Commentary: Duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes would be good for the Portland we love
AUTHORS: Michael Andersen is a senior researcher at Sightline Institute, a sustainability think tank for the Pacific Northwest. Ruth Adkins is a longtime resident of Southwest Portland.
As Portland grows, will we be a city that is welcoming and inclusive? Are longtime residents willing to share our neighborhoods? Or, through inaction, will we push people out of them?
Some of us have been priced out of homes we could once rent. Some are seeing the next rung on the homeownership ladder rise out of our reach, or out of the reach of our children, friends, teachers.
This problem is so vast that it's easy to understand why people like Mark Ellis, in your last issue, assume that re-legalizing duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in Portland would result in sudden sweeping change.
It wouldn't. This proposed reform to Portland's low-density zones, known as the "residential infill project" and due at City Council in the summer, is a long-discussed, compromise approach that would let us grow more gracefully.
First, it caps total building size. This is the heart of the "anti-McMansion compromise" that will ensure any change will be gradual. If a developer can't build a huge mansion on a lot (or a huge duplex or fourplex) then it won't pay off to buy an old house just to tear it down — so the old house stays up. And when a small building reaches the end of its natural life, instead of replacing it with a big home, the residential infill project would replace it with a few small ones. U.S. household sizes have been falling, so that's just good sense: good for seniors, couples, and the middle class in general. This allows for major energy savings, too.
Second — and this is something that's gotten far too little attention — it would be a major help to nonprofit developers like Habitat for Humanity that create permanently affordable homes for the people today's rules have been shutting out of our city: working single parents, Portlanders of color, Portlanders with disabilities. A duplex, triplex or fourplex lets several households split up the cost of the underlying land. That's a huge savings in today's Portland, especially when the goal is scattering homes for working Portlanders with low incomes throughout our city.
"The residential infill project would let Habitat and our peers build even more affordable homes and mortgages for families with low incomes," says Steve Messinetti, the local Habitat chapter's CEO. "These families are successful: 92 percent of kids raised in a Habitat home graduate from high school."
Change is inevitable, one way or another. The residential infill project would change the sort of buildings that get to exist in our city: over time, there'd be more buildings with several front doors instead of one. Let's do more to share the benefits of living in our great Portland neighborhoods. Let's allow more flexible housing options for everyone.