(Re-posted from Portland Tribune, 7/26/16)
Will the Residential Infill Project “destroy, densify and displace neighborhoods?” as claimed in “My View: Infill project breaches public trust” (by Robin Harman, Christine Yun and Merilee Spence, July 7 Tribune)?
If “destroying” means reducing the allowed size of new homes while increasing front-yard setbacks; supporting the development of smaller, more affordable housing types common throughout most of Portland’s history; and getting snout-nosed garages off the fronts of narrow homes — then there might be cause for concern.
But I — and I think all or most members of the volunteer committee that advised the city on this project — would argue that the real threat to the fabric of our neighborhoods can be found in the current zoning code for single-dwelling zones.
The forces of destruction in Portland aren’t the new rules being proposed. They’re the rules we live with today.
The underlying problem is that the city’s rules were written for the Portland of 1950. They’re outdated for today’s families and their needs. The result: building practices that frustrate and infuriate neighbors, affordable housing advocates, environmentalists, progressive planners and even some homebuilders. Not to mention huge numbers of Portlanders who can’t afford to rent or buy a home.
So let’s step back for a moment to remind ourselves of the development practices encouraged by existing zoning codes for Portland’s residential neighborhoods.
• Ever-rising size and cost of newly constructed homes, even as average family sizes decrease each year.
• Affordable housing vanishing from older, close-in neighborhoods.
• Homogenous large-home development in newer neighborhoods that may never reach the population density required to evolve into walkable communities.
• Land prices rising out of reach of first-time homebuyer programs.
• Demolition of small existing homes and removal of large trees that could have been preserved had there been greater flexibility in the code to keep them.
The Residential Infill Project addresses these failings in current code. No single constituency believes the staff recommendation goes as far as they’d want. But everyone can point to elements of the staff proposal that improves significantly on the status quo. Given the diversity of opinions and perspectives at the table, that’s not a bad place to be.
We’ve been talking about this problem for more than nine months. Here are some good ideas that have emerged thus far:
• Reducing the scale of new homes by capping square footage at less than half of what’s allowed today, measuring height from the low point on the site rather than the high point, and increasing front yard setbacks.
• Allowing internal conversions of older homes, so long as their exterior is minimally altered and they retain their single-dwelling appearance. This would let existing homes be adapted to changing market conditions and reduce pressure to demolish well-built older homes.
• Supporting small house “cottage cluster” development as a financially feasible way for builders to build right-size homes for smaller households and support community-oriented site plans — with less total massing than a typical single-family housing development.
• Making it easier for builders to design around (and hence preserve) existing homes and trees.
• Expanding Portland’s accessory dwelling units program to allow two per house, so long as compatibility requirements are met and they fit within the (reduced) massing limits for single-family homes noted above.
• Providing a size and/or density bonus for affordable housing so community-based organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, PCRI or Proud Ground can compete successfully for lots and build for first-time homebuyers.
• Prohibiting front-loading garages and not requiring parking for detached homes on narrow lots.
No one code update could address every complaint. But there’s broad agreement that the scale of new homes in Portland has gotten out of control. We need to find ways to integrate more diverse and affordable housing options within all of our neighborhoods, and we should make it easier, not harder, to preserve existing homes and trees. The Residential Infill Project proposal won’t make everyone happy, but it proposes changes to existing code to address these issues head-on. It’s a good first step, worthy of our continued efforts.
Eli Spevak is a local community-oriented housing builder who
founded the Orange Splot LLC development company and is a member of the Residential Infill Project Stakeholder Advisory Committee.
Orange Splot is pleased to share a report entitled: “Character-Compatible, Space-Efficient Housing Options for Single-Dwelling Neighborhoods,” researched and prepared under a contract with Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in support of the State of Oregon’s Transportation and Growth Management Program (TGM). Here’s a download link.
Eli and Madeline, report authors, will be presenting highlights of their research at the Equitable Housing Practitioner Lunch & Learn: “Finding The Missing Middle” on Friday, July 22, co-sponsored by Metro and Oregon Opportunity Network. Register ASAP – we are only two days out & remaining seats are filling quickly.
Why is a report on barriers to building more of these “Missing Middle” housing types so timely?
Oregon’s urban populations, new home sizes and housing costs are all growing. At the same time, average household sizes continue their steady decline. Combined, these trends have more than tripled the average square footage of living space constructed per person in new homes, with significant implications for energy efficiency, resource use, affordability, and neighborhood population densities (and hence walkability).
Some quick stats:
- Deschutes County, Oregon, gained an estimated 4,400 residents between 2013-2014, a growth rate of about 2.7%, or the seventh fastest growth rate in the country. By 2035, the City of Portland alone can expect to add 230,000 new people to its population.
- In 1960, 53% of Oregon households were composed of three or more people, in 2010, by comparison, 63% of households were composed of one or two people.
- In 1950, newly constructed homes in Portland averaged 983 square feet, while in 2008 this had grown to 2500 square feet.
Demographers expect the trend towards smaller households to continue. Many parts of Oregon are experiencing a critical lack of affordable housing. And add to this an oft-expressed concern for any regulatory change that might alter the look or feel of treasured, predominantly single-family neighborhoods.
Enter the wonky world of zoning …
Intended or not, many zoning codes in Oregon encourage the development of large, expensive, detached homes in residential neighborhoods to the exclusion of smaller, more affordable options. These observations motivate research into more space-efficient housing models and zoning regulations that could support them.
This report showcases local development codes that expand housing choices in single-dwelling neighborhoods. Four housing types were specifically selected for their ability to discreetly integrate smaller, more affordable, low-energy use homes within the fabric of existing neighborhoods:
- Cottage clusters
- Internal division of larger homes
- Corner duplexes, and
- Accessory Dwelling Units
Each of these four housing types can be built today in most multi-dwelling zones. In fact, many of them were common practice before single-dwelling zoning was widely introduced to Oregon municipalities and counties in the late 1950’s (or, in some communities, before zoning codes were first adopted). However, multi-dwelling zones make up a much smaller portion of zoned areas in most Oregon cities. For example, for the 25 cities in the Portland Metro Urban Growth Boundary, single-dwelling residential zones occupy 48% of all land area and 77% of all land area currently zoned for housing.
