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Novick: more 'missing middle' homes needed

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PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Row houses like these historic ones in Northwest Portland cannot legally be built in many neighborhoods today.In 1989, Northwest Portland residents protested to prevent Victorian-era houses from being demolished and replaced with more compact row houses. Some neighbors were arrested trying to prevent the destruction of what they called the “good old houses.”

But the protests failed, and connected townhouses are a common sight today in the Nob Hill area, especially west of trendy Northwest 23rd Avenue, and a few other parts of town, too.

Now, 27 years later, City Commissioner Steve Novick thinks more row houses should be welcomed as part of the solution to Portland’s affordable housing crisis. He considers them to be part of housing’s “missing middle” — smaller-scale units that include duplexes, triplexes, four-plexes and two-story apartments built around small courtyards.

Whether as rentals or owner-occupied homes, Novick says they could increase density in residential neighborhoods without overpowering adjacent homes — and they would cost less to buy than the large new single-family homes that are increasingly popping up.

“I don’t want Portland to turn into a city of just tall apartments and million-dollar houses. We need to find a way to create more housing options,” Novick says.

Such options were more common in the past in Portland, but the zoning was changed in many neighborhoods over the years to favor the construction of single-family homes, which is why those models are now considered “missing.”

Novick wants the Comprehensive Plan update currently being considered by the City Council to pave the way for more of it. He plans to push for a study of where and how new “missing middle” housing can be built when the council takes up the Comp Plan again on April 14. After it is approved later this year, the state-required land-use planning document will guide growth in the city for the next 20 years.

“If necessary, we might need to find incentive to encourage developers to build three or four row houses instead of a single million-dollar house,” Novick says.

Not everyone believes more “missing middle” housing is right for all neighborhoods, however.

“We should be putting together policies that would redirect development to the eastern neighborhoods that terribly need new investment, streets, and sidewalks,” says Robert McCullough, Southeast Uplift and Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association chair. “Bottom line, I would spend more time helping neighborhoods in need of repair and less in tearing up those that are doing just fine.”

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Even modest duplexes like this one cannot be built in many neighborhoods.Portland not alone

The concept of creating more “missing middle” housing is not unique to Novick or Portland. The term was coined in 2010 by Daniel Parolek of Opticos Design, a Berkeley company that seeks to create livable, sustainable communities and design buildings that reinforce them. It is intended to define a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living.

“They are classified as ‘missing’ because very few of these housing types have been built since the early 1940s, due to regulatory constraints, the shift to auto-dependent patterns of development, and the incentivization of single-family homeownership,” Parolek says.

That is true in Portland, according to Eric Engstrom, a principle planner at the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which is staffing the Comp Plan update. According to Engstrom, there is a lot of older “missing middle” housing in such neighborhoods as Buckman, Hosford-Abernethy, Kerns, and Sunnyside that could not be rebuilt today because the zoning was changed to single-family in 1980.

“More land is set aside for single-family zoning today than was the case pre-1980. For example, before 1980 most of the land in Southeast between Cesar Chavez Boulevard and 12th Avenue was zoned for multifamily development. Today, most of that area is single-family zoning,” Engstrom says.

Two maps pulled together by Eli Spevak, a local developer and leading proponent of alternative housing, show the difference. The majority of inner eastside blocks were zoned for multifamily housing in 1923, when the city adopted its first zoning code. But most inner eastside blocks are zoned for single-family homes in a map that accompanies the recommended Comp Plan update.

Spevak also advocates for zoning changes to allow more accessory dwelling units, tiny homes and shared housing at the website operated by his company, Orange Splot LLC.

Numerous studies have shown that even middle-class families cannot afford to live near employment centers in the Portland metropolitan area. This is true for both renters and potential homeowners with moderate incomes, who are moving farther and farther out of town to find housing they can afford. Spevak believes more “missing middle” housing could help reverse that trend.

It is not clear whether Portlanders concerned about density increases and skyrocketing housing costs agree that more “missing middle” housing is a solution. The City Council already has heard from residents opposed to large apartment buildings, dubbed “apartment bunkers,” in existing residential neighborhoods. And they have heard many complaints about so-called “McMansions” replacing smaller houses.

But the debate over “missing middle” housing is so new that Commissioner Amanda Fritz asked Novick if he meant “middle-class” housing when he raised the issue at a council work session on the Comp Plan a few months ago.

A boon to affordability

An online survey conducted for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability found some public support for more “missing middle” housing, depending on how it’s done.

The survey was conducted between Dec. 8, 2015, and Jan. 12, 2016, as part of the Residential Infill Project. The bureau is working to develop new and updated rules governing infill development in single-dwelling zones, to address the concerns being raised before the council. A steering committee made up of citizens, preservationists and developers is assisting with the project.

The survey confirmed that housing affordability is a top public concern, especially among those with lower incomes.

“Affordability was the top priority for renters, survey takers from communities of color, and respondents with an annual household income under $50,000. Many who took the survey are concerned that infill is making housing less affordable,” the bureau reported about survey results, adding, “Many respondents contend that smaller, affordable homes are being demolished and replaced with much larger, more expensive homes.”

The survey also found support for developing more “missing middle” housing, along with accessory dwelling units to increase the supply of housing alternatives. This is especially true if such new housing fits into existing neighborhoods.

“Many respondents were supportive of increasing the number of allowed alternative options, particularly if scale and design or aesthetic considerations could be controlled. Some, however, opposed allowing any alternative housing options in single-dwelling zones because of concerns about changing character or increased density,” the survey report says.

Coming up with such standards and rules is one issue the Residential Infill Project is addressing.

“It really doesn’t matter if they call it a ‘triplex’ or ‘garden apartment’ or ‘courtyard cluster,’ if it’s huge and looming, right up against the property line, with no trees and lots of pavement, rather than nestled into the site’s features, and the list price is half-a-million, then it’s not achieving the goals of being compatible or affordable,” says Bridlemile neighborhood resident Jan Wilson, who has been following the Comp Plan update closely.

The council will consider amendments to the Comp Plan update at public hearings April 14 and 20. Votes on the proposed amendments are scheduled for April 28. The council will likely vote on the amended update on May 25 or June 15.