By Karen Hery
There’s a building boom going on in the inner SE. It’s not a sudden surge in box stores or single family homes, not a slew of new condos like the last building boom in 2008-2009. Apartment buildings, rising up in response to the last recession are reshaping business districts, our skyline, the availability of on-street parking and perhaps even the average age and life stage of inner SE residents.
All along Division in the 30’s and 40’s there are mixed retail and apartment buildings just completed or in construction resulting in over 340 new units – mostly loft and one bedroom apartments.
Work recently began for 100 new units along César E. Chávez Blvd. The Burnside Bridgehead is poised to become the home of several large tower apartment complexes creating another 500+ units in the next few years.
We can grouse all we want about the impact this many units will ultimately have on traffic and parking on nearby streets but some nearby residents have done more than just complain over coffee.
A determined group of neighbors living around Division St. formed the Richmond Neighbors for Responsible Growth and have lobbied successfully for changes to city code. Provisions that had been on the books since the eighties allowed for apartment buildings to be built in major transit zones without any off-street parking. Code amendments that took effect last May are, at least, as the boom rolls on, now requiring some amount of off-street parking, still averaging less than one space per unit.
Katie Parsons, 30 years old and recently returned to Oregon after a twelve year stint in NY City and Columbus Ohio, lives in one of the no off-street parking buildings completed on Division St. When she and her 31 year old husband toured the 600 foot split loft they moved into 3 months ago, they were told that they should be able to park within a one and one half block radius of their new home.
That’s true for now she says as two even larger apartment complexes right across the street finish construction. Katie and her husband own two cars, but really only use one and are planning to sell the other in the new year. Even with parking challenges, Katie’s happy to be in what she describes as a “neighborhood with lots of energy”. She points proudly to the LEED green building certification plaque on the side of the building and describes her neighbors as 25-35 year old working professionals without kids and with lots of pets.
She expects to move out in a few years to buy a home, but hopes to never end up in the suburbs and worries about whether or not she’ll be able to afford to buy one of the inner city places she already loves.
Renters, homeowners, builders, property managers and investors are all eager to see how much rents will go down and vacancies will go up as more and more apartment units come on-line.
“The boom never ends until it gets overbuilt,” says Patrick Barry, one of the apartment appraisal specialists at Mark D. Barry & Associates. He cites 3% vacancy as the historical low and quotes Mulitfamily Northwest’s latest report for Portland at 3.1%.
“This won’t really be in balance again – neither a renters or a landlord’s market – until the vacancy rate hits 5% – something we won’t likely see until 2015.”
Barry expects to see more existing apartment buildings going back for refinancing or being sold to investors willing to upgrade them to compete with the newer units; a potential bonus for everyone living in drafty, run down spaces if rents stay steady or begin to drop.
Roberto Gutierrez, aid to state legislator, moved to be closer to work with his fiancé Paulina Salgado, both in their early 30’s. Gutierrez admits he found the dishwasher and laundry hook-ups to be a strong selling point that helped them pass up older apartments and pay the higher rates for a new unit in The Belmont just West of César E. Chávez Blvd. at the edge of the busiest part of Belmont St.
Vacancy rates haven’t risen enough yet to drop rental rates, but first month’s rent free offers have popped up in many of the new construction complexes that must lease out as quickly as possible to make post-construction loan payments.
Bob Kellett, Neighborhood Planning Program Manager for SE Uplift, is hopeful for a political shift from this influx of young, urban professionals. Homeowners have traditionally been the main volunteers in neighborhood associations and other urban areas like San Francisco have much more developed renters rights groups. Could this building boom be the beginning of the age of the renter?
Kellett does what he can every day to advocate for balance – a balance between what the market can bear and what neighborhoods really want and need, a balance between lower cost building for more affordable housing and having more requirements for things like elevators – not just an elderly or handicap resident’s need, the way he sees it, if you’ve just been handed crutches for 8 weeks and live on the fourth floor.
If you have an itch to be part of dictating what passes for legal infill, Kellett is a wealth of resources on how to best start a community coalition that can shape city policies. He knows where the next neighborhood meeting is and cares a whole lot about what other cities are doing that we might adopt as well to strike a balance for builders, investors, renters and homeowners.
Bob Kellett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503.232.0010 ext. 314.