For each of the housing types, the report contains:
- Historical precedent, zoning context and regulatory barriers
- Best practice recommendations
- Case studies of completed projects from across the state
- An extensive appendix codes adopted by Oregon (and some Washington) cities, small and large, supportive of each housing type
Many Oregon and Pacific NW communities are already experimenting with code changes that (re)legalize one or more of these housing types within single-dwelling zones to help meet their housing supply and affordability challenges. Examples include:
- The city of Salem is in the process of introducing codes to allow ADUs – and perhaps also triplexes on corner lots.
- Eugene is piloting a Single Family Options Zone as part of a larger area-planning project, which would allow cottage clusters, courtyards, and possibly rowhouses and “narrow houses” in certain areas.
- Washington County recently simplified its land use process for ADUs, while Bend eliminated its on-site parking requirement and increased the maximum ADU unit size, among other changes.
- Portland is embarking on a major re-write to its residential zoning code – the “Residential Infill Project” – now in public comment period), through which it proposes to reduce allowed massing and heights of new homes, more clearly demarcate where new homes on “narrow lots” will be allowed, and offer up greater flexibility to provide smaller units within the (reduced) massing limits for what would traditionally contain a single family home. If Portland adopts some version of staff recommendations, this could set precedent for integrating smaller and more affordable homes within existing neighborhoods – either close to transit or, potentially, city-wide.
Our hope is that Oregon communities will find this report helpful in their efforts to foster vibrant, walkable and transit-enabled neighborhoods through zoning reform.
Many thanks to our editors and reviewers for this project: Jordan Palmeri, Laura Buhl, Richard Benner, Dale Van Valkenburg, Alwin Turiel, Sue Geniesse, and Noelle Studer-Spevak.
Portland is blessed with a strong environmental ethos and thriving re-use culture. But this often fails to extend to our construction sector, which can contribute more than 25% of the materials that end up in our region’s landfills. Nationwide, the EPA estimates that between 65-85% of the Construction & Demolition waste stream is landfilled. With the prevalence of local infill development in Portland these days, green building increasingly means starting with green demolition.
To that end, in June, Orange Splot LLC will be participating in the City of Portland’s Deconstruction Incentive Pilot Program for one of our current projects, “Mason St. Townhomes.” This new 14-unit residential community will be located near the corner of NE Mason and Cully Boulevard, and will consist of 13 new townhomes ranging from about 1,200-1,550 square feet, and one existing house. We will preserve one single-dwelling home in good shape, to be incorporated into the new community, but the other home, in poor condition, will be removed. (You can read more about Mason St. Townhomes here on our website).
One of our deconstruction grant goals is to see how much material we can make available for re-use here in Cully Neighborhood. So, we are inviting neighbors and others curious about deconstruction, or in need of some materials (think: outdoor firewood, brick, cabinetry), to come and take a little piece of this old house home with you! We think it’s silly to pay haulers to take materials away before neighbors have had a chance to come by and see what’s available – & we want to see what the local market for deconstructed home materials might be.
Save the Date
Orange Splot’s upcoming deconstruction will take place the week of June 20th, with materials available for pickup from site, 5836 NE Mason St., on June 24th (Friday) and June 25th (Saturday). It is impossible to know exactly which materials will be re-usable before deconstruction begins, but so far the developer estimates that brick, kitchen and bathroom cabinetry, siding, metal pipes, and hardwood flooring materials will definitely be salvageable…. And you may find some other materials of interest to you and your needs. Lovett Deconstruction, a company that has been salvaging construction waste for recycling, re-purposing and reuse for over a decade, will perform the work.
Those interested in picking up wood in particular should prepare to bring your hammer. Our staff will try to take care of as much de-nailing as possible, but there may be a bit left to do (after the compulsory waiver-signing of course). People are also encouraged to stop by anytime during working hours from the 20th to the 25th to chat about deconstruction or Mason St. Townhomes with Lovett Deconstruction and/or Orange Splot LLC staff. We’d love to see you!
Why Choose Deconstruction?
Rather than opting for “traditional” mechanical demolition (one-day tear-down with a wrecking ball), Orange Splot LLC was awarded funds from the City of Portland to offset higher costs incurred by choosing deconstruction (typically about a week-long process, where buildings are taken down and materials separated by hand). Deconstruction helps ensure that as much non-hazardous material as possible can be salvaged and re-used, substantially reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. Deconstruction can also bring many other environmental, economic, and neighborhood benefits, such as: ensuring that hazardous materials are found and disposed of properly; improving air and water quality through decreased release of toxins; conserving more natural resources through reuse; increasing the supply of affordable materials options for residents and businesses; and creating more local family-wage jobs than “traditional” demolition.
However, this grant also serves another important purpose. Too often, neighbors only find out about homes coming down just before it happens, and haven’t been included in consistent dialogue with a developer about their plans. We want to engage the neighborhood as much as possible around our deconstruction. To us, that means not only choosing the benefits of deconstruction over typical demolition, but also making materials easily accessible, attending neighborhood meetings, and sustaining a deep and open dialogue around our project’s development goals. These goals have already received support and encouragement from CAN’s board, namely the provision of both market-affordable and permanently-affordable homes, and the construction of less resource-intensive, more community- and family-oriented housing choices close to transit.
Deconstruction Policy 411
A few other cities have recently adopted deconstruction requirements for older homes: Vancouver, BC’s Green Demolition Bylaw requires a minimum of 75% of the demolition waste from homes built before 1940 to be reused or recycled. In 2014, Cook County, IL, passed a Demolition Debris Diversion Ordinance to help further the county’s zero waste goals, which requires that 70% of debris for all demolition projects be recycled, and that residential properties also divert 5% of debris for re-use. Boulder, CO’s BuildSmart code outlaws traditional demolition outright, requiring a Deconstruction Plan, a Recycling Plan, multiple inspections, and final verification and reporting for all buildings being fully or partially removed. Benchmarks for municipality’s deconstruction requirements are determined by a number of considerations, chiefly among them (1) typical building materials and techniques that were utilized at the time of construction, and (2) the local deconstruction industry’s capacity to absorb new business and successfully handle all projects without huge delays.
