Opinion piece on Residential Infill Project

by | Jul 30, 2016

My View: Infill project a good first step on housing

      (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 They’re outdated for today’s families and their needs.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.