Neighbors gird for street fight on infill projects
A proposal to increase housing density in most of Portland's single-family neighborhoods is headed to the City Council this summer.
Many of those who were involved in the early stages feel betrayed.
Former Mayor Charlie Hales created the Residential Infill Project — often called RIP by fans and foes alike — in 2015 after neighborhood activists and historic preservationists expressed increasing alarm that many viable small houses were being demolished and replaced with so-called McMansions that towered over nearby homes.
When the 25-member Stakeholder Advisory Committee was appointed in September of that year, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which is staffing the project, said it would "evaluate Portland's single-dwelling development standards to ensure that new or remodeled houses are well integrated and complement the fabric of neighborhoods throughout the city."
But now, as the project's recommendations move toward consideration by the council, they would rezone 96 percent of existing single-family neighborhoods to allow up to four units on every lot, and allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes to be up to 1,500 square feet larger than single-family houses.
"They took our idea and used it to give the city away," said critic Margaret Davis, an artist and neighborhood activist who helped organize support for starting the project. She fears the final plan will have loopholes allowing even bigger structures, too.
But Mary Kyle McCurdy, deputy director of the 1000 Friends of Oregon land use watchdog organization, said the current recommendations do not conflict with RIP's original purpose. She pointed out that one of the primary topics to be addressed by the project was always "alternative housing options," which include allowing smaller multifamily projects in single-family neighborhoods.
"We need all these tools to produce housing for all Portlanders," said McCurdy, who served on the committee.
The issue — and conflict — is bigger than Portland. Other cities are grappling with how to accommodate growth in existing neighborhoods. Minneapolis recently rezoned all single-family neighborhoods to allow duplexes and triplexes, although they cannot be larger than a single-family house. Seattle has just created a task force to address the issue. And the 2019 Oregon Legislature will consider a bill introduced by House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) that would outlaw exclusive single-family neighborhoods in cities with more than 10,000 people.
Debate changes over time
There is no doubt the public debate over how best to accommodate growth in Portland has changed in recent years. Not too long ago, Portland planners said the city had enough "zoned capacity" for the next 20 years of population increases. Most of the additional housing was projected to be built downtown and in designated "centers" along major transportation corridors and near transit stations.
Although 20 percent of the additional housing was expected to be built in existing residential neighborhoods, there was not much talk of rezoning them for multifamily housing. In fact, by the fall of 2014, the biggest issue seemed to be an increase in residential demolitions, where existing homes — some apparently in good shape — were being torn down and replaced with much larger and more expensive ones. The number of issued demolition permits increased greatly: They rose from 260 in 2013, to 290 in 2014, and to 317 in 2015.
The issue was first presented to the council in July 2014 by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission. Its annual State of the City Preservation Report called the increasing number of demolition and infill projects an "epidemic."
"This epidemic of single-family home demolitions erodes the character and culture of our neighborhoods, promotes and accelerates gentrification, creates a negative environmental impact and disincentivizes historic preservation," read the report, which called for the council to create a public process to allow for the review and delay of the demolition of any structure older than 75 years until the city's existing inventory of historic buildings is updated.
The proposal was cheered by neighborhood activists and preservationists who packed the hearing. Following the testimony, then-Mayor Hales assured the partisan crowd that they would "see action soon." After the meeting, he told the Portland Tribune that he meant in "a matter of weeks, not months."
Two months later, around 70 people from 17 different neighborhood associations attended a "Demolition Summit" on Sept. 30 at Grant Park Church in Northeast Portland. During the meeting, the group adopted the name United Neighborhoods for Reform and approved a two-track approach to changing city policies regarding residential demolitions and infill projects.
First, it launched an online petition urging the Bureau of Development Services, which issues demolition and building permits, to address the problem. It also called for the city to encourage deconstruction of buildings targeted for demolition by hand instead of the large machines that spread contaminants on adjoining properties.
"I was very pleased with the turnout and the enthusiasm for moving forward. There was a lot of positive energy," Al Ellis, one of the organizers and a former president of the Beaumont-Wilshire Neighborhood Association, told the Portland Tribune after the meeting.
Then, when Hales delivered his 2015 State of the City Speech before the City Club of Portland on Jan. 30, he promised to introduce new policies to discourage residential demolitions and restrict the size of replacement houses. But he also left the door open to increasing densities in single-family neighborhoods.
