Portland’s city council set a new bar for North American housing reform Wednesday by legalizing up to four homes on almost any residential lot.
Portland’s new rules will also offer a “deeper affordability” option: four to six homes on any lot if at least half are available to low-income Portlanders at regulated, affordable prices. The measure will make it viable for nonprofits to intersperse below-market housing anywhere in the city for the first time in a century.
And among other things it will remove all parking mandates from three quarters of the city’s residential land, combining with a recent reform of apartment zones to essentially make home driveways optional citywide for the first time since 1973.
It’s the most pro-housing reform to low-density zones in US history.
The “Residential Infill Project,” as it’s known, melds ideas pioneered recently by Minneapolis and Austin and goes well beyond the requirements of a state law Oregon passed last year.
The proposal passed 3-1. After years of local headlines describing the proposal as “controversial,” both of the council members up for re-election see their “yes” votes as key accomplishments. Of the council’s two open seats, a commissioner-elect and both candidates in Tuesday’s council runoff had also endorsed its principles.
Mayor Ted Wheeler, a business-oriented former Republican turned center-left Democrat, allied with two colleagues on his political left to pass the reform.
“Can’t wait to vote to get this thing implemented,” Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said last week, citing it as a step toward repairing what the city government now describes as its own history of “creating and enforcing racial segregation and inequities.”
“I’m ready to move forward,” Commissioner Chloe Eudaly agreed, after securing Wheeler’s support for a formal city effort to create a new “tenant opportunity to purchase” program when rental buildings are sold.
The one “no” vote was Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who first cut her political teeth fighting infill in her neighborhood in the early 1990s.
A snail’s-pace project that kept getting better
In the six years since the residential infill project’s concept was floated in a letter by a local micro-developer, Portland leaders have weighed and delayed it again and again, sending it back multiple times through the city’s wringer of public process.
But every time the plan was exposed to public opinion, it became more dramatic.
In 2016, the council unanimously agreed in concept to legalizing duplexes and corner triplexes in part of the city, plus a sharp restriction in building size. In 2018, after two epic public hearings, the plan shifted to allow up to four homes in any project, plus two crucial tweaks: an end to mandatory parking and extra size allowances for buildings that created more or cheaper homes. In 2019, Oregon’s legislature took up the issue, led by a former fourplex resident: Portland-based House Speaker Tina Kotek. That led to a groundbreaking state law legalizing “middle housing” of up to four homes throughout the Portland metro area, but stopping short of allowing it on any lot.
Early in 2020, Wheeler still couldn’t find the votes for the local reform—until another pair of hours-long hearings, in which pro-housing voices led by the advocacy groups Portland: Neighbors Welcome and Anti-Displacement PDX united around the concepts of adding the “deeper affordability” sixplex amendment and simultaneously pursuing other tenant protections like Eudaly’s “tenant opportunity to purchase” concept.
At those hearings, pro-housing testimony outnumbered anti-housing testimony more than six to one.
Throughout the process, the backers were a coalition of affordable housing developers like Hacienda Community Development, stable-housing advocates like the Cully Housing Action Team, environmentalists like Sunrise PDX, justice advocates like AARP Oregon, civic groups like the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, transportation reformers like Oregon Walks, and dozens of active volunteers, with years of staffed organizing work by the anti-sprawl nonprofit 1000 Friends of Oregon and, later, us at Sightline.
“Who knew putting people at city council, testifying, writing letters and convincing their elected officials could change public policy?” Commissioner Hardesty said in June, admitting that until she’d heard from the public, even she had thought the sixplex concept was too radical to support.
This follows and surpasses reforms in other cities
Portland’s reform will build on similar actions in Vancouver and Minneapolis, whose leaders voted in 2018 to re-legalize duplexes and triplexes, respectively; in Seattle, where a 2019 reform to accessory cottages resulted in something very close to citywide triplex legalization; and in Austin, whose council passed a very similar sixplex-with-affordability proposal in 2019.
But Portland’s changes are likely to gradually result in more actual homes than any of those milestone reforms.
That’s because in both Vancouver and Minneapolis, city laws in low-density zones cap the size of new buildings no matter how many homes they create. In Minneapolis, for example, the interior square footage of a building can be up to half the square footage of its lot: 2,500 square feet of housing on a hypothetical 5,000 square foot lot.
Portland’s new rules set that same size limit for one-unit buildings. But Portland’s duplexes will be up to three-fifths the square footage of their lot, and triplexes and fourplexes up to 0.7.
The idea is for that extra square footage to work like a sluice gate for Portland’s housing market, rechanneling investment away from luxury remodels and McMansions and toward new homes that are affordable to the middle class on day one. Low-density parts of Vancouver and Minneapolis currently have no such distinctions.
As for Seattle, that city still bans new housing from the driveways of most primary homes, making infill geometrically impossible in many cases. Vancouver does, too.
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Austin’s sixplex concept is a different matter. Splitting the fixed cost of a lot among even six homes doesn’t generally bring development prices low enough to be built without subsidy. So until Austin matches its excellent affordable-housing policy with a similar reform to market-rate housing, it’s tying its own hands behind its back.
Policies like this do, however, serve as a sort of force multiplier for nonprofits that are, like Habitat for Humanity, already developing modest homes at below-market prices.
As we wrote in January, legalizing sixplexes for regulated-affordable projects is the economic equivalent of cutting a check for $100,000 or more per affordable home. It alone may not be enough to make those homes appear, but it makes every existing subsidy go further. And it doesn’t take a dime away from other existing programs.
Just as importantly, it makes it feasible for builders like Habitat to gradually scatter such projects through all Portland neighborhoods. It lifts a de facto ban on new affordable housing from much of the city.
This is something every city should do – and federal governments should give them a reason to
It shouldn’t take six years for any city to agree to give itself permission to build the sort of homes that every city once allowed.
So-called “missing middle” housing options like triplexes, courtyard apartments and cottages aren’t radical or even unfamiliar. They’re just scarce—because they’ve been largely banned from cities across Cascadia and the rest of the US and Canada. In Portland, the bans began in 1924 and expanded almost citywide in 1959. Almost every city in either country that’s existed for more than a century has a similar story.
