Critics demand public vote on infill
The Portland City Council isn't expected to vote on controversial recommendations to increase residential density in much of the city for around a year, but opponents already are urging it to refer them to the voters instead.
The current recommendations are included in the discussion draft of the Residential Infill Project prepared at the direction of the council by the staff of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Among other things, the infill plan would rezone approximately 40 percent of all single-family neighborhoods to allow the construction of smaller multifamily housing projects, including duplexes, triplexes and cottage clusters.
The council believes such so-called "missing middle" housing could help ease Portland's affordable housing crisis. Supporters include affordable housing advocates, local home builders and the 1000 Friends of Oregon land-use watchdog group.
"The other way to add housing is to sprawl, but that's no good — it just means longer commutes, more cars, more pavement, more infrastructure costs on the public and less nature within reach. Every home we add to our current urban area is one that doesn't slice up a farm or forest," says Madeline Kovacs, program coordinator for Portland for Everyone, a project of 1000 Friends of Oregon that supports most of the recommendations.
Critics argue the rezoning recommendations would encourage the demolition of smaller older homes with no guarantee that most Portlanders can afford the new ones.
"From the real estate pages, it is evident that newly remodeled and replacement housing will be much less affordable for both renters and buyers than existing viable housing stock," architect Rod Merrick wrote to the planning bureau staff managing the project.
One grassroots group, Stop Demolishing Portland, has launched an online petition urging the council to submit the recommendations to city voters instead of acting on them.
"If city leaders are confident that the sweeping changes represented by the Residential Infill Project are in the best interest of our city, they should also be confident that the final proposal can withstand a popular vote," reads the petition, which attracted 2,933 signatures.
Stop Demolishing Portland questions many of the other recommendations, even though some address concerns that neighborhood activists have voiced in the past. They include restricting the size of new homes — including duplexes and triplexes — to ensure they fit into established neighborhoods.
One recommendation would limit the maximum above-grade size of new homes to 3,250 square feet, including detached structures. That is less than half the current maximum of 6,750 square feet, not including detached structures. The proposed limit is intended to respond to complaints about out-of-scale "McMansions" being built on streets lined with much smaller homes.
But even this recommendation is controversial. Margaret Davis, an activist with the grassroots United Neighborhoods for Reform, has posted a chart on the group's website that shows the average home in every ZIP code affected by the recommendation is currently just 1,621 square feet — nearly 50 percent smaller than the recommended new limit.
The contentious back-and-forth illustrates the difficulties facing city leaders as they grapple with the problems caused by Portland's increasing popularity and limited housing supply. Although 260,000 more people are expected to live in the city by 2035, only about half as many new single-family homes are being built now than before the Great Recession — and many, if not most, of them are one-to-one infill projects that don't increase density.
New apartment buildings being constructed around town have increased the overall housing supply, but most are higher-rent units that many residents cannot afford, especially if they have several children and need multiple bedrooms.
The debate has gotten so heated that during the 2017 Oregon legislative session, House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat who represents portions of North and Northeast Portland, practically accused those opposed to density increases in upscale parts of town of being racists.
A legal challenge to a new Portland missing-middle policy, filed with the state Land Conservation and Development Commission, has delayed the effective date of the Comprehensive Plan update approved by the City Council last year from Jan. 1 of next year to May 24.
The public comment period on the most recent infill recommendations ended on Nov. 30. According to planning bureau supervising planner Sandra P. Wood, next steps include understanding the issues raised by the comments and deciding whether and how to adjust the recommendations to accomodate them.
Wood says the aim is to publish a proposed draft of the final recommendations by the beginning of April. The appointed Planning and Sustainability Commission, which oversees the bureau, already has scheduled the first hearing on them for May 8. Wood says the hearing process is expected to take two months, with the commission voting on which provisions to recommend to the City Council in May or June.
After that, recommendations will be presented as an ordinance for City Council hearings in August or September. The final vote is expected by the end of 2018.
Wood also says the public comments will be posted online, a process that could take some time because they were received in different formats.
Gentrification documentary filmmaker speaks
Supporters of the Residential Infill Project say it will help ease Portland's affordable housing crisis by encouraging construction of small, less-expensive homes.
Cornelius Swart, a local filmmaker who has produced and directed two documentaries on gentrification in Portland, doubts that those most at risk of displacement will benefit from such housing.
"In my research, I don't see examples of the marketplace producing new housing that is affordable to working-class people unless there is a subsidy or favorable regulations," says Swart, the former publisher of the St. Johns Sentinel community newspaper, which closed in 2010.
Swart's two documentaries are "Northwest Passage," which was released in 2002, and a sequel that debuted in November, "Priced Out: 15 Years of Gentrification in Portland, Oregon."
Both films show the intentional and unintentional effects of large public and private redevelopment projects on Portland's African-American community. Using historic records and archived film footage, the films dramatically present the impacts of such developments as Memorial Coliseum on the affected and surrounding neighborhorhoods. Most of the former residents have moved out, including Nikki Williams, a single mother featured in both documentaries.
In the first film, Williams, a Northeast Portland homeowner, welcomed the earliest stages of gentrification as improving her neighborhood, which was plagued with crime and neglected buildings. But in 2015, Williams was distressed that so many other African-Americans had been displaced by higher housing costs and largely replaced with younger and wealthier whites.
"Priced Out" debuted to positive reviews before a sold-out crowd on Nov. 1 at the Northwest Filmmaker's Festival. It has since been shown in Los Angeles and St. Louis.
"The message of the film is that citizens need to demand change. They need to call and write to city, state and federal legislators. They need to vote for people who promise to do something and vote out do-nothings and obstructionists. Reach out to friends with a different opinion and convince them it's a problem. If the community rises up with one voice, things will fall into place," Swart says.
Four new showings of "Priced Out" have been scheduled in Portland. They will be at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec.. 12 and 13, at the Kennedy School Theater, 5736 N.E. 33rd Ave. That is where "Northwest Passage" debuted.
For more information about both films, visit https://www.pricedoutmovie.com
You can learn more about the Residential Infill Project at https://tinyurl.com/yccvfny9.