The recipe for solving a housing crisis has various ingredients. But one essential ingredient is simple: Housing has to be legal.
The modern urban pro-housing movement—the YIMBY movement, as it’s sometimes known—spends a lot of effort trying to lift our cities’ widespread bans on mid-cost homes like fourplexes, backyard cottages, and apartments. This movement is increasingly successful, which is great. Legalizing homes of all shapes and sizes in all neighborhoods benefits everyone in cities, even moreso over the long term.
But it might be less obvious that the same principle applies to truly low-cost homes and shelters: villages of tiny homes, recreational vehicles in driveways, group homes, group shelters. Cities should make those options broadly legal, too.
On Wednesday, Portland’s city council will hear public testimony on a nationally unusual plan to do just that.
Allowing a ‘Shelter to Housing Continuum’
Portland’s latest zoning reform proposal, called the Shelter to Housing Continuum Project, is the latest sequel in a years-long franchise of pro-housing policies.
The “Better Housing by Design” project, passed in 2019, made on-site parking optional in all apartment zones and created big size incentives for buildings that include below-market homes. “Expanding Opportunities for Affordable Housing,” passed in June 2020, allowed churches and other organizations to add below-market homes to their land if they choose. The “Residential Infill Project,” passed in August 2020 and taking effect August 2021, allowed market-rate fourplexes and mixed-income sixplexes citywide and removed most of the city’s remaining residential parking mandates.
In other words, Oregon’s largest city has already reformed its zoning to allow more homes for middle-income and low-income Portlanders.
With this new project, Portland has designed a zoning reform to directly help people who are very poor.
Here are some of the project’s highlights:
Legalizes small group homes, by right, citywide. One basic way to live more cheaply is to share a kitchen and a bathroom with your neighbors—an option that can cut market-rate rent by hundreds of dollars. Portland would become one of very few cities to simply allow new buildings for this purpose—in low-density zones, up to 3,500 square feet or the largest one-unit structure allowed on the lot, whichever is smaller. Higher-density zones would allow larger group homes, in scale with their own zoning.
Eric Engstrom, a city planner overseeing the project, said this might be the most unusual part of the package. “None of our West Coast peer cities had looked at that question yet,” he said.
Legalizes tiny homes on wheels on any lot. Campers, motor homes, vacation trailers, and fifth-wheel trailers can offer basic housing for very little money. Portland’s proposal is to legalize up to one of these per lot. Connections to electricity and city water and sewer would be required.
Legalizes tiny-home villages and other outdoor shelters. Clusters of small homes, huts and other structures have been tolerated in Portland and elsewhere for years, but often existed in a legal gray area. (Dignity Village, the oldest local model, was founded as a protest movement near Portland’s airport in 2000. St Johns Village, the latest created with the active support of the city and county, should start welcoming residents in the next few weeks.) This reform would create a new use category for them, formally recognizing that for some people struggling to find housing, villages have been too successful to ignore. They’d become legal in any zone that allows apartments.
Fully legalizes indoor shelters in apartment and commercial zones. Sometimes, people just need to stay warm and dry. As in many cities, a handful of emergency shelters around Portland offer roofs, walls, and bathrooms, but not private bedrooms. One of the newest opened in 2019 after fierce local opposition. Portland’s reform would allow shelter providers to locate these in any zones where apartments are legal with fewer bureaucratic hurdles. This would weaken the hand of local opponents, especially those willing and able to spend money on legal challenges.
Some advocates for Portland’s lower-income, low-cost east side have worried that the abundance of potential sites in their area would result in it getting more than its share of such shelters.
“It’s a legitimate fear, because East Portland has distrust of City Hall for a variety of reasons,” said Engstrom. But even if you were to buy the argument that shelters damage rather than strengthen a neighborhood, the city and county have created just eight shelters around Portland in the last five years of the city’s official “housing emergency.” So the difference between 100 and 800 possible shelter locations per neighborhood doesn’t matter all that much. Politics—and the options for opponents to block any given project—almost certainly matter more.
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Portland: Neighbors Welcome, a grassroots pro-housing organization that championed the city’s other recent reforms, is also organizing testimony in support of this one. (Full disclosure: I’m a co-founder and active member myself.) Various other groups including the Community Alliance of Tenants, Interfaith Alliance on Poverty, Street Roots, Sunrise PDX, and Business for a Better Portland are working in the same coalition.
In musical chairs, thrones and stools are both good
For years, Sightline has been pointing out that in the cruel game of musical chairs that is the market for housing in Cascadian cities, the single most important thing is to bring in more chairs.
We’ve found this is a useful way of thinking about why every additional home helps, even if it has a relatively high price. Each new home that exists prevents a cascade of displacements that in many cases would have otherwise pushed someone to the street within a few years.
But modern housing advocates can sometimes forget that the same applies to very-low-cost homes. And as Portland should be well aware, zoning isn’t the only thing that prevents homes from being built. The cost of land per home is just one of many factors that decide whether a project can work at a given rent.
Sometimes, what matters most is finding ways to construct homes more cheaply.
Apartments and plexes reduce the cost of land per home. Group homes reduce the cost of kitchens per home. Manufactured shelters like campers and tiny homes reduce the cost of, well, shelter.
Those options are all good. They all bring new residences within reach of more people, and they all bring more residences within reach of people with the least money.
One thing these options don’t do, of course, is eliminate poverty. (Neither, obviously, does banning them.) Housing advocates shouldn’t pretend that these are all great housing solutions—many of them aren’t. Our society should be simultaneously working to eliminate poverty by boosting people’s incomes through job access and direct payments.
But all these half-measures to higher-quality housing deserve to be legalized, with reasonable regulations to avoid causing direct harm to others, and welcomed into cities and neighborhoods. Portland’s Shelter to Housing Continuum Project would help show other cities that this is possible.
Correction 3 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly summarized the proposal for legalizing homes on wheels; hosting one would no longer mean forgoing an ADU. Also, it misidentified Portland’s most recently opened emergency shelter; the Laurelwood Center opened several weeks before the River District Navigation Center.