One effect, in many cities a primary goal, was to segregate people by class, race, age and income. But that wasn’t the only effect—bans on the lowest-cost way to create new homes accidentally created scarcity for everyone.
In the last few weeks, middle-housing bans unexpectedly became a high-profile issue in the US presidential race, as President Donald Trump cheerfully claimed responsibility for rising housing prices, applauding his administration’s flip-flop from saying exclusionary zoning is bad (because it drives up prices) to saying it is good (because those high prices preserve segregation).
The technical issue here, over enforcement of a provision of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, isn’t massively important to the number or price of homes that get built.
What matters more is a battle of big ideas. Is it good to have a diversity of housing types and prices in every neighborhood? Or is it bad?
In the last two years, the Democratic Party has rapidly come around to the position that it’s good. Its presidential candidate’s platform reflects this: Joe Biden says the federal government should withhold various grants from cities that don’t take steps toward the standard Portland is about to set.
It’s not clear which idea will win this new federal debate. There’s plenty of disagreement within both major US parties.
But it’s rarely been clearer than it is this week which side is winning right now.
Michael H. Wilson
A little over 25 years ago I was a member of the local neighbor association and we suggested mixed development along 82nd street in Portland. Retail on the lower floors and apartment above. Well, it has come to pass and I actually am alive to read about it. That is a wonder!
Who in there right mind would buy property in.Portland anyway? Crime is condoned. Property valuesplummet.
Bla bla bla…get your head out of Fox News.
Nice thoughtful reply based on sound reasoning.
Fox News has merely called it what it is- a mess. Progressive cities have gained the reputation of being overrun by the homeless, rising crime, anti-law enforcement, and skyrocketing housing prices. There are lots of federal stats to back this up, btw.
I live here and am actively buying and selling property right now, and I can tell you this is absolutely not true and you don’t even have to take the word of residents here. Simply look up property value in Portland or crime rates. Your source of information has a political agenda and is wrong.
This hasn’t effected the market or you yet since you buy/sell not construct tiny condos on vacant lots with no parking that rats lived on unnoticed for years so no it’s not a problem yet but I guarantee the house market and quality of living will be negatively impacted when rats spread thru every neighborhood one little new condo you think is not a problem is your problem when you get rats infesting every property you buy and can’t sell
Ron, You just go right on believing that. Whatever it takes to keep you out of Portland is fine with me.
Your crime rate is almost double the national average, and the data does not yet include 2020 and defunding the police.
I lived in North Portland near Lombard in college and it was a pit. I almost got assaulted multiple times walking to Fred Meyer and I heard gunshots pretty regularly. Moreover, according to FBI statistics, Portland has the 4th highest crime rate in the state (as of 2014). From the sound of this “reform” it just sounds like it’s just going to end up making ghettos. I’m perfectly fine with them doing this as I don’t live there anymore, but still doesn’t seem great for housing value. With crime rate increases in recent months, I see no reason to invest.
You have a right to your opinion but basically everyone disagrees with you. Check out Zillow, property values in Portland are continuing to rise. Crime is down as a long-term trend, and that’s a statistical fact.
If Portland keeps allowing the rioters to control the city – housing will become more affordable as the population moves away.
We were planning on spending time in Portland on our next vacation-but not now
you have no idea how much money you are going to lose in the future due to your lax approach to law and order. We have stayed in Portland enjoyed the city- but not for the foreseeable future. Good luck to you all.
Do you spend a lot of time hanging out across the street from the Justice Center when you’re in Portland, Ron?
Thank you for treating the low-info trolls with all the seriousness they merit.
You do realize that Portland is larger than the few blocks that protestors are concentrated in, right? With that kind of attitude though, no-one in Portland will be missing you 🙂
Yes. Portland is bigger than a few blocks. Let’s not justify riots by trying to hide the FACT that riots in many additional areas and abusive invasions into many residential areas are occurring every day & night!! Portland is NOT SAFE!!
You are absolutely right. The Police should definitely stop invading our neighborhoods!
I wish the city would lower the fees to build homes, we looked into it for a bit but it was almost 60k with permits and the sidewalk was a crazy amount as well.
Hopefully this is something they consider.
I’d love to build some small cottage style homes for those like myself who love tiny homes.
Like every other poor decision made by uneducated, paid off elected officials this is going to do more harm than good and only benefits the builders selling overpriced condos. I personally had a 12plex built across the street from me on a vacant lot that was infested with rats that I never saw one in the 15 years I lived in quiet peaceful bliss now had to pay $600 to exterminator and have to pay yearly service to protect my home from the neighborhood rat problem that will never go away unless everyone pays to erradicate a rat problem the vacant lot caused and should have been required to address before stripping the fireld with trees that housed rats making this my problem I can’t afford while they are selling 12 condos for $400k each. I can’t believe the city isn’t concerned about a rat problem they say they can’t control because they are responsible for creating the problem shrugging by every dept told that’s not their job to worry about rats or send vector to document the problem they blame covid for why rats have to scatter and find shelter since restaurants are closed instead of review data based on new construction zones to rat problems which I can prove caused my rat problem no one is worried about yet but like the homeless problem they let happen and can’t control I guarantee there will be no solution or way to fix a problem they ignored. So don’t be surprised when you get rats in your neighborhood a 12plex half a mile away that you can’t do anything about is a solution to the housing problem caused.
This does sound like a problem! If the rats were there before the 12plex, though, I don’t see how it could be the fault of the 12plex.
Michael E. Feucht
Parking is going to be impossible, all this will end up being is subsidized housing, and will make new ghettos.
If street parking is going to be impossible, Michael, why don’t you park off the street instead?
Aaron S Hardcastle
Was it just me or is it in this article “no driveways”? I swear thats what he said, so I guess your suggesting just find a nice front yard to park in.
It was just you. The article says driveways will become optional.
This is a great way to create a slum.
