peek at what can happen when housing advocates outnumber housing opponents: It recommended more housing.
The most provocative housing policy event of this week in the Pacific Northwest started happening four months ago.
That’s because, in May, Portlanders did something almost unheard of in the world of housing policy. They showed up to say that in order to better-integrate neighborhoods and prevent future housing shortages, the city should allow more housing.
The place: Two public hearings of the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission to discuss the residential infill project, a proposal to re-legalize duplexes and triplexes in much of Oregon’s largest city, reversing a 1959 ban.
The hearings were packed with people on both sides of the issue. But in the end (and here’s what was truly unusual) the people calling for the city to re-legalize more homes in more varieties slightly outnumbered the ones who showed up to defend the status quo—55 percent to 45 percent.
And last week, after months of deliberation, Portland’s planning commission gave other cities of the Northwest and beyond a peek at what can happen when housing advocates outnumber housing opponents: It recommended more housing.
This debate is the same one happening right now in small areas of Seattle and citywide in Vancouver, B.C. And in Portland, Team Housing just notched a clear win—cuing up the concept for a possible victory at the city council in the spring.
In that sense, the Portlanders who showed up for housing in May are part of something much bigger than an advisory vote in their city about re-legalizing triplexes. They’re part of a movement, led in large part by Cascadia, to revive a more traditional pattern of housing than the one cities began experimenting with after World War II.
The vision is simple: gradually creating neighborhoods where more expensive detached homes and more affordable small plexes are all mixed together.
Planning commission says: Cap building sizes, but let them get slightly bigger for each additional home they create
In a series of straw votes Tuesday, the commission endorsed a set of policy changes designed to stop the gradual mansionization of Portland by capping the size of new homes, re-legalizing structures that include more than one home inside and—crucially—allowing buildings to get slightly bigger (about 500 square feet on most lots) for:
- each additional home;
- creating homes affordable to lower-income households; or
- saving and lightly modifying an older structure as part of internally dividing it into multiple homes.
This crucial final part of the proposal, intended to give owners a reason (other than the goodness of their hearts) to create more and cheaper homes when they redevelop their property, had been recommended in May by numerous housing advocates.
“We have a chance to make our neighborhoods truly more diverse, both economically and culturally,” said Diane Linn, executive director of Proud Ground, a community land trust that partners with Habitat for Humanity to lower barriers to homeownership, in her May testimony supporting the size incentives. “If we don’t, shame on us.”
Also part of Tuesday’s recommendation: Increasing the maximum number of homes on a lot to three or, depending on the outcome of one last planning commission vote this fall, four.
The basic idea, though, is the same as it’s been since Portland’s council approved the general concept in 2016. The goal is to reduce demolitions of one small house for one big house, and incentivize things the public has an interest in having more of: homes, especially less expensive homes, especially ones that rehab old structures instead of demolishing them.
For example, a new home on a 5,000 square-foot lot in Portland’s most common residential zone could have up to 2,500 square feet above ground. Each home inside a new duplex could average up to 1,500 square feet; inside a triplex, 1,167.
If at least one new home on the site were made affordable to a family earning at most 80 percent of Portland’s median income (up to $58,640 for a family of three, for example), then duplex homes could average up to 1,750 square feet; triplex homes, 1,333.
The commission didn’t propose letting fourplexes be any larger than a triplex, so if it decides to recommend up to four homes, homes in market-rate fourplexes would be effectively capped at an average 875 square feet.
‘The biggest carbon impact of new construction is how big it is’
To prevent “looming” buildings, heights would be capped at 30 feet above the lowest point on a property, down from the highest point on the property under today’s rules.
As housing advocates (including the city’s own housing bureau) suggested, the planning commission also said duplexes and triplexes should be legal (and subject to the new size caps) almost anywhere in the city.
“Density is an important goal, and I think that’s a direction the city needs to move in,” Andrés Oswill, the planning commission’s youngest member, said Tuesday. “I’m proud of the work we’ve done.”
Oswill said his decision to support the cap on building size had been informed, in part, by his own home search over the last few months.
“I really struggled and tried to understand 2,500 square feet … being too small,” he said. “It wasn’t something I was able to come to terms with.”
Eli Spevak, another commissioner, agreed.
“For all the talk about We can’t fit into this 2,500 square foot house, I kind of think, well, we did for most of human history, in houses half that size,” Spevak said. “I also think about the carbon issues. Oregon has studied this more than any state. The biggest carbon impact of new construction, over the lifespan of a house, is how big it is. Seventy, 80 percent of the carbon impact of a house is heating and cooling the space. … Attached housing is great for that also, and this code supports both those things: attached housing and small homes.”
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Spevak is right: North American home sizes have risen sharply since the 1950s.
In fact, that’s almost economically inevitable. As long as the only profitable way to redevelop a one-home property is to replace it with another detached home, then each successive home on a lot will be bigger than the last.
Unresolved issues: Fourplexes and displacement-risk areas
The planning commission’s straw vote Tuesday follows three years of formal debate so far over the proposed zoning reform and precedes a formal (but nonbinding) recommendation to Portland’s city council. The city council’s binding vote is scheduled for the spring.
