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Change can't come unless we act now to align our zoning code with our values and set the course for the city's future

COURTESY: BUSINESS FOR A BETTER PORTLAND - Akasha Lawrence-SpenceOne thing about Portlanders: we're not shy about sharing our views. Spend just a few days in this amazing city and you'll get a clear sense of what people who live here believe. We print our values on lawn signs, bumper stickers, and the banners we hold as we march in the streets.

This passion for advocacy and community improvement is central to Business for a Better Portland's approach to civic engagement. We help connect our members with opportunities to learn about the challenges facing our region and identify ways they can roll up their sleeves and help the entire community thrive.

One of the focuses for our members over the past year has been the constraints that the city's current approach to residential zoning places on our ability to generate shared economic prosperity.

As we've talked to our member businesses, affordable housing developers, and community leaders about the future of the city's residential neighborhoods, we've learned a few things about the impacts of zoning updates that the city is planning for and how they intersect with our city's values.

Zoning updates are about sustainability

At its core, sustainability is about stretching our finite resources further and reducing our environmental impact. When we allow single-family homes to be the sole housing option in a neighborhood, we're effectively banning more energy-efficient types of housing and artificially limiting our ability to reduce our collective carbon footprint. Opening up access to well-located residential neighborhoods will allow more Portlanders to live near transit and high-quality bicycle infrastructure, reducing car trips and carbon emissions.

As we plan for the future of Portland's neighborhoods, it is important to recognize that the impacts of our zoning decisions extend far beyond the city's borders. More efficient and connected urban development is necessary to limit habitat losses caused by sprawling development on the urban fringe.

Zoning updates are about equity

On the surface, the conversation about what types of housing are allowed in a neighborhood seems disconnected from race. After all, anyone can choose to live in whatever kind of home they like, right? What's wrong with preserving a neighborhood of single-family houses if that's where some people prefer to live?

But if we take a step back and examine the historical context of planning in Portland, it becomes clear that discriminatory business practices and government policies, including zoning, were designed to intentionally limit where people of color could live and buy property. From 1929 through 1959, city officials altered zoning maps to limit the types of housing that could be built in predominantly white neighborhoods to single-family homes, which were largely unavailable to people of color due to discriminatory lending practices.

The dominance of single-family zoning has caused large areas of the city to be out of reach for Portlanders of color. In 1970, the Black homeownership rate in Portland was 46.9%. By 2017, it had dropped to 28.4%. And today, there is not a single neighborhood in the city where a Black or Latino family earning an average income can afford to buy a home. Preserving the current zoning rules reserves most of the city for only those who can afford to live in a single-family home.

Multi-unit homes offer the potential for more families to own the building they live in. Many families may prefer multigenerational living and less space per person. Extended family may live together on the same lot and share the cost of owning a duplex or triplex, especially if they can live within walking distance to their neighborhood school, park, and grocery store. Multi-dwelling homes also enable a family to live in one unit and rent out the remainder of a building to offset the cost of a mortgage and begin to create wealth that is passed on from generation to generation as their non-minority counterparts have been able to do for decades.

Zoning updates are about community

As new residents have moved to the city over the past decade, our housing shortage has displaced thousands of Portlanders — the majority of them people of color — to areas where access to everyday amenities is limited. We have a responsibility as a community to focus future public investment in those areas, ensuring neighborhoods in East Portland and across the city have access to inviting open spaces, quality transportation infrastructure, and well-resourced schools.

At the same time, we need to open up access to residential neighborhoods that already have these things, creating more space for people of different incomes, races, and backgrounds. When we use zoning to wall off entire neighborhoods to those who cannot afford a single-family home, we also wall off entire communities of people.

Think for a moment about who lives on your block. What/Whom are you missing? Do you interact with people of other ages, races and cultures on a daily basis? What would we all gain by living alongside neighbors who are different from us? From living in communities that are African-American, Somali, Korean, Bhutanese, Mexican and white together? How would our city as a whole become a safer, more inclusive, more resilient place to live?

As Portlanders, we pride ourselves on being a welcoming, inclusive, sustainable city. Opening up access to our neighborhoods will not happen overnight — it will take decades to realize the positive impacts of zoning reform, one home at a time. But that change can't come unless we act now to align our zoning code with our values and set the course for the city's future.

Guest columnist Akasha Lawrence-Spence is the founder and principal designer of Fifth Element, a conscientious real estate development firm fortifying small businesses through commercial property ownership


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