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Residential Infill Plan could spur 24,000 more units in triplexes and fourplexes, but lead to more displacement in Lents, Brentwood-Darlington and east Montavilla

COURTESY PORTLAND PLANNING AND SUSTAINABILITY BUREAU - Drawings depict some of the 'missing middle' developments that would be allowed in most Portland single-family neighborhoods under the proposed Residential Infill Plan. Portland's ambitious and controversial bid to reshape residential neighborhoods by promoting more infill development and denser "missing middle" housing options is moving to center stage.

City planners released their staff report on the latest version of the Residential Infill Plan — called RIP by fans and foes alike — last week, along with a displacement analysis and interactive map (see sidebar) that lets residents know if their block is affected.

Few issues have divided Portlanders this much in recent memory, with people on both sides saying the very nature of the city is on the line.

Critics say the plan will mar long-established single-family neighborhoods by jamming in too many triplexes and fourplexes, making it harder to find parking.

Supporters say Portland is fast-becoming a city of "haves" in exclusive single-family neighborhoods and "have nots" in apartments, and adding other housing options in existing neighborhoods is essential to promote affordability and diversity in the city.

By loosening restrictive zoning in single-family areas, the plan is projected to spur up to 24,000 new housing units in triplexes and fourplexes in the next 20 years, as well as 3,000 more accessory dwelling units.

Overall, city planners project the plan will reduce the rapid displacement of low-income residents in Portland that's been occurring and take away some of the incentives to demolish existing homes. However, planners acknowledge it could increase redevelopment pressure and cause more displacement in select neighborhoods such as Lents, Brentwood-Darlington and the eastern part of Montavilla.

"The conditions are ripe (there), where we have high concentrations of people of color, low-income renters and fairly active likelihoood for redevelopment," said Morgan Tracy, project manager for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

No one doubts the plan could be consequential.

Release of the city staff report and accompanying studies sets the stage for final debate on the plan by the appointed Planning and Sustainability Commission, which could pass it on March 12 and send it on to the City Council for final action.

COURTESY: PORTLAND BUREAU OF PLANNING AND SUSTAINABILITY  - Map illustrates that the bulk of Portland's single-family neighborhoods—those shown in yellow—would be rezoned to allow more fourplexes, triplexes, duplexes and accessory dwelling units.

Grow smarter

At its core, the plan is about using residential land more efficiently in the city.

On the one hand, neighborhoods would be rezoned to allow more accessory dwelling units, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes.

On the other hand, the plan essentially bans the development of large "McMansion" homes on small lots, by restricting the size of new homes to 2,500 square feet. The plan also imposes lower height limits.

"Single-dwelling neighborhoods will continue to be mostly traditional detached houses, infused with other types of units over time," city planners state in their new staff report. "With nearly 150,000 existing houses, single houses will still account for more than 95 percent of the total housing stock in these neighborhoods."

While many critics doubt the plan will make a dent in the city's affordable housing crisis, planners suggest otherwise, while conceding that other policy changes also are needed to stem the crisis.

"The proposal will likely significantly reduce the cost of housing for the additional housing types allowed in single-dwelling zones," the staff report states. "This is a function of the smaller unit sizes as well as the ability to defray land costs across two, three, or four housing units as opposed to one unit."

Perhaps no provision has alarmed residents more than the prospect of allowing fourplexes on most single-family lots. Planners project an additional 300 to 400 new triplexes and fourplexes per year.

As Tracy sees it, there'll be fewer incentives for people to tear down perfectly good homes to build larger ones, because of the new size limits. But once someone decides to sell their home, there might be more incentive to replace it with a fourplex, he said, on the assumption that's the "highest and best use" (and most profitable) for the property.

"When redevelopment happens, it's far more likely that it's going to be three or four units vs. a single unit," Tracy said.

Smaller is better

But because of the new size limits, the resulting buildings might not take up the kind of space critics imagine. Currently, it's not uncommon to have a duplex of 6,700 square feet, Tracy said. Under the new limits, a duplex could be no more than 3,000 square feet. "We're talking about structures that are not as large as what you can build today."

So the main impact on the neighborhood is having more "doors" and more demand for parking, he said, and a broader mix of people who can live in a neighborhood.

"These new housing types will complement existing neighborhoods," planners state in their staff report. "Smaller in size, they provide more choices for first-time homebuyers, downsizing empty-nesters and middle-wage earners. Also, current homeowners that already have an accessory dwelling units will be able to add another accessory dwelling units. These smaller units can house young couples, students, grandparents or caregivers, offering an alternative to larger apartment buildings."

While city planners and those backing the plan have heard a lot of criticisms that they are wrecking neighborhoods, "that's not a new refrain," Tracy said. Similar comments were made in the 1990s when the city decided to liberalize its code and allow accessory dwelling units on nearly every single-family lot.

Those have turned out to be rather popular, even trendy.

Planners are very worried that the city is becoming unaffordable to large numbers of people and are concerned about what that might do to the city.

As such, many have concluded "there is a high cost of doing nothing," Tracy said.

Find out more:

To read the city planners' staff report and accompanying studies:

To see if your home might be rezoned to allow denser developments:

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