This October, Portland will follow suit. On February 17, 2016, Portland City Council unanimously approved a resolution directing the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability to develop code language that will require projects seeking a demolition permit for a one- or two-family structure (house or duplex) to fully deconstruct if that structure (1) was built in 1916 or earlier, or (2) is designated a historic resource. These requirements will likely also ramp up as the workforce trained to deconstruct here in the Portland metro area grows.
Neighbors bemoan the demolition of older homes and the scale of new ones – and worry for the character of their neighborhoods. Demographers see the trend toward more and smaller households – and wonder where they’ll be able to find enough right-sized and affordable homes. Planners recognize that we can’t rely only on high density centers and corridors to accommodate all expected new residents; neighborhoods will need to play a role too. Environmentalists know that space-efficient housing (ie. less square footage per person) is the most important thing we can do for our climate in the residential sector, yet average new home sizes are back up to record levels. And EVERYONE is concerned by rising housing costs, displacement, and the prospect that Portland’s real estate might be heading in the direction of Seattle and San Francisco.
We’ll need help from planners to address problems this large, dire and urgent. Fortunately, there are several regulatory changes that would support traditional neighborhoods and simultaneously open the door for the creation of market-based affordable housing. Let’s prioritize this for the next zoning code update package Portland takes on. If we’re going to avoid the fate of the eight major US cities with significantly higher housing costs than ours, now’s the time to act.
1. Allow internal conversions of older homes to 2 or more units in single dwelling zones, so long as their exterior is minimally altered and they retain their single dwelling appearance. The zoning code already allows this for homes on the state historic register. That same provision could be extended to any home over a certain age (say, 80 years old). This would allow existing housing stock to be adapted to changing market demand and reduce market pressure to demolish well-built older homes.
2. Support small house ‘Pocket Neighborhood‘ or ‘cottage cluster’ development by offering density bonuses in subdivisions or planned developments in exchange for house size and bulk limits. This would provide a financially feasible way for developers to build right-sized homes for smaller households and support community-oriented site plans.
3. Support Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) as a popular, affordable, flexible, and discreet form of in-fill housing. This can be done by:
- Allowing ADUs to meet community design standards instead of matching the design of the existing house
- Waiving compatibility requirements for ADUs under a certain size or that are fully accessible
- Allowing one ADU per home in single lot, planned developments. This would facilitate site plans for larger residential lots that support community and preserve existing homes & trees.
- Allowing both an internal and detached ADU on a single residential lot, as done in Vancouver, BC. With this, perhaps the 2nd ADU would trigger an off-street parking space requirement
- And if there’s no existing house on the property, why not allow someone to build 3 ADUs instead? Each would have to meet the height and size requirements of ADUs, so the total living area would be under 2,400 square feet. That’s about the size of the big new house that would otherwise have been built on the lot, but the shorter height and smaller bulk of ADUs might fit in better.
4. Support other “Missing Middle” housing types. Large single family homes and 4+ story apartments are sprouting up all over town, but how about anything in-between? Portland’s walkable neighborhoods have a rich history of affordable and beautiful small plexes, courtyard apts, internally converted large homes, townhomes… that are rarely ever built today. Let’s (re)introduce these “Missing Middle” housing types that provide the affordable, right-sized, human-scale housing we so need.
5. Remove the definition of ‘household’ from the zoning code to open up spare rooms for occupancy in larger homes. This would legalize ‘co-living‘ and other innovative, community-oriented housing models being pioneered in the Bay Area. It would also get our zoning code out of the “who’s married to whom” and “who’s living with whom” business. We’d rely instead on existing noise, nuisance and building code regulations to address life safety and community impact concerns associated with larger households.
6. Implement Inclusionary Zoning in Portland (after the state does their part). Inclusionary zoning is a common land use tool, used by hundreds of jurisdictions across the country to ensure that developers integrate affordable housing into larger residential developments. Unfortunately, Oregon is one of 2 states in the US (the other is Texas) that bans the practice. There’s a decent chance our state legislature will remove the ban this session. Given Portland’s hot housing market, rising home prices, and scarcity of public funds to buy down the cost of housing for lower income residents, this could be a great tool for getting the private market to build affordable housing in both neighborhoods-scale and higher density developments. If it’s looking promising that the ban will be lifted, Portland should immediately start writing code to match this tool to our immediate needs for affordable housing.
7. Allow a second home to be built on the same lot as an older home, so long as the existing home is preserved and the combined square footage of both homes is no more than the size of an average new home (about 2,400 square feet). This would be a way to preserve smaller old homes and support the creation of small and more affordable new ones.
8. Scale system development charges (SDCs) based on home size instead of the current situation, where builders pay identical SDCs for 1,000 or 5,000 square foot homes. Scaling should be revenue-neutral, meaning that SDCs would be reduced for smaller homes and increased for larger ones. This will remove a significant (and perverse) incentive to build larger, more expensive new homes.
9. Expand the availability of density transfers in residential zones. Density transfers are a great tool for letting the private market re-allocate density that would otherwise go un-used. Portland currently allows FAR and density transfers in multi-dwelling zones, but only between properties on the same block or immediately across the street from one another. By expanding the transfer range and/or extending this tool to single dwelling zones, we could capture more un-used density in the future.
10. Increase residential densities along the perimeters of urban parks well served by transit. Portlanders love their awesome parks. Why do we let so few people live next to them? When Portland makes major public investments in transit corridors, we update zoning to allow more people to live nearby. We should do the same for urban parks over a certain size. In addition to letting more people live within easy walking distance, this can increase safety by having more eyes-on-the-park and help meet equity goals by creating the opportunity for smaller and less expensive homes right next to them.
11. Create a legal path for tiny homes. OK, this one might piss off a few neighbors. But it shouldn’t, given the aesthetic pass we grant to thousands of (much uglier) Tuff Sheds and other un-permitted small structures in back yards all over the city. Tiny homes would need to meet standard sanitary and life safety standards, could be on wheels or ‘ground bound’, could be on their own or in small community pods, and would typically share a lot with a primary dwelling. Codes could regulate design, placement, and buffering – and ensure that they’re safer than most older homes (which, we should remember, often quite legally have knob-and-tube wiring, single pane windows, no insulation…). A more detailed proposal can be found here.
