One house, four homes: Dekum project shows the potential of stacked flats

If we could make it easier to vertically divide structures, we could create more, smaller homes inside big old ones

by Michael Andersen | Aug. 16, 2017

Garlynn Woodsong and Carrie Wenninger on the porch of their newly completed project on NE 7th Avenue: one of the city’s only stacked four-plexes.

The four least expensive newly built homes for sale in Portland’s Woodlawn neighborhood all share something: An address.

That’s because they’re on top of each other.

When it went up in 1890, less than a block north of what would soon become the commercial hub now called the Dekum Triangle, the building at 6817 NE 7th Avenue was designed for one household at a time.

Until last year, that’s how it remained:

2014 image from Google Street View.

But over the last two years, Portland couple Garlynn Woodsong and Carrie Wenninger have been gradually transforming the old Victorian into something unusual: one of the city’s few stacked four-plexes.

The new homes that went on sale last weekend range from 875 square feet to 966 square feet, three two-bedrooms and one three-bedroom. They’ll make it possible for three more households to live within eyeshot of Dekum’s commercial hub and a stop on TriMet’s frequent No. 8 bus line.

Garlynn Woodsong on the top balcony of 6817 NE 7th.

Wenninger said that while working on the project late into the evening, their team has already been able to enjoy its location.

“When it’s 9:45 and we’re finishing up here, we can run over there and make last call,” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, is make it possible for more people to be able to live close in, to support more businesses.”

But more broadly, the 7th Avenue project could be a test case for a new category of “missing middle” homes in Portland. These four homes are bigger and more expensive per unit than most apartments, but smaller and less expensive than the single-family homes that are the only type of building currently allowed on 70 percent of the city’s potentially residential land — including almost all of Woodlawn.

A lot of what’s interesting about this project, in fact, has to do with the number four.

Four-plexes are the largest building size that’s easy for a small family business to finance

Portland builds almost no four-plexes, in part because city law currently bans them almost everywhere. In a city with 270,000 homes, only 483 existing structures are four-plexes. Only several dozen have been built since 1980.

Based on the construction date for structures standing in 2017. Source: Metro. Data extracted by Philip Longenecker.

But in the world of small-scale homebuilding, four is a magic number: It’s the biggest number of homes a structure can have and still qualify for a federally insured home loan.

“The feds consider it to be a ‘house,’” said Woodsong. “That is super critical, because it democratizes the whole thing. It means that normal people can do this.”

New housing that can be built with a simple mortgage means that developers are more likely to be locally informed and have personal relationships with their buyers — often as neighbors, in fact.

“You can own it and then you can live in one and rent out three, or just sell off four and do it again — all those models start to work with a four-plex,” Woodsong said. “It’s a sweet spot. And it’s a sweet spot that’s really, really hard to get in Portland right now.”

Stacked flats will become more and more useful as the country’s population ages

People who pay attention to the future of housing are excited about stacked flats for two reasons.

First, they make more efficient use of Portland’s increasingly valuable land, allowing the homes in a four-plex to also be big enough to comfortably fit households that include children or aging parents.

Second, they’re ideal for the country’s fast-growing population of seniors and others with mobility challenges, because everything that happens inside a flat can happen, well, on a flat surface.

Even better, the ground-floor unit is universally accessible without climbing stairs at all.

The ground-floor unit of 6817 NE 7th Avenue is fully wheelchair-accessible. Left photo courtesy Woodsong Partners.

“The need is huge,” said Rachel Mohlere, a Portland-based mortgage consultant who specializes in connecting people with homes that are easy to age in. “And stacked flats are a huge solution to tight land availability and a place to live.”

A four-plex is also the smallest building where it might be possible to require one home to be sold below market rate

The homes at 6817 NE 7th aren’t cheap: they’re listed at $395,000 for the ground floor to $420,000 for the top.

That’s significantly cheaper, though, than the other newly built homes in the neighborhood. Two blocks east, a new 1,780-square-foot freestanding house sold in June for $550,000. Zillow estimates that the median price for Woodlawn homes of any age is $424,100.

When they started the project, Woodsong and Wenninger hoped to be able to list the homes for significantly less, with one or more qualifying as “affordable” to the median Portland-area household: $325,000 or so, for a monthly home payment of about $1,700 for a two-bedroom assuming a 15 percent down payment.

The project missed that mark by about $70,000, due in large part to the unexpectedly high expense of rebuilding the walls of the old structure, a $100,000 task that turned out to be required by fire codes. If the project had only two units, the old, narrower walls might have met the code; but the third and fourth units triggered “multifamily” building codes, and therefore the same fire standards as a 30-unit building.

Woodsong said he’d hoped that rehabbing an old building would save money, but in the end it would have been cheaper to deconstruct the old house and build from scratch. He said creating a new halfway standard for four-plexes— for example, requiring automated indoor sprinklers like an apartment building but walls of the same thickness as a duplex’s — could make four-plex rehabs much more viable.

(The City of Portland recently studied this and related issues, and Portland for Everyone has endorsed changes to state building codes for three- and four-home buildings.)

Discoveries like that were sort of the point of the project, Woodsong said.

“That is the whole reason we did this,” he said, sitting on the couch of the ground-floor unit last week. “I wouldn’t call this a failure; I think each unit is still cheaper than a single-family house.”

Woodsong’s project was legal under current city zoning because it’s on commercial land. To make buildings like it viable and/or affordable in more than a handful of situations, the city would need to allow them in lower-density zones too.

Portland’s anti-McMansion residential infill project, whose details are currently being sorted out and is likely to return to city council for final approval next spring, doesn’t currently make room for four-plexes anywhere in low-density residential zones. But small developers like Woodsong have said that if the city were to legalize a fourth home as a “bonus unit” on residential sites, it might be financially possible to sell that fourth unit for below-market rates to a lower-income household, potentially with the help of a homeownership nonprofit such as Proud Ground.

Of course, allowing four-plexes in low-density residential areas would mean that they would gradually become more dense — a change some Portlanders fiercely oppose.

But Woodsong said that as a Portlander, he would welcome that transition.

“It’s a city back in 1905 they said was going to be the Paris of the West,” he said. “You ever been to Paris? Paris doesn’t have any single-family neighborhoods.”

“Obviously that’s a vision of Portland that conflicts with other people’s vision: a suburban oasis of car-driving and green lawns,” he added. “That’s the conversation that we’re having.”

Portland for Everyone supports abundant, diverse, affordable housing. This is a reported blog about how to get more of those things. You can follow it on Twitter and Facebook or get new posts by email a few times each month.