Not surprising, that in the year of our Lord, 2020, we bear witness to this bizarre social engineering development. Everything else is going down the toilet, Portland isn’t immune.
Jake, who probably claims to believe in “small government”, thinks allowing people to build houses is “social engineering”.
What on earth are you talking about? This is about removing the social engineering and letting people have more freedom with their own property…
A higher density Portland …
More ADUs and higher density doesn’t sound like a lifestyle improvement.
How about addressing the issues on inflated housing /living costs.
More housing doesn’t mean affordable living.
This sounds less like integration and more like additional privelage and opportunity to make money for those that already have it..
Possibly a last ditch effort for the city to make money in a possible downturn.
My family lives in an ADU, Nik. If we hadn’t chipped in with our now-neighbors to build it, we probably would have ended up buying an older existing home, presumably slightly outbidding someone else for it. That’s exactly how prices go up.
It’s true that many people can’t afford to build an ADU, even after pooling cash between two families. But the previous rules required new buildings in these zones to be big detached homes that tore down older ones. This reform is DEFINITELY not the solution to everything. But it’s better than the status quo, making it legal for less expensive market-rate homes to exist and making affordable housing dollars go further.
It’s called tenement housing. In 15 years it will be blighted, crime-ridden and worthless.
Right… every place in the US where there are more than 12 houses per acre is a tenement crime ridden hellhole…
Well god forbid people don’t have someplace to put their second or third vehicle.
One benefit of density is that people don’t need a car because they live close enough to work and services that most of their activities can be completed by walking, biking, or public transit. Of course, some people (myself included) feel that they need a car for one reason or another… those people can still have a car. But this legislation allows people who don’t want a car, or who only want to have one car per family, to make that decision.
There is no right to car ownership in America. It’s a choice and people should be able to choose to live without one and have the infrastructure around them to make that possible. And it is perfectly possible – look at NYC.
The city of Portland has a liberal mindset. It’s very inclusive. But maybe not to those who are scared to live in a city that is fighting segregation. Kudos to Portland. I pray your experiment will work. I wouldn’t live anywhere but a liberal town. And it does achieve another form of segregation. It keeps the conservative white jerks away. Hooray for that too.
That’s a choice almost anyone in their right mind would make outside of New York. You need giant apartment buildings everywhere and a 100 year old transit system to make that way of life work. Subway systems are far too expensive to build for mature cities, and in order to be cost effective you need to have lots of people living very close to the trains stations. Another thing is that you need mixed use development because people also need to be able to walk to their grocery store
Percentage of Portland households with either one or zero cars: 55
I moved out of an outer borough of NYC because they ruined it with overbuilding and it became a traffic nightmare.
I have been a registered professional civil engineer (CA) for 46 years, City Engineer for several Cities in Southern California, including the third largest in Los Angeles county. These ideas if implemented will create several bad unintended consequences.
The sewer system and treatment plants, water systems, power will be undersized and will require upgrading – difficult to do and very expensive in developed urban areas. The streets will need widening not just for cars but for trucks, cabs, buses also very difficult if not impractical in urban developed communities. One only has to look at the Freeway system in LA to see semi trailer trucks choking traffic trying to keep up the demand for goods, food etc.
Politicians are generally ignorant, short sighted, and just plane dumb they ignore facts to promise anything when it suits them. Biden is no exception, neither is AOC.
Remember be careful what you ask for you may get it!
Lucien, in your professional observation, did the ever-spreading suburbanization of southern California lead to any similar problems over the last 50 years?
The alternative is to allow for suburban sprawl, which means building more infrastructure. You end up with more infrastructure per person due to the increased distribution so in 50 years the deferred maintenance costs will skyrocket. This is whats happened in the rust belt. Costs of sprawling infrastructure and a lack of density have killed cities.
Aaron S Hardcastle
And isnt it real ironic how its called the R.I.P
R.I.P Nimbys; thoughts & prayers
…Seriously, allowing more housing options so that people like me (low-wage blue collar/pink collar essential laborers) can actually afford to *survive* in the areas where people actually need the services we provide, isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, it creates a healthier and happier community on every level, which benefits everybody.
It’d be nice if we could all dick around in an office building on salary or whatever and afford a nice, big Victorian house in an old-growth neighborhood close to where we work, but that’s not how things pan out for most people. The pandemic has revealed that society’s most essential laborers – the ones who keep everything from falling to literal shit, by distributing toilet paper to your local grocery store – are simultaneously the most necessary workers, and also the worst-paid and most vulnerable. Try calculating a monthly budget for a full-time minimum wage worker, while factoring in the market rate for a 1-bedroom apartment in the Portland area. The first word that comes to my mind is “despair.”
‘Low income/affordable’ doesn’t automatically translate to ‘ugly and dysfunctional,’ any more than a McMansion improves the character of a neighborhood just by being grossly expensive. It’s up to developers and architects to keep our city beautiful, going forward – even as they incorporate the legalized low-income housing projects into neighborhoods.
Fingers crossed that one day, somewhere down the line, I myself can say “R.I.P” to the days of rent-triggered existential meltdowns.
Excellent response, Struggling Local!! BTW, I own 2 single family rentals in Portland, and agree with your analysis.
RIP to the conservative white jerks that should be leaving in droves. Bye bye!
Great news for Portland! Now all they need to do is kick the anarcho-communist terrorist groups out of downtown and the water street homeless encampment and I will consider returning.
It would have only been ironic had the ordinance not passed. 😉
While I recognize the importance of providing affordable housing, I worry this will also significantly increase the population in Portland over time and have unintentional, adverse effects on the city. The city is having a hard time keeping up with infrastructure upgrades and repairs already. How does this affect the Portland 2035 Comprehensive Plan? There are many implications beyond what’s discussed in this article.
This is part of implementation of the comp plan. The main effect isn’t likely to be a huge increase in expected growth, just a reallocation of a (relatively small, like 10% or so) amount of that growth from the apartment zones (and the burbs) to the lower-density neighborhoods. Because lower-density neighborhoods are 77% of residential land, no neighborhood is likely to change all that much.
