Activists call for up to 8 housing units on most lots
Up to eight housing units could be built on most residential lots in Portland under a proposal headed to the City Council.
The proposal is being drafted by a coalition of affordable housing organizations and community groups concerned about high home prices in the city. It is going to be proposed as an amendment to the Residential Infill Project the council is currently considering that would only allow up to four housing units on most lots.
The so-called Deeper Affordability Bonus Amendment is intended to address an acknowledged shortcoming of RIP, as the project is commonly called. Most of the new duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes allowed by RIP would likely be rentals built by private developers that lower-income residents could not afford. The amendment would allow six to eight units in buildings built by nonprofit affordable housing developers, such as Habitat for Humanity and Proud Ground.
"We've got some pretty good data to show that if we can bump up to six to eight units, we can make them affordable for households earning 60% of the median family income," Proud Ground Executive Director Diane Linn told the Portland Tribune.
Much of of the data was generated by Neil Heller, a a Portland-based faculty member of the Incremental Development Alliance. His research shows that nonprofit developers need public subsidies to build affordable duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes. But the amount require subsidy drops 45% for a six-unit building and can be eliminated entirely for an eight-unit building.
"By working with the mix of units, with some building larger and priced higher than smaller ones, the required subsidy can be completely eliminated," Heller told the Portland Tribune.
One issue is, the size bonuses proposed to encourage a six- or eight-unit building would allow them to be much larger than the square foot limits proposed in RIP. The current plan would limit the size of a new single-family house to 2,500 square feet. Duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes could be up to 3,500 square feet if some units — and slightly larger if some units are affordable. But Heller said the largest eight-unit building could be as much as 7,500 square feet.
According to Linn, leading the discussion is Portland: Neighbors Welcome, an advocacy group formed to support RIP. Other groups involved in the behind-the-scenes discussion include Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, the ROSE Community Development Corporation, and REACH CDC.
Portland: Neighbors Welcome has prepared a one-page, two-sided fact sheet on the concept that has been shared with the council members.
"With over 77,000 Portland households making under 60% of area median income, this amendment can make a huge difference for a huge slice of Portland," the fact sheet reads.
Although details of the amendment are still being discussed, supporters pushed the idea during the first two public council hearings on RIP on Jan. 15 and 16. It is expected to be introduced as soon as Jan. 29, when the council holds its first work session on RIP.
United Neighborhood for Reform, an advocacy issue opposed to the current version of RIP, does not have a position on the amendment because it has not yet been finalized and introduced.
Multnomah Neighborhood Association Land Use Chair James Peterson, an outspoken RIP critic, is already opposed to the amendment, however.
"The best option to create more affordable housing would be to re-zone some of the single-family zoned property around centers and corridors to multifamily. This would allow wood framed apartments or condominium complexes to be built where there is adequate transit and infrastructure. Building 20 or 30 units in one project would have significant per unit cost savings over building projects with four, six or eight units," he told the Portland Tribune.
During the hearings, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly said she supported the amendment, while Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty seemed receptive. All said it is needed to create a wider range of housing that more households can afford.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz did not respond to the proposed amendment directly, but said she does not support RIP as it is currently written for several reasons. Among other things, Fritz said the Comprehensive Plan update already approved by the council provides enough land for all the additional housing the city is expected to need by 2035 without rezoning single-family neighborhoods for more density. She also said little study has been done on the cost of the infrastructure improvements needed to accommodate such additional density.
Despite Fritz's opposition, Wheeler, Eudaly and Hardesty all said they support RIP to varying degrees. Wheeler was the most enthusiastic, saying he wants it approved during his administration, which could end in Janary if he is defeated for reelection. Eudaly and Hardesty both said they want additional policies to reduce the displacement RIP is expected to cause in lower-income East Portland neighborhoods.
The council did not set a date for a vote on the proposed amendment or RIP itself. The 2019 Oregon Legislature has required Portland to approve something like it by July 1, 2023.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.