Infill hearings set, vote uncertain
After four long years of planning and debate, the Portland City Council is finally scheduled to take public testimony on the controversial proposal to increase density in single-family neighborhoods.
The first hearings on the Residential Infill Plan are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 15 and 16. The first work session, at which public testimony will not be accepted, is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 29.
But that does not mean the council is on the verge of passing the proposal that would allow up to four housing units on practically every residential lot in the city. In fact, a majority of the council has announced they will not vote for RIP — as it is commonly called — before they approve another plan to reduce the displacement of low-income and minority households it is expected to cause.
And that plan, called the Anti-Displacement Action Plan, is nowhere near ready for consideration.
"I cannot support RIP unless we have a meaningful anti-displacement policy in place at the time of the vote," Commissioner Chloe Eudaly said during a Dec. 11 briefing on the Residential Infill Plan by staff from the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which drafted the plan.
The proposed infill plan has divided the city. Affordable housing advocates, land use watchdogs, social justice activists and homebuilders argue it will encourage a greater range of less expensive homes, helping to reduce the affordable housing crisis. Neighborhood activists and preservationists say it could change the character of the city without providing the opportunity for many more Portlanders to afford a new home.
But although hours of public testimony are scheduled for Jan. 15 and 16, nothing anyone says seems capable of convincing the council to make a quick decision.
About an hour into the briefing, Eudaly and commissioners Amada Fritz and Jo Ann Hardesty all said they will not vote for the infill plan until the council first approves the anti-displacement plan. Eudaly even presented a list of policies she wants it to include. Among other things, she wants renters to have the first chance to buy their house if it goes up for sale at market value. In the case of multi-family housing, Eudaly wants the city to have that opportunity.
The problem is, the anti-displacement plan is supposed to be written by a community task force that has not yet been appointed and will not begin meeting until late summer 2020, at the earliest. And such a process usually takes years to complete in Portland, which values civic engagement over deadlines. That process also is being overseen by the planning bureau.
Even when the anti-displacement plan is written, Mayor Ted Wheeler suggested the council might send RIP back to the citizen Planning and Sustainability Commission, which oversees the bureau and referred it to the council last March. Wheeler, Eudaly, Fritz and Hardesty all said they were bothered that the commission approved RIP on a close 5-to-4 vote, with all members of color and those who live in East Portland voting against it.
The council might even ask the commission to vote on RIP again when they know the policies in the anti-displacement plan.
Although Commissioner Nick Fish has died, all remaining council members support the infill plan's goal of creating more and less-expensive homes by allowing so-called missing middle housing to be built in existing single-family neighborhoods. That includes duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes.
But Eudaly, Fritz and Hardesty are worried that developers could replace existing lower-priced houses with smaller but costlier rental units, forcing the existing tenants to move to the edges or out of town. They fear only wealthier households could afford what might be predominantly smaller but more upscale housing units.
Staff of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability admitted previous city zoning and redevelopment decisions have led to displacement. An estimated 10,000 longtime African-American households were forced out of North and Northeast Portland when projects like the Memorial Coliseum and Interstate MAX line demolished existing homes and encouraged the construction of higher-priced housing. Even when the council later approved policies to fight housing discrimination, racial displacement still happened. Eudaly, Fritz and Hardesty all want guarantees such displacement won't continue if RIP is approved.
The three council members also questioned whether nearly all single-family neighborhoods in the city should be rezoned, as RIP proposes. An economic analysis predicts most displacement caused by RIP will occur in East Portland neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of low-income and minority renters. Hardesty asked whether they should be exempt. Fritz suggested the density increases should be concentrated along major transportation corridors and around transit centers, something Eudaly said she might consider, too.
Despite the questions, the council is facing a deadline to adopt the Residential Infill Plan, or something like it. The 2019 Oregon Legislature passed a bill requiring Portland and other large cities to allow duplexes on nearly all residential lots by July 1, 2022. The RIP recommendations allow more density, but could legally be scaled back in all existing single-family zones.
But Wheeler and Fritz suggested that should be enough time for the planning bureau to propose specific anti-displacement strategies for the planning to consider and revote on RIP with them in mind.
Residential Infill Project recommendations
Current suggestions include:
• Increase the range of permissible housing types (such as duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and additional accessory dwelling units) in single-dwelling zones.
• Reduce the maximum allowable sizes of new single-family homes to 2,500 square feet
• Allow structures with multiple units to be larger than single-family homes, up to 3,500 for a fourplex.
• Remove minimum parking requirements and adding new garage design requirements.
To learn more, go to www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/67728.
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