New Ideas to Meet Portland’s Housing Needs

by | Apr 24, 2014

(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!