City asks, hundreds respond on infill plan
Portlanders are deeply divided over draft city proposals intended to encourage the construction of less expensive housing in single-family neighborhoods.
The splits are revealed in nearly 3,500 comments about the discussion draft of the Residential Infill Project being undertaken by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. A report summarizing the comments from more than 725 people and organizations was released Jan. 23.
The project has two goals. One is to reduce the cost of new homes by limiting their size and encouraging more construction on so-called skinny lots. The other is to help accommodate the 260,000 additional people expected to live here by 2035.
To accomplish that, the project would rezone approximately 40 percent of all single-family neighborhoods to allow relatively small multifamily housing projects, including duplexes, triplexes, garden apartments and multiple accessory dwelling units. The area to be rezoned is called the Additional Housing Opportunity Overlay Zone.
Even a casual reading of the report shows city residents, businesses and advocacy groups have multiple opinions on virtually every proposal. Many of the comments strongly support or oppose each one. Others offer qualified support or opposition, and suggest changes to make them more acceptable.
According to the report, major issues repeatedly raised by the comments concerned the affordability of the potential new housing, accessibility requirements for disabled and older people, the methodology for determining where multifamily housing will be allowed in single-family neighborhoods, the potential displacement of lower-income residents, and the effects on existing trees and historic preservation.
Based on the feedback, a revised proposed draft of the Residential Infill Project will be released in the spring. The appointed citizen Planning and Sustainability Commission that advises the bureau is tentatively scheduled to begin holding hearings on it in May.
After approving any changes, the commission will vote on a recommended draft for the City Council, which will hold its own hearings. The council may amend the recommended draft before voting to adopt it, which is expected to happen in the fall of 2018.
Two-plus years in the making
The Residential Infill Project was launched by former Mayor Charlie Hales and has continued under his successor, Mayor Ted Wheeler. When the project originally began in September 2015, much of the emphasis was on addressing neighborhood complaints that smaller, older homes were being demolished and replaced with large houses, derided as McMansions.
But as the 25-member Stakeholders Advisory Committee appointed to assist the project began discussing the problem, the issue of housing affordability soon took precedence. A majority of the group began advocating for construction of more so-called "missing middle" housing — including duplexes, triplexes, garden apartments and multiple accessory dwelling units — near major transportation corridors and transit stations.
Mandating 'missing middle'
When the City Council updated the state-required Comprehensive Plan in June 2016, it included a new policy calling for more missing-middle housing and directed the project staff to draft the City Code language and zoning changes.
The discussion draft also retained the proposal to address McMansion complaints by reducing the maximum allowable size of new homes from 6,750 to 3,250 square feet. Proposals to allow more construction on skinny lots also were maintained.
According to the comment summary report, almost all of the proposals have fans, critics and just about everything in between. For example, the report says there was considerable support for reducing the scale of new housing, with many people arguing that smaller homes will cost less than the larger ones now being built. At the same time, other people felt that limiting the size will reduce the incentive to build new homes, reducing the future amount and diversity of housing.
Likewise, people were divided over rezoning approximately 40 percent of single-family neighborhoods for missing middle housing. Many felt it would result in a larger selection of less expensive housing, and some argued a larger percentage should be rezoned. But others said it would encourage the demolition of ever more older homes, and questioned how many people would be able to afford the new ones, given Portland's hot housing market. A few proposed starting with a small pilot project to learn what actually will happen.
The comments even reveal differences between similar organizations. For example, the Northeast Coalition of Neighbors, which assists neighborhood associations in Northeast Portland, wrote in support, and suggested allowing buildings with three or more units to be larger than the proposed limit. But Southwest Neighborhoods Inc., which assists associations in Southwest Portland, wrote in opposition, citing concerns about demolition, affordability, loss of homeownership, parking, infrastructure and other issues.
If any City Council members hoped the comments would be lopsided and make their upcoming decisions easier, they are likely to be disappointed.
By the numbers
• 433 people submitted 3,425 comments through the online and paper comment forms
• 249 emails were sent to project staff
• Staff received 46 letters from organizations or groups, including nonprofits and advocacy groups, public-sector agencies and commissions, coalitions of for-profit housing developers, business interests, and neighborhood associations and district coalitions.
• 36 comments came via the lobby exhibit in the 1900 Development Services Building
Find out more
You can read the plan and comments at www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/67728.