Also worth keeping in mind that because of the big nationwide drop in household sizes, low-density areas in Portland have fewer total residents today than in the 60s.
Consider though the infrastructure costs of not controlling sprawl. It’s cheaper to maintain contained infrastructure, especially if it discourages the use of single person vehicles, than to build and then maintain infrastructure to support the sprawl.
Increased density is good for infrastructure maintenance. 100 taxpaying households on a block will bring in more tax revenue than 50, while keeping the amount of pavement and much of the other infrastructure the same.
Eric is correct: doubling or tripling the number of taxable lots on a block does wonderful things for the tax base. (And for the existing taxpayer, because adding taxable parcels increases the number of property owners/taxpayers, which tends to push the average amount of tax per taxpayer down.) And, as Eric said, this also maximizes use of existing infrastructure rather than requiring additional infrastructure be built.
And Portland blocks are just so dang small that there’s way more pavement that needs to be maintained. This is good for the new four- five- and sixplexes that are coming because there will be more sidewalks for all the new neighbors and more street parking.
This is the only good news I’ve read in months.
When "common good" becomes a cloak to hide behind
The layers of fees and taxes and increase in density, in combination with poorly constructed dwellings with unaffordable maintenance upkeep, unless warranties accompany the purchase, will have unintended consequences. Purchase prices and rents are high. Developers will move in and begin the entire cycle of even more dense construction and higher living costs again when the opportunity arises (read the fine print in the hundred of pages of regulations). And, unless the planning includes green spaces and support for public schools, who will ultimately live in these communities as single home residents move because they’ve been displaced and important neighborhood integrities are lost?
Stephen E Shook
People who live in Portland are complete idiots their government is run by morons how many times did I see the word segregation in this article there’s no segregation in this country these idiots spend so much time and energy looking for any type of resistance and label it racism. Thank God I don’t live in that Cesspool of a city.
It’s definitely not true that there is no segregation in this country. Portland has less than some cities by race, but the most racially concentrated areas, the close-in low-density neighborhoods, are full of white people and little else, way out of regional proportion.
That said, what the article says is segregation by “class, race, age and income.” If you don’t think zoning contributes to segregation on those measures, I would argue you don’t know Portland any better than you seem to know the rest of the country.
Yes, thank God you don’t live in our city.
When an article calls Wheeler center-left.
Personally I am very pleased at this program, I don’t like Portland and this will make the junkies and tweakers have a nice opportunity to further destroy this place. I must say I fund it exciting to watch a community commit cultural suicide. 5555
This will not be a problem at all with people leaving Portland due to uncertain times. The governor & mayor are forcing people & businesses out. So if you zone all areas for . the house values will bottom out. People sell now wait a lot already are. It’s not rocket science
I don’t have any problem with the idea except for the parking. Even in subdivisions where the lots are small there is a lot of on street parking. Do you think you can put that many people that close together and not provide adequate parking. They are simply making long range plans for a ghetto. How can you think And the keyword here is think that you can have an area that is not a total wreck if you do not have parking? Is this committee asleep or are they just stupid and cannot think ahead.
People will have the same option they have today to build off-street parking, so the only thing at stake here is how annoying it becomes to park in the public street.
If on-street parking becomes scarce in some areas, probably some folks will finally clean out their garages and start using them for parking. Some folks who are committed to frequently and conveniently parking their cars in the street will look for other locations to live. If things *really* get crowded on the street, the city has developed options for overnight parking permit programs that can give people an extra reason to park on their own property (or, if they’re a developer, to include off-street parking).
Personally, I find all of those problems less urgent than the problem of building homes in places people want to live.
Society needs to move past the idea that they have a right to leave gigantic pieces of property on public right of ways.
It works just fine in NYC
New York City has much higher density and a good public transit system. Portland does not have either. Most Portland residents will need at least one car.
Hi, Michael— Thanks for the very informative article. I am glad to see our city acting to help create more affordable housing options, and impressed that the City Council listened to housing advocates. I wonder if the task remains half-complete, though, as rents for new apartments in my area (Overlook) are still too high to be affordable. We also really need housing + social services. Plenty more to work on!
Couldn’t agree more.
Way to go Portland crowd more people in an already over crowded city, let’s add to traffic, energy and water use, whose democratic pockets are we lining with developers money, glad I am rural. Portland’s government is corrupt, their democrates.
It sounds like you are in a good place, then. Rural living suits you. It’s not for everyone, myself included. Likewise, urban living is not for everyone.
Hundred year old house
The reason it says ‘most lots’ is that some neighborhoods are exempt – such as rich, white Westmoreland. If this doesnt apply to ALL neighborhoods then it is just another gift to developers at the expense of property owners in more modest neighborhoods. Get out the wrecking ball boys and girls – there is no more restriction to destroying historic houses in Portland (unless you can afford lawyers to create a ‘historic district’).
You’re mistaken – Westmoreland is zoned R5 and R2.5. Those zones, along with R7, are the ones affected here. Here’s a map: https://www.portlandmaps.com/bps/mapapp/maps.html#mapTheme=rip
The reason it says “most lots” is that the R10, R20 and RF zones – which includes a lot of Dunthorpe and the West Hills – are not included. Fortunately, the new state law mentioned here requires fourplexes to be legalized there included, too. The city will make changes to these zones in a follow-up project in the next year. I hope you’ll be turning out to ensure that the affordable-sixplex option isn’t mysteriously omitted from these zones.
Hundred year old house
I meant Eastmoreland with the fight to create a historical district, with its aim of blocking the removal of existing houses to build multi-plexes on their sites. We can be sure that the priveledged neighborhoods will not see the infill that more modest neighborhoods will. If you have the money your neighborhood will be spared. There is always a loophole for the rich, count on it…
Aha! In that case you’re right, that is a possible loophole. I completely agree that we’ll need to keep fighting those loopholes.
You can always convert an existing structure without changing it’s historical aspects. See the Grand House housing form.