Here’s a short description of a new mortgage product feature Fannie Mae and/or Freddie Mac could offer that would create new home ownership opportunities for non-traditional buyer groups and help people in certain situations (ie. divorce; shifting family composition…) stay in their homes. And although this product would be beneficial in any part of the housing cycle, it would be especially valuable in today’s era of rising interest rates.
For a fee, lenders would release up to 50% of borrower from their mortgage obligations and simultaneously substitute in new borrower(s) of equal or stronger financial capacity without changing any terms of the mortgage (ie. interest rate, term…). The program could be structured to either re-underwrite the entire borrower group or just the ‘substitute’ borrower(s). In either case, ownership interest in the property would simultaneously transition to the revised set of borrowers. This would not be deemed an Assignment or Assumption under the GSE guidelines.
Fees for this service would cover underwriting and processing, and should be significantly lower than the cost of a full refinance since there would be no need to originate a new loan or re-appraise the property.
Partial release and substitutions would provide simpler, faster, and less expensive alternatives to refinancing or sale in multiple residential real estate situations, including:
- Partial turnover of ownership in shared homes purchased with traditional mortgage financing
- When a couple with a joint mortgage separates and one member desires to remain in the house with a new housemate/borrower
- When borrowers at risk of default or foreclosure could hold onto their property by bringing on an additional or substitute owner/borrower with stronger credit
- Creating a way out for a co-borrower (ie. Guarantor) on a home purchase after the primary borrower’s financial capacity improves sufficiently and/or a new co-borrower with suitable financial capacity agrees to take on that responsibility.
- Standard 1st lien position mortgages on 1-4 unit properties
- Optimal: A partial release and substitution feature would be offered as an option on existing and new mortgages.
- Alternative: New mortgage products with this feature would be created, and only such mortgages would be eligible for full or partial assumption.
- Partial Release, Substitution, and Consent Agreement. This transfers all responsibilities within the original mortgage loan documents from the exiting borrower(s) to the substitute borrower(s). It would also release exiting borrower(s) from all liabilities related to the original mortgage.
- Deed to re-title of the property
- HUD-1 or other settlement statement and tax reporting documentation
- At application, lender would collect payment to cover underwriting costs.
- At closing, lender would collect payment for documentation and processing costs. Additional closing costs may include escrow, title, and recording fees.
 For the purpose of this summary, it’s assumed that all borrowers appear on the title, as is common in mortgage lending. However, similar forms of this proposal could apply to the substitution of Guarantors, Co-Signors, or Non-Occupant Co-Borrowers.
That’s a mouthful! I’ll try and unpack this into morsel sized bites…
Unfortunately, the State of Oregon outlaws inclusionary zoning policies, which would allow cities to require new residential developments over a certain size to include a small percentage of affordable homes.
But what if socially conscious investors provided relatively inexpensive financing for new developments in exchange for the voluntary provision of a specified percentage of permanently affordable homes? Such funding could help developers who want to produce affordable homes within larger developments to do so – even without a zoning requirement.
How it could work:
Investors would make simple interest loans for terms that might range from 18 months (construction financing) to 5 years (land banking). If the developer meets the specified affordability target, investors would receive interest income and achieve the social benefit of creating permanently affordable homes in what otherwise would be entirely market rate developments. If the developer fails to achieve the affordability target (ie. sells all the homes for market rate), investors would get their interest plus a predetermined percentage of developer profits. The intent wouldn’t be for this to ever happen; it’s just a way to ensure the developer wouldn’t use the low interest funds and not follow through with their part of the deal.
Interest rates would be more than investors might otherwise receive from traditional conservative investments (ie. CDs), but less than they’d get for ‘hard money’ lending. A middle ground might be 5% interest for 1st position loans or 6% for 2nd position loans (subordinate to a construction loan). Loans could be secured by real property. Investors would need to either be accredited or friends & family of the developer to comply with security regulations. Direct public offerings, allowed through recent crowdfunding legislation, might also be an option.
Savings from lower financing costs alone would likely be insufficient to meet affordability targets. So it would be incumbent on the developer to supplement with some combination of (1) cross-subsidization from market units within the development (which is equivalent to the developer donating back in a portion of their fee) and (2) public resources available in the local community (ie. impact fee waivers, limited tax abatements, tax increment funding…). For this proposal to be compelling, it would be important for it to achieve affordability with fewer public resources per-unit than would otherwise be required.
Would investors go for this?
I don’t know, but I suspect quite a few would. There are lots of people with money reluctantly invested in stocks & bonds who would rather have it elsewhere. This model would afford them a more local and tangible way to place their funds, where they’d both earn a reasonable interest return and contribute towards the creation of permanently affordable housing in their community.
Would developers go for this?
Once again, I’m not sure. But I’d give it a whirl for projects big enough to support some cross-subsidization and with sufficiently high project financing costs that reduced interest rates would yield real project cost savings.
Real life prospects:
This model is most likely to work for developers who are already inclined to include affordable homes within their developments and are looking for a way to make this more financially feasible. For me, the project size threshold for this to work would be about 15 homes. Based on numbers I’ve been running for two new communities Orange Splot now has in the design phase, I think we could likely get at least 2 permanently affordable homes within a 15-home development and at least 3 permanently affordable homes within a (separate) ~20-home development. Friendly construction financing, as described above, would be very helpful in being able to achieve affordability within each of these developments that would otherwise be entirely market-rate.
Separately, I’m aware of 1-2 other properties for which friendly acquisition financing would mean we could get new, similarly-sized, projects into the pipeline – each with an inclusionary zoning commitment.
If you’re an investor out there with interest in this model, let me know. Perhaps we can team up on some projects. And if you’re another developer who’d like to explore the idea of using friendly financing to get affordability into your projects, I’d love to collaborate to work out the details. One way or another, I hope we can link up socially conscious investors with developers as we wait (and push) for rule changes at the state level to allow inclusionary zoning into our affordable housing toolbox.
With several awesome helpers, I’ll be leading a bike tour, scavenger hunt and photo-inventory of “Missing Middle” housing types as part of Pedalpalooza 2015. Here’s a link to this particular ride, with details below.