"My first priority is neighborhoods, keeping great neighborhoods and expanding the benefits of urban living to other neighborhoods," Hales said.
Plan meets reality
Hales created the Residential Infill Project within the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to research and analyze such policies in July 2015. From the very beginning, it was directed to focus on three topics:
• The scale of houses, including maximum height limits, maximum lot coverage and minimum setbacks and yard areas.
• Development on lots that are narrower than traditional development patterns.
• Alternative housing options, which were described as internal house conversions (multiple units inside an existing house), accessory dwelling units (one inside a house and one detached), cottage cluster development (multiple smaller houses on a single lot), and stacked flats (units arranged on top of each other as opposed to side by side).
An early schedule called for options to be developed between October and January 2016, with a public involvement process to help refine them between February and May. City code amendments were expected to be drafted from June to August, with public hearings held on the resulting proposals between September 2016 and March 2017.
But by the time the Stakeholder Advisory Committee began meeting in the fall of 2015, a new issue had emerged that has dominated Portland politics to this day — the affordable housing crisis.
"You didn't hear that much about the affordable housing crisis in 2013 and 2104," said Eli Spevak, a developer of smaller homes who served on the committee and is currently on the Planning and Sustainability Commission that oversees the bureau.
The issue was hardly new. Portlanders had been seeing what appeared to be an increase in homeless people living outdoors for years. But solid figures were hard to come by. Homeless service agencies in Multnomah County only conducted federally required point-in-time homeless counts on a single night every other year, and the findings were considered limited.
Then, on Oct. 7, 2015, just as the committee was beginning its work, the City Council proclaimed a housing emergency for one year. The council subsequently extended the emergency multiple times. It is still in effect.
Some economists began arguing that to reduce rents and home prices, Portland needed a lot more of all kinds of housing, not just publicly subsidized "affordable housing" designed and built for households earning below the area median income. In this environment, the concept of encouraging more so-called "missing middle housing" began to gain traction.
The search for 'missing middle'
Decades ago, such housing was built throughout Portland. But around the 1950s, it became restricted. Neighborhoods were rezoned for single-family houses, the pattern preferred by developers and buyers in those days.
By mid-2016, the idea of rezoning at least some of the city's single-family neighborhoods to allow for missing middle housing was winning support in influential circles. For example, in April of that year, the liberal City Club of Portland adopted a report calling for such housing throughout the city help reduce skyrocketing rents and home prices.
"Duplexes, triplexes, small apartment buildings and courtyard projects could provide affordable housing dispersed throughout established neighborhoods," the report said.
The next month, small business owner Chloe Eudaly shook up City Hall by forcing incumbent Commissioner Steve Novick into a run-off in the May 2016 primary election. Running as an aggrieved renter with grassroots support, she went on to defeat him in the November general election.
Even before the infill project completed its work, in June 2016 the City Council inserted a last-minute policy encouraging missing middle housing in the state-required update of the Comprehensive Plan that governs future development. The policy called for increased density within a quarter mile of designated centers, transportation corridors with frequent- service transit and high-capacity transit stations with "a scale transition between the core of the mixed-use center and surrounding single-family areas."
The evolving debate split the committee members. Eventually, most — but not all — neighborhood representatives were pitted against a larger block of developers, environmentalists, affordable housing advocates and some other neighborhood representatives in favor of increasing density in single-family neighborhoods.
Project staff identified the two groups as the majority "housing diversity perspective" and the minority "neighborhood context perspective."
McCurdy said the growing focus on missing middle housing was a logical response to demographic shifts. She and other supporters noted that household sizes are shrinking, creating the need for smaller, more affordable units throughout the city.
But Portland architect Rod Merrick, a neighborhood activist who also served on the committee, said the majority favored rezoning far too much of Portland, including neighborhoods without enough parking for so many more residents.
"We weren't opposed to more density, just not more density in the wrong places," Merrick said.
What is missing middle housing?
"Missing middle housing" is a term that is generally defined as relatively small multifamily projects. Those can include single-family accessory dwelling units built on a house's lot, as well as duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, cottage clusters and "garden apartments" built around landscaped courtyards.
Part 2, next week: The Planning and Sustainability Commission is scheduled to vote to send the current project recommendations to the council on March 12.