Smart Infill Answers Vexing Problem

By Midge Pierce


Experts predict 400,000 people will move into Portland over the next few decades. Builder, scholar, entrepreneur Eli Spevak believes he has solutions for how to house them.

In a letter sent last month to Mayor Charlie Hales, City Commissioners and neighborhood associations, Spevak outlined seven concepts for smart infill to accommodate growth.

The cornerstone of his proposal is to allow multiple dwelling units he calls discreet housing on single family lots.

Spevak says his goals can be achieved by adopting code changes to encourage more ADUs, allowing tiny homes on wheels in backyards, building cottage clusters around a central courtyard and converting homes into plexes – a concept popular during housing shortages after WWII.

Utilizing existing housing stock to serve a variety of household configurations is smart planning, according to Spevak.  “Allowing internal divisions of existing homes into two or more units would reduce market pressures to tear down older homes in order to build large expensive houses.”

Spevak claims there is currently a mismatch between the needs of households and what zoning allows. His motivation is to reduce the need for bulk development. The trade-off might be more residents living in a single home.

“This approach provides discreet housing by adding a little bit of density without changing the character of a neighborhood.

“Portland has a good track record of addressing progressive housing, but it doesn’t have much property left to build on,” he said during a phone interview.

Spevak, who has taken a sabbatical from his local firm Orange Splot, is currently in Boston on a fellowship at Harvard University. “One of the projects I want to look at is how to change zoning to encourage infill. I want this to be a national model and Portland is the place to do it.”

Rimmed by Metro’s Urban Growth Boundary, Portland has high rents and low vacancy. How to accommodate growth and provide affordable housing is vexing citizens across the economic spectrum. To address affordability, Spevak advocates flexible codes that could reduce the costs of housing low income and homeless residents.

Savings could be achieved by allowing micro kitchens, shared common areas and basic standards that meet safety requirements but do not necessarily include standard add-ons of new construction.

Demographic shifts, he explains, favor smaller, more affordable living options. “On the one hand, you have a generation of young millennials moving to Portland for its storied lifestyle. On the other, aging Baby Boomers may have more house than they need.” If older residents could rent out space in their homes, Spevak believes they could stay in their neighborhoods, aging in place.

His concepts are gaining traction.  A dozen environmental groups have signed his letter. In March, the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association unanimously voted to support Spevak’s request that the City dedicate staff resources to explore his concepts.

Board members in the neighborhood (which is largely built out) appreciate space efficient housing. A Land Use Committee member emphasized that discrete density could be achieved through waivers on limits to the number of people who can live in ADUs and providing a sliding scale for system management fees.

Currently, fees for 800 square feet homes are the same as fees for 3,000 square feet homes.

Spevak caught the City’s attention when he served on a citizens advisory panel reviewing Portland’s Comprehensive Plan with Eric Engstrom, Principal Planner in Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

“The City likes ideas that create more housing options,” says Engstrom. “Our goal is to contain urban growth and make our neighborhoods more walkable.”

Engstrom admits that making the transition to greater density without disrupting established neighborhoods is not always easy. “A number of double lots with older homes are at risk of being torn down and replaced by something that may be inappropriate to the neighborhood.

“People appreciate single family neighborhoods so we should try to keep these as intact as possible. In shaping Portland’s future, we need to maintain aspects we like, while eliminating those we don’t,” he said.

While there may not be consensus, Engstrom hears recurring themes about what Portland’s future contains such as affordability, good design, close-by employment opportunities, neighborhood preservation and effective infrastructure.

Engstrom has been working with citizen advisory boards to review Portland’s Comprehensive Plan. Revisions will be released this summer.  Engstrom says parts of the plan that will be presented to the public are consistent with Spevak’s concepts.

As for critics who have reservations about cramming more housing into small lots, one convert asks, “What is more respectful – tearing down homes or repurposing them for  multi-housing?” He cited examples of families in his neighborhood who plan to house their parents in ADUs  or conversely, a couple who plans to live in the ADU and rent out their primary home.

“These concepts may not be a cure-all to growth but it gives Portland an opportunity to be a leader in planning and affordability,” he concluded.


Smart Infill Answers Vexing Problem

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