Great article! Excited to see the return of middle housing. Also hilarious to see people who don’t even live in Portland flinging insults in the comment section 😀
I’m still not clear on how this is not a massive shift in wealth from single family homeowners to real estate developers. Won’t this plan result in the reduction of home values?
Statistically, increased residential density tends to lead to higher home prices. But so does a shortage of housing relative to job growth and other amenities.
The goal of this policy is to stabilize home values, so we don’t see massive appreciation due to continued housing shortage (of the sort we saw over the last decade), while also making Portland more prosperous by letting more people live the lifestyles they choose.
It’s entirely possible that more people will stop choosing to live in Portland! If that’s the case, this policy will help us more gracefully subdivide large homes as we all economize and leave the next housing boom to some other city. 🙂
Increasing the economic return you can get from your property makes your property worth more, not less.
This makes homeowners wealthier.
Higher property taxes decrease property values. For every $422 of increased property taxes a homeowner loses $10,000 in value at today’s interest rates. It may not seem like much until you consider localities where $500,000 homes have property taxes of $14,000! If those taxes were closer to $6000 the property would be worth closer to $700,0000.
I’m sure people who pay 600k and up for their house will be tickled pink to know that their investment could be jeopardized by cheap housing being integrated into their neighborhood. With cheap housing comes the types of neighbors that will stick out like a sore thumb and lower the property values.
What type is that, Debra?
It’s in Debra’s best interest that her comment remain unanswered.
I’m curious about the role of mixed-use zoning in this development plan. (Perhaps this is detailed in the comprehensive plan.) Adding more housing to a neighborhood but not adding more community resources (grocery stores, post office, pet stores, etc) doesn’t create an ideal urban landscape IMO. If driveways (ie car ownership) are to become optional, there needs to be more businesses (ie jobs) in walking distance from where people live. Personally I live in Woodlawn and there are two huge new apartment buildings on NE Dekum, and one HUGE one going in on MLK and Rosa Parks. Without being mixed use, they add zero value to the neighborhood for existing residents. Would love to hear Michael Anderson’s perspective!
Good points, Jelly! I would say the value those apartment buildings add to your neighborhood is the additional wallets that will hopefully keep local retail options strong, local bus routes frequent, etc.
I couldn’t agree more that strong cities and neighborhoods need nearby commerce as well as housing. Unfortunately, we can’t just mandate that businesses exist. In my opinion, the best thing we can do for that is create the environment within which entrepreneurship can thrive. In retail, I think that basically means a large, economically/culturally/experientially diverse population within a fairly short distance. I think this is part of a larger strategy for creating that environment.
Excellent article. And even better responses to the mostly uninformed haters. Once again Portland is on the progressive cutting edge, doing the hard work of balancing divergent interests and concerns. While not the subject of this article, I would be interested in learning more about how Portland is addressing environmental issues like flooding and climate change mitigation in residential redevelopment scenarios.
At least most of them probably know how to use grammar and the correct form of ‘they’re’ 😂
Born, the three times she used the word “their”, it was the correct form. “They’re” wouldn’t be used in any of them.
So glad to hear this news.
I live in a small old clamming town on the New Jersey coast. At the end of Prohibition someone decided to issue 138 liquor licences in the town. The town turned into an alcoholic paradise, one bar still opens at 5 am. With the advent of opiates, it turned into a heroin addict flop town.
However, since the town is located on the shore the land was valuable, people want to live here. After, a massive storm flooded the city with 9 feet of water, the town passed a law only allowing one family per home. No more high density multi-resident homes filled with drunks and drug addicts. Town is now mostly cleaned up and a great place to live, no crime, lots of young families moving here. Plus a Ferry to New York City. Wonderful place. Oh and we hired more cops to get rid of the dirt-bags.
I am really glad we now have a place to send our addicts. I would like to buy bus tickets for these folk to go live in Portland, part of our compassionate “family and friends reunification program”. Politicians in New Jersey normally send them to New York, Portland sounds like a nicer place.
Can’t handle the truth, huh.
Millennials have largely been shut out of affordable home ownership thanks to depressed wages, two huge recessions, NIMBYism, and soaring housing costs over the last twenty years.
Reforms like this make me hopeful that we (and our younger Gen Z friends) could some day actually afford to own a home that isn’t 100 blocks away from the city.
Thank you for all your hard work in making this city liveable for all of us, and not just white boomers that were lucky enough to buy property 40 years ago.
Hi PDX Transplant,
While I agree with most of what this program values, you did not mention the primary driver behind your reasons why “millennials have largely been shut out of affordable home ownership,” and that is the unsustainable increase in population in Oregon and PDX in particular by those coming to live here. Transplants are the main driver. As long as the rest of the country can sell their places and buy homes here with cash – basically commodifying a Portland lifestyle – they will always warp the housing market to unreasonable heights and depress the wage markets with increased labor supplies.
Thank you for reminding us of the history of this project, and thank you for your analytical reporting (and advocating) throughout.
Please don’t condemn those who came before you. I’m sure you would have done the same thing had you been born 30-40 years earlier. Life will always present opportunities to those before, or after, your time on this planet. And enough with making white people the enemy. It isn’t productive in creating a harmonious society.
By the way, I never received participation trophies. I had to actually achieve something to get recognition. Poor me.
Sounds good. Will there be parking lots available nearby?
Other than both sides of almost every public street? If people want to pay enough for the parking to make it worthwhile for the owner to keep it as a parking lot, then I suppose there will be. Making parking optional doesn’t prevent it from existing where it’s actually needed, after all.
I’m so glad you fleshed out your article on RIP just before passage. This one answers my question about Austin. And thank you for calling out one of our really forward-looking small developers. Eli played a number of important roles in getting this policy including having his firm co-sponsor the Incremental Developer Training that created the Portland, OR Small Developer Alliance. You may not realize what a critical role PDX-SDA played in helping this legislation to get continuously better.
Of course, you and your readers realize what an important role developers will play in IMPLEMENTING this legislation. And possibly passing some follow-up policies that will make ADAPTIVE RE-USE more feasible. To do that, we will need to bring in even more allies than you mention, e.g., the Architectural Heritage Center, Restore Oregon and others that were part of the coalition around passing Amendment 7: Historic Resources. Much of that work will be at the State level–on the State Building Code(s).