Some issues still need resolution. The planning commissioners who were present Tuesday split evenly over the question of whether to allow up to four homes on a lot.
“As we’re asking the single-family neighborhoods to transition, it’s a big change,” said one commissioner, Michelle Rudd.
Another, Chris Smith, disagreed.
“What do the neighbors have to be afraid of?” he said. “It’s buildings, people or cars. … If it’s buildings, we’ve done a lot to limit the size of buildings. … We did not allow any FAR bonus for the fourth unit. so if a building becomes a fourplex, it will not be much larger than a threeplex. … If it’s about cars, I will point out that we’ve done very little in this package to limit parking. In general, we’re still allowing people to build parking.”
So any concern about fourplexes must actually be about the number or type of people living in currently exclusive areas, Smith concluded. And “I’m for letting as many people live in these neighborhoods as we can,” he said.
Another area of debate: what effect the size or unit-count incentive might have on the rate of redeveloping lots that are currently home to low-income people, and if so how to mitigate that. Oswill said he regretted the “missed opportunity of having funding streams be created out of this that could lead to equitable units or programming.”
The city’s initial plan had proposed extending the duplex-triplex ban in areas with the highest risk of displacement. But affordable-housing advocates unanimously told the planning commission that they disagreed with that approach, because it would fail to create new housing while leaving those areas just as vulnerable to one-for-one redevelopment.
“The anti-displacement folks told us the right way to limit displacement is not to limit development opportunity but to deliver anti-displacement programs where they’re needed,” Smith said. “The question I still worry about is, well, what happens if council doesn’t fund any of those programmatic solutions?”
Madeline Kovacs, coodinator of the pro-housing Portland for Everyone coalition, said Thursday that she had the same concern, but that extending the duplex-triplex ban would only lead to more one-for-one displacement while the city waits for political consensus around more funding.
“We know what’s happening in Portland’s neighborhoods right now,” Kovacs said. “Even if this were just a little bit better than the status quo, that wouldn’t mean that we should wait more years rather than make these changes now and then continue to improve upon them.”
In the end, that’s the only way any major rethink of Cascadian housing policy will happen: bit by bit. But if anything is going to change at all, it’s going to depend on people choosing to show up and tell one another what they want—one public meeting at a time.
James C Kennedy
Also lower the cost of permitting. It costs about $45,000 in permits to build a 2,000 square foot home in Portland.
Go team Portland!
Did the Planning Commission recommend applying the Tree Code to lots under 5,000 feet (where it currently does not apply)? This would help integrate existing trees into new density or mitigate their loss by providing a small amount of funds for street tree planting, thereby ensuring we get new density while sustaining the urban forest. Both are important to more resilient and more affordable urban neighborhoods.
They decided tree code changes were outside the scope of this project, but recommended evaluating “additional changes to the Tree Code to better address small lot development.”
See the bottom of this PDF:
An anecdote from my 2015 detached ADU construction experience in PDX:
– ~4900 sq ft lot (49′ x 100′)
– with a 7′ diameter tree a few feet from one side property line and maybe 30′ from the back (it’s a pretty big tree, but not particularly tall or broad compared to others in the neighborhood)
– an existing house with a ~1400 sq ft ground footprint close to center of lot
If the lot were one foot wider we would have had a 36 foot radius circle in which we could not build anything at all and a 72 foot radius circle in which we could not encroach more than 4500 sq ft. So obviously the latter piece would be pretty much irrelevant, but the 36′ radius circle (with maybe 75-80% of that circle on our property), in combination with the 5′ prop line setbacks required at the time would have given us a pretty useless “right triangle with a convex hypotenuse” space to build on, if we abided by the prescriptive path and didn’t get a setback variance. Even with a setback variance like a foot from the property line I am having a hard time imagining any way to build anything more than a trailer-size (but with a crazy shape) tiny house.
We voluntarily consulted for an hour with an arborist (a lot cheaper than an actual performance path report, I’m sure) because we wanted to do our best to keep the tree and took a few of the most cost-effective preservation measures we could in combination with our desired new site plan. (So far, it seems to have worked, hooray!) But if we had been required to go down the performance path in the tree code I’m pretty sure our costs would have been in the tens of thousands of dollars: property line setback variance, significantly less efficient water/sewer/electric/gas routing, fencing, manual excavation instead of machine for some or all of the foundation, architect rework, less convenient bike storage option, etc. etc.
Cutting it down and replanting multiple smaller trees might have ended up as our only affordable option, and IMO that would have been a net loss for the neighborhood forest for at least the next ten years in terms of total canopy and maybe thirty years in terms of height+species. (You can get a pretty tall cottonwood in ten-fifteen years, but that’s a pretty different feel than a sixty-plus-year-old evergreen from a species that’s rare or unique in the neighborhood.)
