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COURTESY PHOTO - New lawnsigns opposing the proposed rezoning plan are beginning to appear in Portland neighborhoods.The debate over rezoning single-family neighborhoods to add more multifamily developments in Portland could hardly be more polarized.


Supporters say building more relatively small multifamily housing units would lower home prices and rents, reduce income inequality, increase diversity, and save farm and forest lands outside the urban growth boundary where development can occur.

Opponents say it will lead to more relatively inexpensive homes being demolished and undermine the character of existing neighborhoods, without guaranteeing the production of more housing that most Portlanders can afford.

The proposal has been developed by Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability staff. It is intended to help accommodate the 123,000 more households expected here over the next 20 years. As currently drafted, the proposal would rezone 99,000 of the city’s 155,000 single-family lots to allow for multifamily housing. But the size of the new structures would be limited to less than half of the maximum allowed today, to better fit into existing neighborhoods.

The controversy has been raging for months on social media and at public forums hosted by the city, nonprofit and activist organizations.

It is pitting renters against homeowners, newcomers against longtime residents, land-use watchdogs against neighborhood organizations, and affordable housing advocates against those who don’t trust the Portland City Council to keep its promises.

The divisions were on full display at the final open house on the proposal held in Sellwood on Saturday. Although the day was sunny, more than 100 people crowded into the offices of the Sellwood-Moreland Improvement League to hear the presentation.

Before it started, a young backer listed reasons for supporting the proposal on butcher paper outside the building. They included increasing the number of smaller housing units that cost less to rent or buy than large houses and apartment towers.

But once the presentation started, it was clear most of those in the room did not support it — or were at least very skeptical about its benefits. Residents of the Alameda, Sunnyside and Sellwood-Moreland neighborhoods said recent density increases have hurt their quality of life. And many in the crowd jeered in disbelief when senior planner Joe Zehnder said the multifamily units would be more affordable than the new housing being built now, challenging him to prove it.

“Many of us feel there’s a need for better modeling and analysis before making such a big change in Portland neighborhoods,” said Janet Baker, an activist with the grassroots United Neighborhoods for Reform organization.

In the back of the room, opponents handed out newly produced lawn signs reading, “Save Our Neighborhoods. Stop Rezoning.”

Over the next two months, planning staff will review public comments and finalize their recommendations before publishing them in early October.

The City Council could hold a hearing on them in November to provide direction for city code revisions that might be adopted in the fall of 2017.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: STEVE LAW - Smaller multifamily homes are being propsed to increase density and reduce housing costs.Unexpected demand

Although the debate was largely sparked by the update of the city’s 2035 growth management plan approved by the council in June, the rezoning issue was hardly on anyone’s radar screen when the process began several years ago. But, as the economy recovered from the Great Recession, housing costs began skyrocketing in Portland as more and more people decided it was time to move, including an increase in the number of people from outside the region.

This pent-up demand prompted developers to begin tearing down smaller existing homes in popular neighborhoods and replacing them with more expensive larger ones — provoking a backlash from some neighborhood organizations and activists.

The council responded by amending the plan — officially called the Comprehensive Plan — to encourage the construction of more so-called “missing middle” housing, including duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, accessory dwelling units, cottage clusters and relatively small apartment buildings. Because not much of the city is zoned for such housing, the council directed city planners to study rezoning portions of single-family neighborhoods along major transportation corridors and near transit stations and designated urban centers to accommodate them.

But this alarmed the neighborhood organizations and activists who were fighting the residential demolition and infill projects. They argued it would only encourage more existing homes to be torn down, with no guarantee most Portlanders could afford the relatively small replacement ones.

Their opposition was then countered by a campaign to support more missing middle housing, including the rezoning necessary to accommodate it. That campaign is supported by a coalition of affordable housing advocates, land-use watchdogs, developers ready to build such housing, and social justice activists who see it as an equity issue. A new organization, Portland for Everyone, was created just to push the idea through the council.

Much of the drama played itself out among the members of the Stakeholder Advisory Committee early on in the Residential Infill Project (RIPSAC), which originally was created in response to neighborhood complaints about existing homes being demolished and replaced with larger, more expensive ones. As the committee discussed the situation, a majority of members coalesced around the concept of restricting the size of replacement houses but encouraging the construction of more smaller homes. Those members included developers, affordable housing advocates and land-use watchdogs.

The other members of the committee, which represented neighborhood interests, pushed back against the idea.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - The Residential Infill Project began in response to protests over smaller existing homes being demolished and replaced with larger expensive ones.Trade-offs proposed

Although not part of their original charge, the RIPSAC staff has produced maps showing where more multifamily homes could be built within one-quarter mile of designated urban centers, transit centers, frequent bus lines, and so-called inner ring neighborhoods around the urban core. According to the maps, in some parts of town, large portions of existing single-family neighborhoods would be rezoned to allow multifamily housing.

Zehnder says he understands why many homeowners are wary of the proposal, noting they have invested a lot of time and money in neighborhoods they did not think would change.

But Zehnder says other project recommendations are intended to ensure that new housing will fit into existing neighborhoods. They include reducing the maximum size of new homes on 5,000-square-foot lots from the current 6,750 square feet to just 2,500 square feet. That is well below the 4,461-square-foot average that is currently being built, and that size limit would apply to duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes, too, Zehnder says.

At the same time, Zehnder admits the proposal is not intended to produce affordable housing in the traditional sense of the term, which is housing that can be afforded by those on low incomes. He says it will be more affordable than what is currently being built, although no one in BPS has run the figures to prove that yet.

Then again, Zehnder said developers could request variances, which is allowed now, and suggested size increases could be granted for the inclusion of even more affordable units.

As part of the project, BPS commissioned an online survey between Dec. 8, 2015, and Jan. 12, 2016. Although not scientific, it drew 7,257 responses and revealed significant differences among Portland residents on some issues, based on such factors as whether they own or rent, and how long they have lived in town. Among other things, providing housing options for all income levels was prioritized first by renters, those who have lived in Portland four years or less, and those under 45 years old. But maintaining neighborhood character was prioritized first by homeowners, those who have lived in Portland for 20 or more years, and those over 45 years old.

A new survey currently is underway.

Find out more

• You can learn more about the Residential Infill Project proposal at http://tinyurl.com/joxpjl7.

• Take an online survey about the proposal through Aug. 15 at http://tinyurl.com/jzmr4j6.

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