We also need to find ways to make shared housing more feasible for all ages–especially older homeowners and renters. The recently launched Homeshare of Oregon, a program of Oregon Harbor of Hope, is the group to watch in this respect.
I hope that your coalition will expand to include PDX-Small Developer Alliance and Homeshare of Oregon and the others I’ve mentioned. And I hope that in future articles on this topic, you will recognize the important role that PDX-SDA’s co-founder, Garlynn Woodsong played in advancing this policy–including redeveloping two single family homes into great models of Missing Middle Housing–despite the tough obstacles he had to overcome. He will be crucial in any effort to get better adaptive re-use policy.
This is excellent! Very similar to the affordable housing project just over the Columbian River in Vancouver Washington by the Vancouver Housing Authority using modular tiny homes.
Looking at the photo of the six-plex, the first thing that comes to mind is that Portland needs to create an architectural competition to design ATTRACTIVE, affordable housing. I agree with other comments regarding the building of future slums. Buildings that unattractive are future slums; near future.
In San Diego, we have many cottages, bungalow courts, and small apartment buildings. The older ones (pre-war) are almost always attractive and homey. It can be done. Demand high quality design. It does not have to be expensive. Create city templates for developers. Just do not allow schlock.
I agree with you about the image used for the sixplex. Do you have any images from San Diego that you could send us? Meanwhile, I will try to find Michael some better images from the Portland area. I thought I had already done so, but files get lost. . .
Thank you for this article, which provides a readable digest of a complex set of changes to our land use regulations.
I have circulated it to friends, government officials and professional colleagues around the country for ideas and for inspiration.
I hope our new city council will now focus on helping new for-profit and non-profit housing developers, creative architects and development consultants to find ways to ensure that this new housing opportunity provides benefits for renters, prospective homeowners and home owners of modest incomes and wealth.
This is especially true in the neighborhoods in this city and this region which continue to experience displacement by higher income homeowners and renters.
Wouldn’t it be great if a renter or a renting couple, who cannot afford a down payment, but could bring $5,000 or $25,000 to the table for an infill or remodel project, could use that money to buy a share of a new small home, or perhaps a long-term lease?
Robert – a Portland native who looks forward to welcoming some new neighbors.
If I may offer a clarification…I am a Minneapolis resident and have been deeply interested in the Minneapolis 2040 plan process that led to the legalization of triplexes across the city, though the process started before I moved to Minneapolis.
The critique that the legalization of triplexes here did not come with other associated and necessary zoning changes (e.g. FAR maximum changes) is strictly true but in practice not the case. Legalizing triplexes was only one step in the implementation of an overall comprehensive plan (“Minneapolis 2040”) which will dramatically transform the zoning code and land use policies here. Implementation of the plan is legally required by the Twin Cities MPO (the Metropolitan Council) and must be carried out in a fixed period of time following adoption of the comp plan.
To address the specific criticism about FAR maximums, the Planning commission currently has before them draft guidance prepared by staff that would include increasing the FAR caps for duplexes to 0.6 and for triplexes to 0.7 in most land use categories (but not all). See: https://lims.minneapolismn.gov/download/Agenda/856/Built%20Form.pdf/46372/1789/Built%20Form%20Regulations
Also included with the comp plan will be the removal of parking minimums city-wide. I do not know at what stage of implementation that particular piece of the puzzle is in.
The comp plan is only a policy framework. It will be up to staff to craft new zoning and land use language over the next few years and see how it works. However, I have a reasonable degree of confidence that the overall implementation will be done well and we will end up with more and better housing and a less-missing middle than we started with.
That’s fantastic news! I didn’t realize staff was working on those additional FAR allowances.
Mary Vogel – RE: “Meanwhile, I will try to find Michael some better images from the Portland area.”
Last year, as Michael is aware, I contributed a collection of photos to Sightline’s Missing Middle library collection on Flickr. I think I included some six-plexes. If you don’t find one there, check here – New Portland Housing 2019. In my Flickr feed and on my website, you can find more recent housing photos.
Michael – Congratulations to you and everyone else who worked so hard to get RIP across the finish line.
RE my comment to Mary (should have replied) about the plex photos: As always, let me know if you need more photos. Here is a recent example. I referenced a Sightline article. Let me know if you want me to delete/change. I’ve also referenced Next Portland recently.
RE excerpt from Portland City Council adopts the Residential Infill Project
“The Residential Infill Project also includes important changes to accommodate people of all ages and abilities in new residential development by requiring at least one of the homes in a triplex to be ADA-compliant.”
From our earlier discussions, I thought the ground-level unit was only accessible, not ADA-compliant (which I favor, as you might expect). Is the BPS statement correct?
You’re always totally welcome to refer to Sightline, Mark!
Re ADA, I’m surprised by that, too. The ADA itself (well, technically the Fair Housing Act) kicks in at the fourth unit, and applies to any homes with a ground floor entrance:
… and it has been my understanding that the city concluded the zoning code doesn’t have legal authority to require complete accessibility, only “visitability” … which I’ve taken to mean the parts of accessibility that are about the building’s permanent and visible design rather than its functions.
I suspect this nuance might have gotten lost in the translation to city news release, but I’m not sure. You might know the history here better than I do!
Sinclair Black, FAIA
Great article regarding significant changes in land-use policy. I’m sorry that Portland suffers from so many negative voices, maybe they will just leave. In Austin we have a term for those negative voices, “CAVES,” citizens against virtually everything. I know Portland very well. The only thing I love more than that city is the enlightened leadership Portland provides for the rest of the country.
PS, feel free to use our term, it subsumes all other terms, like NIMBY.
Maybe I missed the explanation of this, but why not allow smaller lot sizes instead? Is there a point against homeownership that I didn’t catch? The overview that I see thus far just allows money/wealth to be retained by those already owning the said properties: they get wealthier by housing demand and there are not ways to divest ownership of four-plexes etc (other than as long-term leases/condos). Why not allow lot splits so that each person can own their own piece of land in Portland?