Date & Time: Sunday, June 14th 3:00pm, ’til ~5pm; chance for food/hang-out afterwards
Short Description: Large single family homes and 4+ story apartments are sprouting up all over town, but how about anything in-between? Portland has a rich history of affordable and beautiful small plexes, courtyard apts, internally converted large homes, townhomes… that are rarely ever built today. Join us to tour, scavenger-hunt, and photo-document these Missing Middle housing types – and learn what it’ll take to re-introduce them. Bring a photo-taking device, pen & paper. We’ll end up at an inner-SE spot where those interested can share a bite to eat.
Some of Portland’s most beloved and affordable housing types include courtyard clusters, duplexes, triplexes, quads, bungalow courts, townhomes, and internally divided large homes. In scale, these traditional housing types fall between single-family homes and 4-story apartments. They were reasonably common in close-in neighborhoods until WWII, and are exactly what we need with today’s smaller households, escalating home prices, and strong demand for walkable and vibrant neighborhoods. But they are rarely if ever built today.
To expand our housing pallet beyond large single family homes and 4+ story apartment buildings, we need to create a more friendly regulatory environment (ie. zoning code changes) for ‘Missing Middle’ housing types and remind ourselves of their potential to meet the needs of moderate income Portland households. We’ve already made significant headway at re-introducing accessory dwelling units – through a combination of tours, consumer education, and regulatory changes. This ride will (re)introduce participants to ‘Missing Middle’ housing types as an initial step to making them more available here in Portland.
We’ll meet at Colonel Summers Park, then bike as a group to visit some prime examples of Missing Middle housing. Then we’ll split into smaller groups for a scavenger hunt to find and photo-document additional examples . Finally, we’ll reconvene to share images, compare notes, and have a bite to eat for those interested.
Check out Daniel Parolek’s article on Missing Middle housing and the website he set up to share more information at www.missingmiddlehousing.com.
Here’s a short piece I wrote that was recently featured in the American Institute of Architect’s “Blueprints for Senior Living” on-line magazine. The theme for this issue was “Intergenerational Solutions.” Click here for the full article.
Friends of All Ages: Life in Multigenerational Communities
By Eli Spevak – Seniors who relish the calm of the empty nest have plenty of age-restricted housing options available. Yet many baby boomers are exploring alternative housing types where they can live in community with young families. New parents (whose own families may live out of state) often welcome the support, wisdom and relative calm that comes from having elders living nearby.
Thanks to several meetings and constructive discussions with neighbors and policy makers on my proposal to bump up density around the borders of neighborhood parks, I’ve crafted this updated proposal for inclusion in Portland’s Comprehensive Plan:
(1) The Map
- Direct Planning staff to propose density increases from single family to low level multifamily (R2 or R1) zoning along borders of ~8 large neighborhood parks with great transit access already identified through staff’s internal review. In some cases, this zoning boost would simply bring existing multifamily development into compliance.
- Allow neighborhood groups or large land owners of property abutting active neighborhood parks to ‘opt in’ for density increases along park borders. There might not be much time for this left in the current process, but it would support implementation in situations unlikely to be contentious.
(2) The Text
- Add a policy to increase allowable residential densities for properties abutting neighborhood parks and other active gathering spaces. Specifically, direct Portland’s Planning Dept. to review zoning around the perimeter of all new neighborhood parks while those parks are under development. Timing of zoning change implementation should be coordinated with opening of the new park.
One motivational example of why we need to be thinking more about park-oriented development:
Portland is about to finish constructing Kʰunamokwst Park near where I live. It’s looking beautiful and will be an awesome addition to the neighborhood, conveniently less than a block from Rigler Elementary School. Immediately to the east is a church and parking lot on a 1.6 acre parcel, zoned for low density residential homes (R7h). I know nothing of the church’s plans. But if it should ever close or move, it would be a total shame from both an equity and livability perspective to see a few large, inevitably expensive, homes on large lots built there, right next to this great park, as would happen under current zoning. And this is for a relatively small park with not particularly good public transit access. Pasted below are a couple screen shots for reference. With all the energy going into designing and building this park, more people at a wider range of incomes should have the chance to live next to it!
The comprehensive planning process is one of our few opportunities to be proactive in situations like this. I hope Portland will use this lens when reviewing zoning around other neighborhood parks in our great system.
My co-editors (Martin Brown and Kol Peterson) at AccessoryDwellings.org and I have been learning a lot about ADU codes and development over the past couple years. We’ve noticed that:
- Lots of ADU codes that were adopted throughout the country 10-15 years ago are barely getting used; and
- Many communities that have never legalized ADUs are thinking of doing so, often in response to affordability challenges and a trend towards smaller household sizes.
In response, we dove in and wrote a new model code for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) that’s just been released.
If ADUs are not allowed where you live (or are technically legal but no one’s building them), this can be adopted to bring these discreet, affordable, environmentally friendly little homes to your town.
Proposal. Create a legal path for the occupancy of small accessory structures or homes-on-wheels that meet sanitary and life safety requirements drawn from Portland’s Property Maintenance code and Oregon Landlord-Tenant law. To be legally occupied, a tiny home would have to pass a ‘habitability’ inspection and receive a certificate of occupancy.
Motivation. This proposal would legalize new forms of small, safe, low-cost, environmentally friendly, and discreet housing that further important city goals, including:
- Providing affordable rental opportunities for homeless and/or low-income residents requiring little or no public subsidy;
- Supporting extended family and other community living situations that don’t always fit well within traditional single family homes;
- Generating construction jobs to build tiny homes; and
- Creating opportunities for people to live in the City of Portland with much smaller environmental footprints than is achievable through more traditional residential development forms.
Context: Building vs. Property Maintenance Codes. City building codes must be met at the time a home is built. Once constructed, the applicable code becomes the property maintenance code, which focuses on performance measures (ie. ability to heat them, ingress/egress, access to hot and cold water…) that can be evaluated without opening up and inspecting hidden parts of the building’s structure and envelop. The vast majority of homes in Portland, including nearly every stately old home in close-in neighborhoods, would not meet today’s building codes. Yet they are legally habitable because they comply with the property maintenance code. This proposal would allow the habitation of new and converted structures that meet the property maintenance code and other standards, but not necessarily today’s building code.
