My View: Infill could promote more diversity
Mary Vogel, in a recent MyView (Historic district retains segregation, Nov. 8), makes the important, if discomfiting, point that the historic district proposed for her neighborhood — Laurelhurst — would perpetuate segregation in housing.
She could have said the same about the historic district proposed for my neighborhood — Eastmoreland. That's not the goal, of course. But it would be an effect.
The district proponents have been candid about their aims. It's not, as you might imagine, to preserve historic homes, of which there might be a few in each neighborhood. They're trying, instead, to block new housing, especially under the Residential Infill Project, or RIP, which would increase the number of duplexes and "accessory dwelling units," also known as "granny flats," that are permitted in areas zoned for single-family housing.
You see, in an historic district, you can't alter existing structures, making it difficult, if not impossible, to create new dwellings, even where permitted. And new dwellings, especially duplexes, are what alarm district proponents, such as Rod Merrick, Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association president, who claims the "ideal" dwelling is "a single-family house on its own lot." (Sellwood Bee, October 2018).
That ideal, however, helped to create neighborhoods that are, like Laurelhurst and Eastmoreland, almost entirely white.
Those and many other neighborhoods in Portland and, indeed, the nation, were developed with deeds that prohibited resale to nonwhites. When the courts declared those "restrictive covenants" unlawful many years ago, cities responded with zoning codes that accomplished the same thing indirectly.
The new laws reserved desirable neighborhoods for single-family homes and lots of a minimum size — restrictions that, predictably, kept out racial and ethnic minorities, who, for the most part, could afford only small houses or apartments.
These laws are still on the books and still have an exclusionary effect, which is why Portland is still largely segregated by race. The RIP would relax the laws a bit, allowing smaller, less expensive dwellings in neighborhoods that, under current zoning, are beyond the reach of people of modest means, who, even today, are disproportionately nonwhite.
Of course, property values in Laurelhurst and Eastmoreland are so high nowadays that not many duplexes would get built there even with the RIP. And the ones that did wouldn't be cheap. But they would make the neighborhoods a little more accessible to people not matching the current demographics.
Which doesn't mean just people of color or low income. There is more demand for smaller dwellings than district supporters admit.
Merrick's ideal is an anachronism. When most homes in his neighborhood were built, the average household had two adults and several children. The average household today is under 2.5 people and doesn't need a four-bedroom colonial on a large lot.
Single parents, empty nesters, young couples starting out, and, well, grannies and gramps, who want or need to live close to family caregivers — these and many others want smaller dwellings with the same amenities that Laurelhurst and Eastmoreland residents enjoy, like good parks and schools and close-by shopping. It would be nice if those neighborhoods could accommodate them. The RIP would help that happen. Historic districts won't.