Why not both.gif
Smaller lot sizes would be a perfectly fine way to get at this! That’s the approach Houston took several years ago, and it’s been very effective.
Though I think plexes are also great because they allow stacked homes as an option; narrow lots lend themselves to stairs, which are obviously not for everyone.
I hope that future reforms here in Portland will allow lot divisions in addition to plexes.
This code change appears to be written for developers, i.e.,
most citizens of Portland don’t have the funds to build their own 3 & 4 plexes.
Most developers have a limited understanding of how to build community.
Example: The pearl district.
One cool thing about 4plexes is that four is the largest number of homes that the federal government allows to be in a structure that can qualify for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage.
Growing cities need to build more homes, one way or another. If they aren’t plexes, they’ll be apartment buildings, which are even further out of reach for most people to finance.
It’s true that most Portlanders don’t have the access to capital to build apartment buildings; many Portlanders don’t qualify for 30-year mortgages, either. If we could solve the wealth gap with the zoning code, I’d be in favor; the best we can do is lower the bar enough that middle-class people have a path to investing in homes in the city. This reform lowers that bar somewhat.
What wonderful news from Portland! NIMBYs remain in charge, in Eugene, which hasn’t even implemented SB 1051 which legalized ADUs. For example I have a 7000sf lot, but it’s too small for the 7500sf lot size requirement for an ADU. I’ve got 4 bus lines, two bike trails (downtown and the university) and a supermarket within 500 feet. Way to go, EUGENE, using those expensive infrastructures and blocking us from our civic responsibility to share the land. For which all our “titles” are fictions from the colonial era.
Eugene City Council already agreed to fight HB 2001 (the fourplex bill). Why? People have a right to space, and to build housing for themselves. I want to partition my lot. I’m a single, retired guy living on SS, I don’t need ANY of the houses/ lot sizes in Eugene. I want a glass of beer, but it’s illegal to buy less than a barrel in Eugene.
In Santa Barbara, where i live, the high density infill in my modest neighborhood (lower east side), coupled with the relaxed requirements for developers to provide adequate onsite parking, has created a parking nightmare in an area that was previously only a parking “semi-nightmare”. The added density created a lot of pressure on all the residents of my neighborhood, especially those whose rental housing does not include off-street parking. Allowing developers to “skate” on their off-street parking requirements, created chaos and friction in my ‘hood, and i think that the overall impact of this relaxed parking requirement strategy, on a large urban area such as Portland, will be more pronounced than it is on a smaller, less dense city such as Santa Barbara. Developers and city council members here argue that this will discourage the use of cars… i disagree. what it does is displace lower income residents, who then commute to work in SB from the less expensive nearby communities of Oxnard, Ventura, and Santa Maria, creating ever worsening traffic jams during the morning and evening commute on hwy 101.
I would just like to share my view as a resident living in a quiet family neighborhood and have paid taxes for my home for years. I am strongly opposed to this RIP project and think it should have been up to the people living in the neighborhoods to vote on. Seems quite sneaky for this to go through without people who actually live here having a say. These units will take away from the neighborhood in more ways than just aesthetics. It will crowd our streets with more traffic, making them less safe. It will take away privacy when these units are looming over single family homes. I wonder if the decision makers would want to have one of these built next to their family home they have kept up for years? Where are all of these people supposed to park? On the street? It’s not fair to the residents who have lived with more space and quiet streets for years. And, who wants to park down the street from their house? Maybe you deal with this, living in an apartment in the city but to buy a home in a residential neighborhood and have to park on the street? For me, this RIP project stands for, “Rest In Peace” to our peaceful neighborhoods that we have invested in for years. How many of these multiplexes are allowed in one area? I have been told that a 6 unit, and two 4 units plus more will be built right next door to me. This isn’t dispersing them around the city! What happened to the residential zoning regulations that state, “The use regulations are intended to create, maintain and promote single‐dwelling neighborhoods. They allow for some non‐household living uses but not to such an extent as to sacrifice the overall image and character of the single‐dwelling neighborhood.”?
The RIP project does not, “preserve the character of neighborhoods.”
I was told if I don’t like it, my option is to move. My family has lived here for over 20 years. How is that right?
Very interesting “experiment”. I was born and raised in Portland, although I also lived in Houston, TX for many years (a zoning nightmare). Portland has many beautiful places to live, but not enough beautiful places for our residents on minimum wage. I hope this works, and provides housing for the many people who don’t even own a car to park. I also want to say I appreciate the diversity of opinions expressed. It shows that you care, and I gained from hearing the different perspectives. Thanks for keeping the discourse civil.
Glad this got passed but IMO I’m afraid it isn’t going far enough. I recently moved out of Portland because I was tired of the low density, lack of walkability, and poor demographics when it comes to diversity. My new neighborhood in Chicago is six times denser than my old one in Portland and it definitely shows. There are hardly any single family lots — it’s primarily three-flats and larger apartment buildings; hardly anything under three stories. And since Chicago lots are 25 foot wide —twice as narrow as Portland’s typical 50 foot wide lots — this results in a much higher density than the RIP, even fully implemented. Even the more “single-family” areas of the city still have larger apartments interspersed in. My street is almost all 3-flats on 25 foot lots but there are also some larger courtyard buildings and 6 story apartment buildings as well. The street still retains a great neighborhood feel — small but well-maintained front yards, large trees on wide parkways (Chicago streets are narrower curb-to-curb than Portland, 28 ft vs 40 ft. Chicago street ROWs are wider at 66 feet vs Portland’s 60 feet. This results less room for cars and nearly double the space for people) makes the area feel much more walkable than my old neighborhood which was almost all large lot single family on a car-choked street with narrow sidewalks. This huge diversity of building types — nearly all multiunit — also results in my neighborhood having tons of businesses within a 15 minute walk as well as a being one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city.
