My View: Residential Infill Project is unneeded
The Residential Infill Project (RIP) aims to eliminate single-family zoning in Portland. Duplexes are encouraged on every 5,000-square-foot lot. A size bonus comes with three to four units, allowing 4,000-square-foot structures; larger for larger lots. Off-street parking is not required. RIP incentivizes redevelopment of established, walkable, already dense and diverse neighborhoods. Rental homes are especially affected.
The Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC) is wrapping up RIP policy. A promised impact analysis from the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability (BPS) is absent, without modeling for affordability, displacement, demolition, market acceptance, transportation, tree canopy, scale, form, privacy, resilience and other livability impacts. The "economic analysis" was blatantly misleading.
The RIP promised to reduce speculative demolitions and displacement and discourage supersized infill.
An alliance including BPS management, market-rate density proponents (aka 1000 Friends/Portland for Everyone, or P4E) and Home Builders Association members was formed, transforming the RIP into a Trojan horse to advance diffuse density. An advisory committee was stacked with those in on the plan for promoting "innovative," "missing middle" two-, three- and four-plex buildings and cluster housing — everywhere.
Zoning already allows a variety of infill options, including granny flats. Two-, three-, and four-plexes are permitted in multifamily zones, but lack acceptance. Such units face challenging economics, reduce privacy and safety, and require HOA fees and multi-owner cooperation for maintenance. This "missing middle" zoning is not missing — just unloved and unbuilt.
During recent work sessions, PSC commissioners appeared unfamiliar with extensive public testimony against the RIP:
• Twenty-nine of 32 neighborhoods providing written testimony expressed opposition to the 2016 RIP.
• BPS failed to evaluate or present constructive suggestions for adding density with concern for neighborhood context from the seven RIP Stakeholder Advisory Committee members who expressed such concerns.
• For the aggressive 2018 RIP, 68 percent of written and a similar proportion of in-person testimony expressed strong opposition. Opposition testimony is buried in obscure appendices that discount the sources, quality and — significantly — the quantity.
• Days of impassioned testimony leading to the City Council-adopted direction for the 2016 RIP were dismissed by BPS as no longer relevant.
• Tenant's rights advocates testified that RIP redevelopment could drastically accelerate displacement, terming the proposal "a failure of due diligence."
Are PSC commissioners oblivious to the highly disruptive consequences of the RIP, unconcerned with the goals of the 2035 Comprehensive Plan; even unaware of the available 20-year supply of land for a variety of housing types without RIP rezoning?
RIP advocates promise deregulated, market-driven density will provide dispersed units that residents want and can afford. A Metro housing survey and research by the state provide evidence to the contrary.
We need a variety of housing types, but folks of all ages overwhelming prefer single-family homes to rent or own. Existing neighborhood zoning with increasingly dense centers are the source of Portland resilience — not the cause of reduced affordability or shortage.
RIP won't begin to address affordability or needed housing. The construction freeze during recession, costly timelines for (poorly conceived) suburban development, and rapid immigration caused our regional housing shortage. Wage stagnation, investor speculation, and a shortage of construction industry workers constrains the market. Replacing viable houses with duplexes and small condos that are consistently more expensive than the demolished structures they replace only reduces affordability. Exactly who benefits?
Most PSC commissioners show tepid concern for the interests of existing residents. One commissioner suggested few units will be built, thus impacts will be minimal. Another, a "middle" housing developer who frequently drives discussion, directed the P4E campaign. Still others are involved with 1000 Friends or represent the interests of builder/developers. For them, zoning deregulation unlocks profitable redevelopment opportunities.
Meanwhile, paid and volunteer advocacy orchestrated by P4E and redevelopers peddle false narratives concerning affordability, elitist zoning regulations and scale compatibility.
RIP targets whole communities for redevelopment, fueling trends of displacement, disruption, demolition waste, and inflating land values, tax valuations and rents. Dispersed, random redevelopment exacerbates traffic congestion and emissions.
BPS code writing soon will commence for policies approved without facts or analysis. This is backward and broken — the presumptive benefits a hoax. Next March, an unprepared City Council will be asked to untangle and approve this complex, untested and unwarranted code rewrite. It is time to end RIP histrionics and proceed with incremental community planning around centers that works.
Rod Merrick is an architect, Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association land-use co-chair, and served on the Residential Infill Project Stakeholders Advisory Committee. He wrote this piece with contributions from friends and neighbors.
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