Now imagine if that tree had been centered in our backyard instead of close to the fence line! I think the code restrictions on ADUs have been loosened to at least some extent since then, but I’m not sure it would have changed things too much in our case. So while I’m a pretty strong advocate for urban trees (I may have in fact been the first person to try to convince a skeptical Michael Andersen about their value seven or eight years ago!), I’d have to agree with revisiting the tree code before applying it to smaller lots, at least in the case of adding detached or attached units to an existing structure. If our house and the ADU had both been new construction, I’m guessing we could have come up with something roughly equivalent in terms of square footage and usability with an attached ADU and the main house closer to the sidewalk, but doing a tear down and rebuild almost certainly wouldn’t have been profitable at the time, even with our longer-than-usual required payoff time and inclusion of non-financial benefits into the equation; a for-profit developer wouldn’t have even bothered doing an analysis of that scenario, I don’t think.
Outed! For the record, I have been generally convinced of urban trees’ value over the years since 2010. 🙂 At that point, I was coming from years of reporting on suburban housing tracts replacing farms and trees in exurban Portland, and felt that preventing that ought to be the top priority for tree lovers. I still think this is the side of the argument lots of urban tree advocates too frequently neglect. But there’salso large and growing evidence that urban trees are (as I put it last week) awesome in uniquely urban ways.
Finally!!!! Good grief, how ridiculous to think a home is not large enough at 2500 sf. PURE GREED. Thousands, if not millions grew up with 10 to 12 in a family where there was one bathroom, if fortunate enough to have that, and they became resilient, and entrepreneurs. Such selfish people who demand large living spaces will always exist, but I am grateful to see what is on the cutting table for the ongoing emergent housing crisis. (I manage apartments and see the daily need for those needing AFFORDABLE housing).
Calling those in support of rethinking residential zoning “housing advocates” paints with way too large a brush. In fact, those advocating for change are housing advocates AND environmentalists, climate change activists, complete community adherents, and more. This is NOT just about housing, and perpetuating that myth only allows opponents to make buildings the issue and the problem. It’s about people and communities, and the breadth of support for this reflects that. Please try to mirror that in your discussion of this issue in the future. Thanks!
I think that’s a reasonable point, Dr. S, and I think the article makes clear that there are multiple reasons to support zoning reform. What one-to-three-word phrase would you prefer, though?
Good question. To me the story here is that it’s a coalition of interests. Those concerned about housing, or transportation, or climate, or justice aren’t putting their central interests aside. Rather, they are all agreeing that in this issue, and at this moment, this particular issue moves them all forward. Point being that if you’re in some other city, the lesson is not to create an army of housing advocates, but to make the interconnections between interests, through housing, more visible. Both the PSC and P4E have done this admirably.
Hi Ethan! (It’s Madeline – first time commenting on a Sightline article). IMHO, it’s ok for Michael to use that term for a post like this, because the policy points all the folks you mentioned are advocating for point in the same direction, but WHY they do so links into other issues. I think a re-watch of the hearing video makes that pretty plain. BUT – hear you loud & clear, and stay tuned for more P4E blog posts about related issues/ reasons to care and their relevance to the project (which Sightline is also full of!).
Portland is pretty flat in terms of housing . Just fly over, one stories everywhere. We need to get back to allow subdivided houses. Nobody, and I mean nobody needs more than 1000 square. Is it tight? Sure. But it can be done and offered in the market place.
This is a big bunch of shit. We are over crawded with people from other states. The solution is go back to where you came from and leave our portland alone.
Quit telling us home owners what we have to do.
You people are truly nuts. That’s why I left and now have a big house with 2 acres in the clean Midwest. Oh I live alone.
I’m in favor of lower heights (a new house in our area looms more than 50 feet above the sidewalk), but not sure about the max of 30 ft above the lowest spot. There are lots in the west hills that have a vertical drop of much more than 30 feet, which would essentially mean you couldn’t build there.
It’s nice to see the city actually heard the advocates and responded by moving toward their recommendations.
In the interest of full disclosure, Spivak is a developer and Portland for Everyone is the PAC of 1000 Friends of Oregon: the former has obvious financial self-interest and the PAC has received builder funds.
Portland for Everyone isn’t a Political Action Committee. It’s a project of 1000 Friends of Oregon, a nonprofit advocacy group. And because of what they do, probably people who want more housing want to support them. If you’re concerned people who build housing support people who advocate for more housing, that’s fine. But I don’t see anything nefarious.
As far as Eli’s work, he’s a pretty small developer of particularly housing types. Not sure he’ll benefit specifically from these changes; his products may be reduced in value if more housing comes onto the market. It’s complicated. Not all developers are the same, and the models of finding a way to make ends meet change.
As a side note, if you’re interested in full disclosure, post internet comments with your name.
It’s not that I am against building more buildings or denser construction. I am all for it, as long as it keeps home affordable and rent affordable and if they implement homes in that area to have appliances that conserve energy and water… Also if they change the zoning to where it creates more walking distance communities like in Europe and Japan. With all that said, I don’t like the contemporary construction.. If they had building codes that made the housing and buildings go with the history of the city.. Old craftsman style homes and arts and crafts.. Old style gothic buildings with the inner parts of Portland..
Got a follow up on this? Did it pass, where’s the new draft or law? Thx
Still in progress. (If Oregon’s statewide law passes, this will essentially be the local implementation of the state’s mandate; if not, then this would achieve a lot of the same effects.) Currently slated for a council vote in late 2019.