I fear by the RIP still primarily focusing on low density infill (highest allowed density on a 50 foot lot is basically equivalent to a low density two-flat in Chicago) it will only slightly mitigate the high housing prices and result in further displacement. Portland still bans apartment buildings in residential zones, a fact that continues to baffle me. Why are apartments only allowed on commercial streets? My current street has a higher density of the densest part of Division street in SE Portland because Chicago allows larger multi unit buildings on residential streets, whereas Portland mandates they must be on mixed-use corridors.
Additionally, Portland’s suburban-focused low-density rail system will not be able to support a four-fold increase in density, and the bus system is already low-frequency and won’t be able to keep up. This will mostly likely result in more people driving because despite what Portland claims about density and walkability, Portland is still incredibly auto-centric — it is more sprawling than famously sprawling Los Angeles after all. Most neighborhoods are not within walking distance to amenities such as grocery stores and the like and the amenities that are available tend to be much further away due to Portland’s sprawl. Chicago neighborhoods grew around ‘L’ stations and thus have always had good transit access but Portland’s shoehorned-in light rail that primarily focuses on getting people out of Portland rather than around town just won’t cut it.
Again, I’m glad this finally passed after six years. It should hopefully help slow some of the bleeding but unfortunately it will likely not create the kind of dense, walkable neighborhoods that Chicago and east coast cities have — the ship sailed on that a century ago when white settlers chose to keep immigrants and minorities out rather than welcome them in by providing housing and services. I’m personally done with Portland — I grew tired of all the positive spin spewed by the government despite how bad things were in reality, and the ever-present fear of outside ideas that still permeates the city in all aspects. I wish you all luck though.
These are all excellent points, I think. My personal perspective is similar.
Hi Michael — I live in Calgary, which is also looking to densify its inner city low density residential areas by, among other things, allowing more “missing middle” type developments throughout those areas. I am intrigued by Portland’s sliding FAR scale, “visitable” unit requirements and inducements for affordable units. Do the FAR limits apply only to above-grade living spaces, or do they also take into account the square footage of any basement spaces, ADUs, covered veranda spaces or attached or detached garage spaces? If ADUs, covered veranda and/or garage spaces are not included, are there also lot coverage restrictions to control the overall size of those spaces?
Hi, Doug – nice to hear from you.
Let me be the first to tell you that I don’t think Portland gets all the fine print right on its FAR limit. (My own ideal policy would not include a FAR cap, but it was essential to the politics here.) On stuff like this, I guess there’s no avoiding fine print and you’ve got lots of tradeoffs to weigh.
In Portland, the FAR limit applies only to above-grade living space. I don’t remember the exact line between “daylight basement” and “first floor slightly below grade,” but the last time I checked it was a calculation based on the ratio of external wall area that’s below grade.
ADUs count toward the FAR cap. So does any enclosed parking space … which probably means we’re about to see a lot of downward-sloping driveways as developers hide the parking in the underground in order to maximize their above-ground allowance of living space. (On the other hand, exempting garages from FAR would have arguably been to incentivize auto storage. Pick your poison!)
I don’t think verandas or balconies count toward the FAR cap, except for any portion of them that may be enclosed by walls on at least three sides (plus roof and floor).
There are indeed lot coverage restrictions to control overall building footprint. These aren’t affected by this reform. On a standard 5,000 sqft lot in our most common zone, the maximum building coverage is 45%. More details here: https://www.portland.gov/sites/default/files/code/33.110-single-dwelling-residential-zones.pdf#page=20
You can also read all the fine print yourself here:
Hi Michael — thanks for the additional information! In Calgary we don’t currently use FAR for lower-density residential developments, but instead use a combination of parcel coverage, density, and height limits, along with minimum front, side and rear setbacks. The current parcel coverage limits are 45% for single detached, semi-detached and duplex developments and 60% for 3+ unit rowhouse developments, and those parcel coverage limits apply to the footprints of all buildings (including ADUs and garages), covered decks/patios and any required on-site parking spaces not contained within a garage. On a standard 6000ft2 parcel and assuming a half 3rd storey and the required on-site parking spaces located in a detached garage, this allows for single detached homes of up to 5750ft2, semi-detached or duplex units of up to 2375ft2 each and 4-unit rowhouse units of up to 1750ft2 each — all of which seem quite a bit larger than Portland’s FAR rules would allow. The City is currently looking to open up all of our inner-city low-density areas, including those areas currently restricted to single detached dwellings, to allow anything up to a 3-storey rowhouse development. So far their position is that all forms of low-density developments are entirely compatible with each other, and therefore within these areas it should be possible to build any type of low-density development, including up to a 7,000ft2 3-storey rowhouse development, on any parcel. If that parcel is next door to an existing resident’s 1000ft2 1950s bungalow, I am not sure they would agree that a development of that size next door feels compatible. To me that is the challenge of redeveloping existing single detached communities — how to do it in a manner that achieves the City’s densification objectives, is attractive to (ie. profitable for) developers, yet is also respectful for the existing residents of those communities.
That all makes sense, Doug. To the “compatibility” question, I really like this observation from the writer and organizer Ben Ross—why does “compatibility” only seem to flow in one direction?
Developers and nimbys, although everyday antagonists, share a common interest in the prestige of the neighborhood, and both use words as tools to that end. One party directs its linguistic creativity into salesmanship. Row houses turn into townhomes; garden apartments grow parked cars in the gardens; dead ends are translated into French as cul-de-sacs. The other side, hiding its aims from the world at large and often from itself, has a weakness for phrases whose meaning slips away when carefully examined. …
A tour of this vocabulary must begin with compatibility. The concept is at the heart of land-use regulation. In the narrow sense, incompatible uses are those that cannot coexist, like a smokehouse and a rest home for asthmatics. But the word has taken on a far broader meaning. …
The key to deciphering this word lies in a crucial difference between compatibility and similarity. If two things are similar, they are both similar to each other, but with compatibility it is otherwise. A house on a half-acre lot is compatible with surrounding apartment buildings, but the inverse does not follow. An apartment building is incompatible with houses that sit on half-acre lots.