1. Small Accessory Structures. In residential zones within the City of Portland, building code allows the construction of accessory structures up to 200 square feet in size and up to 10’ tall without building permits. Examples include garden sheds, play houses, meditation rooms, dog houses and saunas. Electricity and plumbing can legally be extended to these buildings so long as the installer obtains trade permits and gets the work inspected. The building code does not, however, allow such buildings to be used for ‘habitable’ purposes. This proposal would allow for the habitation of these structures if they meet specific performance standards. It would not extend to larger accessory structures for which building permits are required.
2. Homes on Wheels. Residential zones also allow for the parking of vehicles, including homes on wheels. These are not technically buildings, so are not covered by the building code. They can legally be used for many of the same purposes described above for small accessory structures. But there are currently a couple provisions in the property maintenance code (ie. 29.50.050 – Illegal Residential Occupancy, 29.20.010.J – Disabled Vehicles, …) that disallow them or prohibit them from being used for ‘habitable’ purposes. This proposal would create an allowance within the maintenance code for the habitation of these structures if they meet specific performance standards.
Permitting Mechanism. Either of the above structure types could be granted a certificate of occupancy (C. of O.) by meeting specific conditions of approval. It would be the property owner’s responsibility to request and pay for this inspection. Re-inspection would only be required if a tiny home gets moved to a different property, due to potential changes in the way utility connections are handled. Once a C. of O. is granted, code compliance would be handled in the same way as it is for any home.
Conditions of Approval. Following is a sample list of standards, plucked in part from Portland’s Property Maintenance code, Zoning Code, Building Code, and Oregon Landlord-Tenant law. Something like this could be used as a habitability inspection check-list that would need to be signed off in order to provide a C. of O.
Back in 2007, I used the condominium legal structure in order to sell ADUs independently from the primary dwellings on two side-by-side lots for the Sabin Green development. I thought at the time that this might become a more common development model, as lot & home prices increased in close-in neighborhoods and undeveloped side yards became increasingly scarce.
It look longer than I thought. But finally, one recession and 7 years later, another project is using this model and I’m getting inquiries left and right about how the mechanics work to condo-ize ADUs. I’ve just written up an overview of how the process works, which is posted here on the www.accessorydwellings.org website. Enjoy!
(Printed in the Oregonian as “Portland should increase residential density around parks” on 9/14/14)
When Portland makes major public investments in transit corridors, we update zoning to allow more people to live nearby. With neighborhood parks? Apparently not.
Portland’s Comprehensive Plan update gives us a rare chance to consider boosting allowable residential densities along our park perimeters. This could be achieved through a simple bump-up from single dwelling zones to low-density multi-dwelling zones. Logical exceptions could be made for very small parks, situations where park fences block direct access from adjoining parcels, and sensitive natural areas.
In addition to letting more people to live next to parks, this change could increase park safety by having more peoples’ eyes on them. It could help meet equity goals by creating the opportunity for smaller and less expensive homes near parks. And parks offer adjoining property owners supplemental open space and visual expanse, even if personal yards are modest in size.
When parks and residential developments are designed concurrently, increasing residential densities along their edges is common practice. McCoy Park at the heart of New Columbia in North Portland is one local example. There, higher density multifamily buildings surround the park, dropping down to less dense detached homes one-half to a full block from the park edge.
But with older parks, the story is quite different. Using the recently released comprehensive plan’s Map App, I did a quick review of zoning along the perimeters of all 24 parks with playgrounds in NE Portland and found that the average park in this group is a little over 70% surrounded by single dwelling zoning. Half of these parks are entirely surrounded by single dwelling zones (including Grant, King School, Knott, Merrifield, Rose City, Wellington, and Wilshire). Three quarters are at least 70% surrounded (including Alberta, Argay, Fernhill, Irving and Woodlawn). Just four parks are entirely surrounded by non-single dwelling zoning (Buckman Field, Mallory Meadows, Montavilla and Oregon). And when brand new parks are created (such as Khunamokwst Park in Cully, now under construction), abutting properties are rarely re-zoned. All of this seems like a missed opportunity to increase the public value of our park system.
This idea hasn’t (yet) made its way into the comprehensive plan map, despite being suggested by the Residential Development and Compatibility Policy Expert Group well over a year ago and studied in-house by bureau planners. Since city-wide reviews of zoning maps are exceedingly rare, the only practical chance to address this issue for the next couple decades is probably through the comprehensive planning process now underway. To weigh in, go to http://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/497622.
Draft Comprehensive Plan Goal 8.H calls for “All Portlanders [to] have safe, convenient, and equitable access to high-quality parks, natural areas, and recreational opportunities in their daily lives…” Two complimentary ways of achieving this goal are to:
- Create and maintain a wonderful system of parks and natural areas; and
- Create opportunities for people to live near them.
We already do a pretty good job at the first. Now, let’s work on the second.
Here are a few examples of parks largely surrounded by single dwelling zones (yellow):
Want to build a small structure on your Portland property? You’re definitely not alone. Depending on the structure size, construction type and use, it could be classified in various ways. This table covers the basics for:
- Accessory dwelling units (detached fully functional small homes)
- Detached bedrooms (habitable accessory structures)
- Garages, artist/yoga studios… (permitted accessory structures); and
- Storage sheds, chicken coops, kid’s forts, greenhouses… (unpermitted accessory structures)
If you’re interested in homes-on-wheels, look for a future post on applicable Portland regulations soon.
Disclaimer: This guide is not authoritative, is overly simplified in places, and should not be relied on for accuracy. To get the full scoop, read up on the zoning and building codes directly and/or consult with Bureau of Development Services staff on the 1st floor of the 1900 SW 4th Ave. building in downtown Portland.
 Per Chapter 29.10 Definitions, “Habitable room or space is a structure for living, sleeping, eating or cooking. Bathrooms, toilet compartments, closets, halls, storage or utility space, and similar areas are not considered habitable space.”
 If plans for a habitable, detached accessory structure suggest the potential for that the structure to be used as an independent dwelling, the city may require the applicant to sign and record a ‘Second Sink Agreement’ against the property.
 For gable roofs, height is measured to the mid-point of the gable
 Maximum household size, per ‘definitions’ section of the zoning code: “One or more persons related by blood, marriage, legal adoption or guardianship, plus not more than 5 additional persons, who live together in one dwelling unit; or one or more handicapped persons as defined in the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, plus not more than 5 additional persons, who live together in one dwelling unit.”
