Battle lines drawn over infill housing as hearing nears
The debate over rezoning almost all of Portland's single-family neighborhoods is heating up.
Newspapers are receiving letters in favor of and opposed to the current recommendations of the Residential Infill Project — called RIP by fans and foes alike. Local websites feature arguments for and against allowing up to four housing units on every lot. The conflict is only increasing as the Planning and Sustainability Commission is preparing to vote to forward the recommendations to the City Council on March 12.
The activity is proof of how politicized the issue has become since former Mayor Charlie Hales created the project within the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability in 2015. At the time, the loudest voices were complaining against what they called the "growing epidemic" of residential demolitions and oversized infill projects.
Today, the momentum seems to favor those who would allow more demolitions to create so-called "missing middle housing," including duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes up to 1,500 square feet larger than a single-family house, which would be limited to 2,500 square feet.
As the project proceeded in 2016 and 2017, the concept of allowing more missing middle housing gained support from a broad coalition of environmentalists, businesses, affordable housing organizations, alternative transportation advocates, and even some neighborhood organizations. The 1000 Friends of Oregon land use watchdog organization launched and staffed a project called Portland for Everyone to help organize and coordinate the support during the public outreach portion of the project, including at open houses held in different parts of town.
"It makes no sense when a standard (50 feet by 100 feet) lot within easy walking distance of downtown can't be used for anything more than a single-family house," reads its website.
But by then some of the project's earliest supporters had started questioning the missing middle concept. When the council first proposed adding a missing middle housing policy in the state-required Comprehensive Plan update in April 2016, the board of the Multnomah Neighborhood Association opposed both it and its introduction so late in the planning process.
"This proposed amendment is a radical, last-minute change to the 2035 Comprehensive Plan that is too far-reaching to be incorporated into the plan with a very short time of approximately one month for citizen evaluation to provide reasoned public comment," said the letter, despite the fact that the policy was championed by Steve Novick, the most progressive member of the council at the time.
The grassroots United Neighborhoods for Reform also called the amendment premature. They wanted the issue to first be fully studied by the RIP advisory committee.
"Opening this change to wide areas of the city will make thousands of smaller, viable, older, relatively affordable homes vulnerable to demolition. We question whether even smaller new houses will be as affordable, or as well built, as many currently existing houses," Barbara Strunk, United Neighborhoods for Reform's representative to the committee, wrote in testimony submitted to the council.
The council included the policy in the update anyway, prompting the association to challenge it before the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, which was required to approve it. After the appointed Land Conservation and Development Commission also upheld the update, the association appealed the decisions to the Oregon Court of Appeals, where the case is waiting to be heard.
From density along corridors to density everywhere
The first Residential Infill Project recommendations were consistent with longstanding policies of concentrating density along major transportation corridors, in designated centers and around transit centers. They would have to rezone 60 percent of single-family neighborhoods for missing middle housing. The largest project would be a triplex. Much of the property in East Portland was excluded because it lacks the infrastructure to support such growth.
Although critics already were saying even that was too much, the Planning and Sustainability Commission felt otherwise. In October 2016, the commission encouraged bureau staff to expand the rezoning beyond the "corridors, centers and stations" criteria. One commissioner noted he lives in a four-plex, and wondered why they weren't allowed.
The first economic analysis undertaken for the bureau showed the commission's misgivings were justified. Johnson Economics studied rezoning 60 percent of single-family neighborhoods but limiting all new structures to 2,500 square feet. Its study, dated March 27, 2018, found such changes would produce just 1,680 additional units over the next 20 years, hardly enough to justify the effort.
The commission held its first hearings in May, receiving extensive public testimony on all sides of every issue. After the testimony, it directed the staff to study rezoning far more of the city, and allowing size bonuses for duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes.
Johnson Economics subsequently looked at rezoning 96 percent of single-family neighborhoods and allowing size bonuses of up to 1,500 square feet. Its new study, dated November 2018, concluded that far more housing would be built — 24,000 additional units over 20 years.
The study also concluded that demolitions would increase 8 percent to make way for the new housing, and that most of it would be small rental units costing around $1,800 per month.
Commission member Eli Spevak, a developer who also served on the Residential Infill Project Stakeholder Advisory Committee, is pleased with the current recommendations.
"Admittedly, it took a lot of time, but we wanted to get it right and I think we have," Spevak said.
Critics are even more alarmed now than they were over the original project draft, however. Some believe developers will figure out how to build more and even larger projects than predicted.
"They don't want to have any limits on where they can build in Portland," said Margaret Davis, an artist who supported the project but who now describes herself as "an embittered activist."
Tide turns toward more affordable housing
Portland architect Rod Merrick, a neighborhood activist who served on the project Stakeholder Advisory Committee, said he is not surprised about how the debate over the Residential Infill Project recommendations evolved.
Merrick, the current chair of the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association, foresaw the possibility of the project changing direction. In early 2015, before he was appointed to the committee, he wrote and circulated a memo among friends that included a cartoon of the project as a Trojan horse at the door of a castle labeled "Single family code."
"Practically all home building stopped during the Great Recession that began in 2008. When the economy started recovering in 2011 and 2012, a lot of people started moving to Portland because they heard it was a great place to live. Former suburban home builders discovered they could still make a living building infill projects. That's when people started thinking about rezoning single-family neighborhoods for more density," Merrick said.
Madeline Kovacs, former Portland for Everyone program coordinator, agrees the discussion shifted over time, but for different reasons.
"I do think the conversation has changed, as more and more Portlanders (and Americans) find themselves 'housing insecure,' and less and less of a critical mass are able to find housing that meets their needs under the status quo," Kovacs said in an email to the Portland Tribune.
"The conversation in the last couple of years has thus appropriately shifted away from 'compatibility' and protecting the investments of incumbent homeowners (or rather protection as they perceive it), and toward reducing barriers to housing, and allowing more people to live in places with access to transportation, parks, and services," continued Kovacs, who is now a fellow at the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, which describes itself as a think tank for the region's most significant challenges.
What is missing middle housing?
"Missing middle housing" is a term that is generally defined as relatively small multifamily projects. Those can include a single-family accessory dwelling unit built on a house's lot, as well as duplexes, triplexes, four-plexes, cottage clusters and "garden apartments" built around landscaped courtyards.