My View: Residential Infill Project needs changes
The Residential Infill Project arose from a need for housing.
It was designed to tackle the lack of housing opportunity in Portland's 42 percent of land area zoned for single dwellings. This coincided with New Urbanism's movement to reintroduce "missing middle" housing in cities. Missing middle includes house-scaled small multiplexes containing two to four or more homes, and cottage clusters, offering residents housing options that are "missing" because single-family residential zoning forbids them.
The RIP was secondarily a reaction to homeowner protests.
As some builders responded to the market by replacing small old houses with larger new ones, neighboring homeowners began protesting demolitions and the scale of those new homes. Because the new houses fetched higher prices than the structures they replaced, many neighbors framed "affordability" as their cause celebre, blaming demolitions for the rising cost of housing (and for blocking views). Thus, the RIP was co-opted as a vehicle for these homeowners' demands.
Today's RIP caters to homeowners more than it creates housing.
As members of Portland's Small Developer Alliance (http://pdxsmalldevelopers.org), we believe the RIP's priorities got reversed. (We are local incremental developers helping to make neighborhoods more walkable and diverse via missing middle housing). Rather than promoting true residential infill during a housing crisis, the current RIP would limit housing opportunity — not only for today's Portlanders, but also for future generations.
The RIP reduces building area.
Effective January 2018, the RIP would reduce allowable house size on residential lots. In addition to setbacks and building height, it would further restrict the maximum square footage allowed on each lot.
The likely outcome is that few small-plexes will actually get built, and the price of a new 2,500-square-foot house will increase.
Families who would have bought a larger house will soon compete against those seeking moderately sized ones, forcing middle-income families into bidding wars against monied buyers. Forget about triplexes. Per square foot, it's cheaper to build a 2,500-square-foot house than it is to build three kitchens and six bathrooms within 3,250 square feet. Not to mention, the buyer pool for that triplex is much smaller.
The RIP fails families.
When old houses are replaced 1:1, no new units are added to our housing supply. Adding insult to injury, the dearth of supply will cause prices for all Portland homes to snowball as our population rises. Even if small-plexes were built under the proposed RIP rules, the average RIP triplex unit of 1,083 square feet would rent for about $2,800 just to offset the mortgage, taxes, insurance and expenses alone. Adding a few extra square feet of storage and living space would only nominally increase cost, but significantly increase utility — especially for families. This is why capping the total size at 3,250 and 2.5 stories will make for some decidedly unaffordable units.
If Portland's leaders wanted to promote affordability, they would incrementally increase floor area ratio (FAR) for duplexes (.75), triplexes (1.0), and fourplexes (1.25) and allow fourplexes without extra restrictions. When leaders simply allow housing opportunity, builders will build it.
The RIP lacks courage.
Mandating 50 percent deeper setbacks; measuring height from the lowest point; reducing FAR: this RIP lacks the rigor and courage necessary to address Portland's crisis. We are dismayed that the RIP effectively discourages housing opportunity and has become a wolf in sheep's clothing — preying on the good intentions of Portlanders while satiating a privileged vocal minority.
Portland's leaders must take urgent action! We hope that the Planning and Sustainability Commission will champion an improved RIP — one with substantive missing middle housing opportunity — to our five decision-makers on the City Council. Boldness demands courage — and results take longer than an election cycle — but Portland's livability is built on it.