- Certain zoning code requirements, including setbacks, lot coverage, size limits, and design standards, can sometimes be modified through a zoning adjustment process. See section 33.805 of the zoning code or contact BDS staff for additional information.
- There is wide latitude in building methods and materials for foundations, walls, roofs… in unpermitted structures. However, if a structure is not permitted initially, subsequent conversion to a different use for which a permit is required (such as a habitable structure) could be difficult or impossible, depending on the original building methods and materials used.
- Portland’s Zoning Code
- Code guide for conversions of garages or attics to habitable use
- “Do I Need a Permit for my Project?” brochure
(Printed in the Portland Tribune as “My View: New ideas solve Portland housing needs” on 4/24/14)
Why are so many big, bulky new homes popping up in neighborhoods across Portland? This is a symptom of developers responding to rules put in place a generation ago.
As demographic shifts yield smaller households and housing costs climb once again, an increasing number of Portlanders don’t need and can’t afford the typically sized home. I believe it’s high time to address the mismatch between the types of homes encouraged by our codes and the needs of real people who live here.
Fortunately, there are some simple ways Portland can update its rules in single dwelling zones to meet the needs of smaller households, make more efficient use of existing housing stock and infrastructure, create more market-based affordable housing, support shared housing models, and decrease per-person carbon footprints – all without compromising the character of these neighborhoods.
Here are some ideas:
1. Support Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) as an affordable, flexible, and discreet form of in-fill housing. This can be done by allowing ADUs to meet community design standards instead of matching the design of the existing house; waiving compatibility requirements entirely for ADUs under a certain size; allowing one ADU per house in planned developments; and 2 ADUs on a single lot as done in Vancouver, BC, where both an internal ‘secondary suite’ and detached ‘laneway house’ are permitted on a single residential lot, subject to total square foot limits.
2. Allow internal conversions of older houses to 2 or more units in single dwelling zones, so long as the house retains its single dwelling appearance and other requirements are met. This would allow existing housing stock to be adapted to changing market demand and reduce market pressure to demolish well-built older homes. Before Portland’s 1959 zoning code update, such conversions were allowed in many more close-in neighborhoods than would be legal today.
3. Support small house ‘Pocket Neighborhood‘ or ‘cottage cluster’ development, as allowed in Wood Village, OR and several Washington cities, by offering density bonuses in subdivisions or planned developments in exchange for house size and bulk limits. This would provide a financially feasible way for developers to build right-sized homes for smaller households.
4. Get Portland out of the “who’s married to whom” business by removing archaic household definitions from the zoning code (as Bend, OR did). This would open up spare rooms for occupancy in large homes. Rely instead on existing noise, nuisance and building code regulations to address life safety and community impact concerns associated with larger households.
5. Scale system development charges (SDCs) based on home size instead of the current situation in Portland, where builders pay identical SDCs for 1,000 or 5,000 square foot homes.
6. Create a legal path for the occupancy of tiny homes-on-wheels that are well-designed & built, discreetly located, and meet sanitary and life safety requirements of typical homes.
The evolution of our built environment is heavily influenced by local government regulations. For demographic, affordability, and environmental reasons, the time is right to update these rules and expand our palette of housing choices. Let’s get to it!
Winter is a great time to dream and scheme about summertime adventures. Over the past several years, some friends and I have gone on over a dozen of what I call ‘Burrito Night Hikes’ around Portland, OR. Here’s how they work:
- Go mid-week, leaving by ~6pm and getting back in time for work the next day (maybe an hour late to avoid traffic). Friday and Saturday nights work fine too, although there’s usually more company on the trail.
- Hike at the most stunning times of day with almost no one else around – on trails that are typically teeming with dayhikers.
- Sleep out under the stars, wherever along the trail you like.
- Carry just a light weight day pack and eat a yummy dinner at your selected spot. No cooking required!
- Leave town within half an hour of deciding to Get-out-of-Dodge.
Either as a solitary retreat or as an opportunity to re-connect with a close friend, these trips have been a wonderful way to slip in a mid-week nature fix plus some exercise when the days get long and the weather forecast is rain-free.
I try and select destinations with relatively short drives to the trailhead, beautiful sleeping spots, and hiking distances of no more than a couple hours each way. Since I leave no more trace than a dayhiker, I haven’t spent time figuring out if it’s technically legal to sleep out under the stars at each location. I’ll leave that to someone else. In the meantime, I just go.
- Although virtually no planning is required, it’s always advisable to tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll get back
- Make it easy on yourself. Check the forecast and go when there’s no chance of precipitation
- Bring basic safety gear, including water, flashlight, warm clothes, and bug protection (especially important early in the season)
- For sleeping, I usually just bring a sleeping pad and light sleeping bag
- Hike trails you’re familiar with
- I call them “Burrito Night Hikes” because I started off just grabbing a burrito on my way out of town from a local taqueria. Since then, I’ve strayed into other easy-to-grab meals like New Seasons sandwiches and fruit/bagel for breakfast the next morning.
- Bring a parking pass (ie. NW Forest Pass) if you’ll need it because ranger stations are unlikely to be open to buy permits en-route
- Only attempt trips within your comfort and experience level. Consider going with a friend initially if you don’t have prior experience with solo backpacking.
Looking for ideas? Here are some past Burrito Night Hike destinations. Future posts will contain trip pointers, reviews, and photos:
- Dog Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge (Eli solo)
- Past Angel’s Rest in the Columbia River Gorge (Eli solo)
- Upper Salmon-River Trail near Zigzag, OR (Eli solo: June 27, 2013)
- Silver Star Mountain in SW Washington (Eli and Ted L.)
- McNeal Point on Mt. Hood (Eli solo: Sept. 28-29, 2012)
- Mt. Tabor in Portland, OR (Eli solo)
- Devil’s Peak outside of Zig Zag (Eli solo and w/ others)
- Cape Horn in SW Washington (Eli and Jim W)
- Table Rock in Clackamas County (Jim W. solo)
- Hunchback Mountain (Jim W. solo)
- Grassy Knoll on the WA side of the Columbia River Gorge (Eli, Jim W., Jim L.)
