Opinions about housing aren’t hard to find in the Pacific Northwest. With a subject so personal, though, different angles on the issue can be.
As Portland’s proposed fourplex legalization has its public hearings this week, I thought I’d talk to an array of fairly well-known Portlanders with opinions about the subject. Here’s what they said.
North American Director, International Network of Street Papers; author
As an advocate for ending the homelessness crisis, why do you support fourplex legalization?
Obviously, being able to provide as much market-rate housing as possible provides the opportunity to open up the market to have more housing stock available. It’s a no-brainer.
The reality is we just need more housing. We need more private market housing; we need more public housing. This crisis will not be solved by creating any more roadblocks to creating those very things. It’s not a competition. I see in some communities where the public housing advocates and the homeless advocates and the YIMBYs are caught arguing about which is higher priority. It’s not an either/or, but an and.
Our environments are rapidly changing; for future generations, this policy will take place. It’s a matter of when and how.
chair, Multnomah County Commission
Why do you think fourplex legalization is a good idea?
We’ve done a lot of work at Multnomah County to help people stay in their housing. Rent assistance, case management, thousands of units of affordable housing. But without strong regulatory changes, counties and cities alone cannot address the root cause of the challenge.
We know that homeownership is becoming less and less a reality for people in our community, especially communities of color. And I think if we continue on the same track with single-family zoned neighborhoods throughout Oregon, we’re going to see these neighborhoods become gated communities of privileged white families. It’s happened already. We can start to put the brakes on that trend.
US Congressman and former city commissioner
As an environmentalist, why do you support getting rid of single-family-only zoning?
We have daily evidence of the climate crisis, but it is impossible for us to meet our objectives without aggressively reducing our carbon footprint through smarter transportation and housing policies. Traditional zoning locks in carbon pollution for generations. Changing this is something wholly within our power. I strongly urge zoning code revisions that achieve carbon reductions for future generations.
Chief Product Officer, Fresh Consulting
What does fourplex legalization mean to you as the founder of a tech company that’s prioritizing social responsibility?
It is important to us to increase the capacity of residential housing that’s available to people, not just at the very high end of the market or the very low end of the market, but the middle as well. On work-life balance, I don’t think people want to be commuting for an hour in each direction in Portland.
We need to have both enough capacity to support our own growth and growth to respond to other areas’ failures. If we added just a million people in the next 30 years moving to Portland, things are going to get as bad as San Francisco.
executive director, Portland Jobs with Justice
Why do you think fourplex legalization is good from a social justice perspective?
For me, it’s working-class housing that isn’t far out of our city. Our city is richer when we welcome the working class into our vibrant neighborhoods. Portland has a long history of pushing out its working class, but still needing our labor in the city. That’s not good for the environment, and not good for vibrant communities.
Everybody is different, but broadly, the upper class does not like to see the working class except when they’re doing their jobs. But that’s not the community I want to see.
director of real estate development and management, Hacienda CDC
What’s your take on Portland’s fourplex legalization proposal?
Reforming low-density zones in the residential infill project is an important step, but the zone change needs to include stronger provisions to ensure that regulated affordable homes are part of the mix. Hacienda and other non-profit developers are ready to make use of the new rules and develop new affordable homes, like building ADUs as affordable rental housing in displacement-impacted neighborhoods. A dedicated source of funding for affordable units in single-family zones will make it possible.
principal, research and strategy director, Brink Communications
Why do you think the residential infill project would be good for building Portland’s middle class?
Our company hires professional workers at competitive wages and benefits; many of them are young and with just a few years’ work experience. These are the people employers and cities purportedly want. And yet even our young employees are being forced to move further from our office every year, because they can’t find affordable options for housing near our office.
We’re doing everything we can to provide living wage jobs and to develop diverse young talent, but small businesses like ours need a zoning reform so our employees can live where they work, not drive long distances or leave jobs because of housing shortages.
executive director, Friends of Noise; host, Group Therapy on XRAY.fm
As an advocate for local music and musicians, why do you think fourplex legalization is a good idea?
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As a very recent homebuyer, I’ve been subject to the whims and varieties of the housing market myself. It’s hard for emerging artists of any medium.
Montavilla is supremely walkable. It’s accessible to transportation and it does have a fair amount of multifamily and single-family dwellings where you can find everything you need and you don’t have to find the expense of car and insurance. That level of affordability means you can afford to spend extra money on my passion, on my hobby, that can in turn become a line of work.
If you know where to look, there’s quite a bit of multifamily dwellings already in Irvington. It seems sad to think that our current laws and current zoning are literally preventing that level of development due to some laws that were changed to prevent that organic diversification of the neighborhood.
