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Relatively few Portlanders would be able to afford any of the size-restricted houses, duplexes and triplexes the recommendations are intended to encourage.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - The Residential Infill Project  recommendations are intended to encourage more than home be built where an existing house is demolished. Not everyone agrees how well they will work.Is it OK to build an oversize house in an existing neighborhood if it serves more than one family?

That's the question that density advocates are asking as the most recent Residential Infill Project recommendations move toward their first public hearings.

Density advocates, including 1000 Friends of Oregon, largely support the recommendation to rezone 60 percent of existing single-family neighborhoods to allow duplexes and triplexes. But they are questioning the recommendation to limit the maximum size of most new houses to 2,500 square feet.

The problem, as identified in a city-commissioned study by the Johnson Economics consulting firm, is that the recommendations will produce little additional housing — including only a limited number of duplexes and triplexes.

According to the study, which was released with the most recent recommendations, only 86 additional housing units a year will be built if they are approved. That is just 1,713 units over the next 20 years, when more than 100,000 more households are expected to be added to Portland.

Housing advocate Michael Andersen said the study shows the proposed maximum size limit makes building duplexes and triplexes uneconomical. He says the recommendations should "incentivize" such housing by allowing them to be larger than single-family homes — even if they are only 500 square feet larger.

"One of the key findings of Johnson's dive into the market data was that a square foot of home is, basically, a square foot of home. Just giving a landowner the right to turn a structure into two smaller homes instead of one big one doesn't add total value," said Andersen, who writes for the housing blog sponsored by Portland for Everyone (PFE), a project of 1000 Friends of Oregon.

Although PFE coordinator Madeline Kovacs said the organization has not yet taken a position on the most recent recommendations, it likely will reflect the concerns raised by Andersen.

"As written, the plan will fall woefully short of adding anywhere close to the number of smaller-scale market rate and affordable homes that Portlanders desperately need," Kovacs said.

The recommendations also are intended to encourage redevelopment of historically narrow lots that are less than 5,000 square feet.

'Everything is up for grabs'

Nearly three years after former Mayor Charlie Hales first created the Residential Infill Project within the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, its most recent recommendations finally will be heard on May 8 and 15 by the appointed Planning and Sustainability Commission that advises the bureau. The commission is expected to recommend its versions to the City Council on June 22, with the council making its final decision by the end of the year.

All of the recommendations can be changed by the commission and the council, ranging from the maximum allowable size of new houses to the percentage of existing single-family neighborhoods to be rezoned to incentives for redeveloping so-called skinny lots.

"Everything is up for grabs," said senior planner Joe Zehnder.

As much as anything, the evolving recommendations have become a flashpoint in the polarized debate over how to respond to growth. When Hales first appointed the 25-member citizen Stakeholder Advisory Committee for the project, the most prominent issue was the increasing number of smaller, older homes in existing neighborhoods being demolished and replaced with larger, more expensive ones — dubbed McMansions by those who complained they were out of scale with surrounding houses.

But as the committee first began to meet, the affordable housing crisis emerged as the dominant political issue in Portland. That prompted a lot of committee discussions about the need to create more so-called missing middle housing, including duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, garden apartments and cottage clusters.

Rifts surface

The committee eventually split over the issue. Density advocates and developers favored rezoning single-family neighborhoods to allow smaller multifamily projects near transit stops and frequent transit corridors. Neighborhood association representatives objected, saying that would encourage more demolitions of existing homes without guaranteeing that many residents can afford even the smaller replacement units.

Similar divisions have emerged as the debate over the recommendations went public. It has been surprisingly bitter, with supporters accusing opponents of being NIMBYs (Not in My Backyard) and critics saying the recommendations would destroy the feel of Portland's existing neighborhoods, without guaranteeing that many families can afford the replacement housing.

The controversy is amplified because the scope of the project is so large. The size restrictions would apply to 135,000 properties. The city recently mailed notices of the potential change to their owners, as required by state laws. The rezoning also could affect 87,000 properties, which is most of the neighborhoods in town, except those in parts of East and far Southwest, where the infrastructure cannot support such potential additional housing. Although there are far fewer skinny lots, they are scattered throughout Southeast, North and Northeast Portland.

Some critics have said the council should only approve a limited pilot project to see how the recommendations actually would work in the real world.

The cost of the replacement housing is definitely an issue in the Johnson Economics study. It predicts that half-duplexes could cost $2,995 a month to rent or $392,000 to buy. Andersen admitted the larger duplexes he envisions would be even more expensive. But he said that is better than them not being built at all. And Anderson noted that triplexes would cost less.

But relatively few Portlanders would be able to afford any of the size-restricted houses, duplexes and triplexes the recommendations are intended to encourage, said Loren Lutzenhiser, a professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at Portland State University.

After reviewing the analysis for the Portland Tribune, Lutzenhiser noted that even if the recommendations are approved, 5,000 to 6,600 lower-priced housing units will be demolished and replaced with units that cost much more. And, he said, 90 percent of Portland current Portland renters will not be able to afford them, based on the federal standard that housing costs should not exceed 30 percent of income.

"There will likely be replacements of affordable units with units affordable only to households — mostly singles and couples given today's demographics — with relatively high incomes," Lutzenhiser said. "Alarm bells should be going off."

Find out more

To learn more about the City of Portland's Residential Infill Project visit the city's website at: tinyurl.com/yccvfny9

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