- Lookout Mountain in the Badger Creek Wilderness just east of Mt. Hood (Eli solo, w/ others)
- Benson Plateau in the Columbia Gorge via the Ruckle Creek Trail (Eli solo)
Special thanks to Jim Waigand for dreaming up and taking the lead on several of these trips.
Got your own suggestions? Post a comment below!
First time homebuyers are craving better financial models to collectively purchase shared homes or small plexes, especially in markets where home prices are once again climbing. Although FHA, Freddie Mae and Fannie Mae do a great job of supporting initial purchases by small groups of buyers, none of them can accommodate any shifting in the original borrower group over time. This limitation, unfortunately, causes many groups to abandon the idea of teaming up to purchase homes in the first place. The same limitation also forces the (expensive) refinancing or sale of many homes owned by traditional households following divorce or the death of a family member.
One solution would be to allow “Partial Assumption” of standard mortgage loans. This would let one of the borrowers on a loan assign all of his/her obligations to a new borrower of equal or stronger financial capacity – without changing any other terms of the loan. Accompanying fees would cover underwriting and processing costs, but should be significantly less than the cost of a full refinance.
Can “Partial Assumption” become a standard feature of mortgage loans? I haven’t yet uncovered a reason why not. In the mean time, here’s some background on the underlying issue and some attempts (mostly limited or unsuccessful) thus far at solving it.
It happens a lot
A group of friends buys a house or small plex together. Everyone contributes towards the downpayment, signs for the loan, and pools funds to make the monthly mortgage payments. Eventually, someone moves out and a new person moves in, who takes on a portion of the mortgage (either as rent to the exiting member or as part of the resident group’s pooled funds). Turnover like this might happen a couple more times. Eventually one of the original residents/borrowers who’s moved out decides he or she would like to buy their own home. But to do so, they need out of their commitments under the shared mortgage. To achieve this, those who remain have to either sell or refinance the property. If they sell, remaining group members must disband. If they refinance, they’re faced with all the costs of a new loan and a new (potentially higher) interest rate. Either way, it’s going to be a tough and expensive transition for all involved.
More significantly, the prospect of this course of events dissuades countless folks from buying homes or plexes together in the first place, even though doing so would be an affordable, socially appealing, stable, and tax-beneficial alternative to renting. As young people continue to seek ownership opportunities in cities where single family home prices exceed what they can hope to afford, demand for shared ownership models that really work will only increase.
Is there a less disruptive or expensive way to handle inevitable turnover in small shared housing arrangements? If such a legal structure and/or loan product existed, it would also be beneficial in other instances where household configurations evolve over time (ie. through divorce, death of a family member…). Here are some possible approaches.
Alternative borrowing entities
One idea that’s been tried is to form a limited liability company (LLC) to own the property and be the legal borrower. Residents are LLC members and pitch in rent to the LLC, which in turn makes the mortgage payment. When someone moves out, they can sell their ownership stake in the LLC to a new resident (presumably for something like their portion of the downpayment), and the new resident takes over the monthly rent obligation.
Unfortunately, this approach fails to solve the core problem. Although the members of the borrowing LLC can turn over, the mortgage lender will have required personal guarantees of the LLC from the original group of residents. This lender requirement makes a lot of sense, since the LLC just sprung into existence and has no track record of its own to be a deemed a reliable borrower. Original guarantors don’t get off the hook to the lender by exiting the LLC, so they remain entangled with the property, limiting their ability to obtain financing elsewhere.
Two other downsides of this model are: (1) lenders charge higher interest rates on loans to LLCs than they do to owner-occupant borrowers, and (2) it’s complicated or impossible to pass through the mortgage interest deduction to residents with this structure.
I should note that the problems with the LLC-as-borrower approach, described above, also apply to other borrower entity types (ie. cooperative or non-profit corporation).
Converting a small plex into separate pieces of real property through the condominium conversion process solves the turnover problem by allowing each unit owner to obtain mortgage financing just for their unit. Residents can sell units independently from one another and purchasers can obtain their own, independent financing.
Condo conversions aren’t easy or cheap, since they require professional services of attorneys, surveyors, reserve analysis experts… which can cost $20K+. They work for converting plexes to self-contained units, but not for shared ownership of larger homes (Actually, such homes could technically be divided into condos. But I doubt a lender would be comfortable relying on a portion of a group house as collateral for a mortgage loan). Finally, some jurisdictions place restrictions on conversions. Examples include San Francisco’s strict lottery and multiple cities’ requirements to bring buildings up to current codes as a condition of conversion.
In San Francisco, it’s increasingly common for two or more people to purchase small, multi-unit buildings as Tenants In Common (TIC). This is a form of fractional ownership, and financing is available either as a group TIC loan secured by the entire property or as separate Fractional TIC loans secured solely by each party’s fractional interest in the property (and accompanying right to occupy one of the units). Here’s a nice summary of how these loan products work.
Fractional TIC loans solve the fundamental turnover problem described above. However, they are only availability in a few markets (San Francisco, CA, others?), where there is deep enough demand and enough comps to get lenders interested and comfortable. Fees are higher than for typical owner-occupied loans; only a few lenders make these loans; and fixed terms don’t extend beyond 7-year ARMs.
A traditional 1-4 unit mortgage lender could charge a ‘partial assumption’ fee for an exiting borrower to assign all of his/her obligations under the loan to a new ‘replacement’ borrower. The new borrower would presumably need to be at least as strong, financially, as the one being replaced. The lender’s fee would cover underwriting of the ‘replacement’ borrower, processing of requisite paperwork, and overhead & profit. All the loan terms (ie. interest rate, term…) could remain unchanged.
This approach would work both for single family homes and 2-4 unit plexes. Logically, the partial assumption fee should be significantly lower than the cost of a full loan refinancing because there would be no need to re-evaluate the value of the property (ie. appraisal), assess the financial strength of the remaining borrower(s), or create and document an entirely new loan. Finally, this should be appealing to lenders because the collective borrower strength would be equal to or greater than what it was prior to the partial assignment.
If there’s a good reason this approach couldn’t work, I haven’t found it yet. So for now, I’m interested in digging in a bit deeper. First step: check in with FHA, which already offers assumable mortgage loans, to see if they’d consider offering something like this.