My View: Historic district worsens housing crisis
Portland has a housing crisis: There's not enough of it, especially at the low end of the price scale. Meanwhile, a Southeast Portland neighborhood at the high end, Eastmoreland, is trying to turn itself into a historic district, which would bring restrictions on new housing within its boundaries.
It's fair to ask: Will that make things worse? I think so.
The cause of the problem, everyone agrees, is too much demand for too little housing, driving up prices and rents far faster than wages. The solution, they also agree, is more housing, and more varieties of it.
But the historic-district supporters don't want any of that "in their back yards," so to speak. That is, after all, the whole point of the proposed district — to stop any new dwellings there. No lot-splitting — turning one house on a large lot into two houses on smaller ones. No converting garages to "accessory dwelling units." And, heaven forbid, no turning a single-family home into a duplex. As the yard signs say, "Keep Eastmoreland Eastmoreland," meaning keep it as is, no denser and no different.
That won't exacerbate the housing crisis, the historic district supporters claim, because any new houses within the neighborhood would be too expensive for low-income buyers, given current property values.
That might be true when an old house on a large lot is replaced with a new one, but not when it's replaced with two new ones, courtyard cottages, or the dreaded duplex, or when an ADU is added to an existing home. In that event, you end up with less expensive dwellings, but more importantly, you end up with more dwellings overall.
One way to increase the amount of low-income housing in Portland is to increase the amount of housing generally. That means housing all along the price scale. At the low end, of course, and in the middle too, but also even at the high end, because new housing anywhere increases the supply everywhere.
All segments of the housing market are interconnected. When a family moves into a new house in a high-priced neighborhood, it frees up the midrange house they had been living in. When that house is bought by another family, trading up, it frees their low-range starter home for first-time buyers. And when they move in, the apartment they leave behind becomes available for another family needing someplace less expensive.
A hundred new dwellings in Eastmoreland (or any other neighborhood) is a hundred new dwellings in Portland, and that increase in the housing stock will reduce the upward pressure on prices and rents citywide.
The laws of supply and demand are not suspended for historic districts. That's why it's important for every neighborhood, even the posh ones, to contribute something to the overall housing stock, and why it's so dispiriting to see one of the poshest trying to block any new housing within its borders through historic designation, increasing the burden on other neighbors to accommodate the new housing we need.
I don't mean to paint the neighborhood with too broad a brush here. It appears that most residents oppose the district. More voted against it than for it in a recent election, and more than twice as many filed letters of objection than letters of support. But the neighborhood association's board of directors, dominated by historic district supporters, is pursuing the district anyway.
The housing crisis is a citywide problem, affecting every neighborhood, none of which is in an island. Every neighborhood will benefit if the problem is solved. Eastmoreland will be a nicer place for the people living there if everyone else in the city can find a place to live, too. So the neighborhood should do its part to help make that happen.
That alone won't solve the crisis, of course. More homes in Eastmoreland won't get everyone off the streets and into safe, affordable housing.
But blocking new development there will make the task all the harder, especially if other neighborhoods borrow the historic-district playbook to build similar, no-infill walls around their borders, which already is starting to happen.
Tom Christ is a Portland lawyer who lives in Eastmoreland.