Portland should legalize small homes everywhere, not just west of 205

Requiring new homes to be bigger is a terrible way to prevent displacement, affordable housing advocates say.

by Michael Andersen | May 15, 2018

Building sizes would be capped citywide, but duplexes and corner triplexes would be re-legalized only within the yellow area. Image: City of Portland.

Advocates for affordable housing in East Portland and elsewhere say they’re worried the city is about to make a big mistake.

This week, Portland’s Planning and Sustainability Commission is debating reforms to Portland’s zoning code to re-legalize duplexes and corner triplexes in central Portland.

But city staffers have proposed to continue the city’s ban on small multi-home buildings in most of East Portland, much of outer Southwest and parts of Cully and the St. Johns peninsula.

That’s the opposite of what East Portland and other areas actually need for affordable housing, said Julia Metz, a below-market housing developer for the nonprofit Portland Community Reinvestment, Inc.

“Affordable housing developers — we need that opportunity,” she said Tuesday. “Duplexes and triplexes and even four-plexes are just the perfect size for developing a [subsidized] homeownership unit.”

An option for extended families

APANO deputy director Duncan Hwang. Image: APANO.

Duncan Hwang, deputy director for the Asian-Pacific American Network of Oregon, said his organization generally supports both market-rate and below-market buildings that increase density east of Interstate 205.

“That puts additional pressures on gentrification, if we can’t have as many people living in the neighborhood as we want,” Hwang said Tuesday. “From our outreach and discussions, we’re generally more in favor of density.”

Many of APANO’s community members, Hwang said, are accustomed to living close together in multi-generational families — and a building like a duplex might actually be best suited to help extended family members do exactly that.

“It’s the overall neighborhood design that’s important,” Hwang said.

The wrong tool to fight displacement?

Three 2,144-square-foot homes on SE Sherman near 130th, currently valued at $350,000 each. City planners say these should remain legal in most of East Portland, while duplexes should remain forbidden. Image: Google Street View.

So why are city planners currently proposing to continue the ban on duplexes and triplexes in outer neighborhoods, even though one-family homes will still be allowed? They offer two different rationales.

One is displacement risk.

In some areas — Cully, Rockwood, northern St Johns — the city sees higher concentrations of tenants and lower-income Portlanders of color. Allowing more development in those areas might trigger change, the city says.

But the city isn’t actually proposing to ban redevelopment in those areas. Under the current proposal, knocking down a small, cheap home to build a new 2,500 square foot home would remain perfectly legal.

Julia Metz of nonprofit housing developer PCRI.

Metz said the better solution is to allow or incentivize smaller homes that share lots — both market-rate and below-market homes.

“There’s more [displacement] risk by excluding those areas from having additional units,” she said.

Travis Phillips, director of housing development for PCRI, said the plans the city writes today need to be responsive to future change.

“The idea of residential infill is updating the code to be forward-looking,” he said. “20 years ago, Northeast Portland didn’t pencil either, but it’s one of the most valuable neighborhoods now … as Portland continues to grow, we need to make sure that we have the tools available so we can respond when those neighborhoods become more expensive.”

Density and good public transit: chicken and egg

Image: TriMet.

The other reason city planners give for continuing to ban duplexes and triplexes from outer neighborhoods is that they lack good public transit.

But as Metz pointed out, banning density from neighborhoods means condemning them to poor public transit indefinitely.

“You have to have demand in order for transit to go somewhere,” she said. “If you’re not allowing density to be built where there’s not yet frequent transit, or transit in general, then you’re just feeding into that issue.”

The planning commission holds its second and final public hearing tonight, May 15, from 5 to 8 p.m. You can also submit testimony online.

In the next few weeks, the commission will vote on its recommendation to Portland’s city council, which will make a final decision in the fall.

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.