Freelance writer and artist
Why do you think fourplex legalization is a good idea?
I live in a fourplex in Buckman. My landlord told me it was a diplomat’s residence when it was built in the 1800s. Sometime in the last 100 years, it was split up into four apartments.
I make too much to qualify for low-income housing projects that I’ve looked at, but I don’t make enough to pay most market rate rent. So for me finding a small one-bedroom apartment that was affordable is a challenge. This was one of the few places I could actually use my freelance writer dollars to pay the rent in. The whole building is young people, and I don’t need that much space. It’s a one-bedroom – me and my partner and our cat. I don’t need that much space. What I need is affordable rent.
Development is always a complicated and messy issue. Of course people should be skeptical of the intentions of developers, and of course we should be worried about who is making money. But we desperately need the option to build denser housing and more affordable housing in the city. I think there’s this sort of false divide. Either you’re for development or you’re anti-development. I think of myself as “pro renter’s rights.” That doesn’t mean giving a blank check to developers.
Executive director, SEIU 503
Why is fourplex legalization good from a labor perspective?
I think it is a creative solution to an ongoing problem. Our members, they’re caregivers and public workers. During bargaining, housing was pretty much the biggest issue they brought up. They have been forced out of the city. Our caregivers are often traveling great distances to get to consumers. I think this is a proposed solution to that.
We talk about it like this is a big change and “What’s going to happen?” We shouldn’t underestimate what’s happened in the last couple years! We can’t act like we’re protecting something that’s working. Right now, the housing policy in the city of Portland isn’t something that’s working.
Interviews have been lightly edited for brevity.
The market will produce few if any affordable units on newly-upzoned 4-plex lots. The profits are in high-end housing, and most developers will build for tenants who can pay $2,500+ in monthly rents. Or buyers in the $750,000 range. Maybe these upzones should happen on a contract basis and only for non-profit builders who agree to certain price points.
How many “affordable” units is the market producing on long-downzoned one-plex lots? https://medium.com/@pdx4all/every-month-portlands-infill-rules-aren-t-changed-the-city-looks-more-like-this-23686e1b9179
Everyone above favors more affordable housing but the reality is that the infill 3-4-5 plex everywhere is environmentally problematic and destructive. And in Portland zoning is not an obstacle or the obstacle to either density or affordability. First we have plenty of land available for higher density housing and a great deal is being constructed under the status quo. In fact, more than the market can absorb. Second, Portland has a wide variety of housing types and sizes in its many already dense single family neighborhoods. Third, random density does not support a more walkable city.
Single family zoning is designed to protect our stock of older more affordable homes along with the benefits of access to light, air, privacy, garden space, flexible use, and independence that are unique to this housing type. The protections and stabilization of land values are essential to stabilize communities and to reduce economic and physical displacement. Removing the guardrails is simply open season for developers to profit from the progressive idealism.
Rod, that is DEFINITELY not what single family zoning was designed to do. https://www.sightline.org/2018/05/25/a-century-of-exclusion-portlands-1924-rezone-is-still-coded-on-its-streets/
Maybe SF zoning wasn’t designed for that in the ’20s and ’30s, but you might acknowledge that much of what Merrick says is basically true today.
I do wish Sightline urbanists would outgrow their hate on SF zoning, this magic pill approach to curing urban ills. The world is just more complicated than that.
Nobody here is claiming that ending exclusionary zoning is a magic pill or the only thing we need to do. It’s one of many things we need to do.
” Skinny ” houses have overburden neighborhoods where they were built. I can’t even imagine what a four flex on that same property would do. And just how many of these will be built in SW, NW? The people that voted for this are not property owners. All these large apartment complexes going in ,could not they have been made into affordable housing at the same percentage rate that you’re asking established neighborhoods to take? On my block they’re 11 houses take one out add a four-plex you got four to ten what’s the average low cost housing and all the apartments buildings that have been built in the last 4 years in the city of Portland?
Why is it always assumed that only developers can or will create (or divvy up) SF housing to create 2, 3, or 4 unit housing? This seems like a great solution for owners looking for a live/rent solution, or for multigenerational families sharing expenses, but living under the same roof.
And here’s another good question: in what kind of housing, and what part of town do urbanists who favor increased density actually live? In a SF home on a private lot, a spacious and expensive penthouse condominium, or a modest 1 or 2 bedroom rental unit in a fourplex? 🤔
Good point about the most promising “developers” of middle housing maybe being relatively ordinary people tinkering with their property! I suspect you are right.
I’m not sure about most of the folks above, but I live with my family in a two-bedroom ADU … and one of my main goals is for that to say nothing at all about which part of town I live in.