Home Demolition Epidemic

By Don MacGillivray


Quality homes are being scraped away. This is not infill or added density, it is the gradual devastation of many neighborhoods and perhaps their rebirth.

Demolitions and existing homes that are mostly demolished and extensively remodeled are increasing all around town as the economy recovers. It is estimated that two percent of Portland’s single family homes will be replaced over the next twenty years.

Over the last five years, demolitions have averaged about 200 per year. Already this year there have been 140 demolitions.

According to Bureau of Development Services statistics, about 230 demolition permits were issued in 2013, an increase of more than 40 percent from 2011. Most were issued along with construction permits, eliminating the need for neighborhood notification.

In addition, around 2,700 alteration and addition permits were issued in 2013, an increase of 370 from 2011. Some of these were projects where a majority of the home was demolished. The number of homes in town being demolished and replaced by one or more larger houses is expected to increase.

The Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland says there’s no end in sight.

A demolition removes an entire building while a renovation can remove almost all the building while using a very small part of it in the new construction which has an impact equal to that of a demolition. The difference is that a demolition usually requires a 35 day delay with notification of the neighbors and other interested parties. The renovation does not require any delay or notification.

Developers may still tear down a single-family dwelling and not notify neighbors if only one new house is built on the property and the two permits are filled together.

Some of the impacted city neighborhoods include: Reed, Sunnyside, Eastmoreland, Sellwood, Mount Scott/Arleta, Mount Tabor, Northwest District Association, Alameda, Rose City Park, Beaumont-Wilshire and many others.

In the Reed neighborhood, homes were built in the mid-20th century and all of a similar style. These demolitions anger residents as they see the continuity and desirability of their neighborhood change before their eyes without any foreknowledge. They want to change the rules to save the character and ambiance of their neighborhoods. The larger scale and different style of the new homes stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.

One potential solution is to change the zoning code and /or the zoning map to give neighbors a chance to influence these decisions. The more popular change is for the city to notify neighborhoods well in advance before a home is torn down.

Leaders of the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association have written a change of code policy stating when 50% or more of the enclosed volume of a residential structure is proposed to be removed, 45 day notice provided to the neighborhood.

The zoning code is a looseleaf binder over seven inches thick comprising 1600 pages of technical information. Those using it are the most familiar with it, but it is very difficult for the lay public to understand. Difficult too to be sure there aren’t any loopholes elsewhere in the code.

For example, if the Community Design Standards are used, developers can bypass the usual delays and notifications that are otherwise required.

In defense of the actions of the owners, developers, designers, and contractors, this is their business and the way they make their living.

Developers will tell you Metro’s urban growth boundary does not provide enough land to meet the need for new housing in the region. There are plenty of small homes on large lots that can be replaced with significant profit. Most of the best available land to meet the need is to be found in the city of Portland.

Many builders have made a calculated bet: it is better to sell fewer new homes at higher prices than to build more at lower prices. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the lack of affordable low-income housing in Portland.

This is an old problem in Portland. It is part of the foundation of the neighborhood association system adopted forty years ago.

On an irregular basis, neighborhood leaders have railed against development projects they find objectionable. Neighborhoods have worked through the system to change this without success.

In 1973, the task force formed to create a neighborhood system failed for all neighborhoods to veto local development projects by a vote 60% against-40% for.

They have worked on architectural preservation studies (1975 and 1984); the Comprehensive Plan (1977-1981); Neighborhood Plans (1988-1999); Public Involvement Principles (1996 & 2008) and Vision PDX.

Still we don’t have what we’ve been promised. The revision of the Comprehensive Plan zoning policies is another good opportunity if it is successful.

Neighborhood activists that want to change the rules met to discuss the issues on May 6 and June 11 and they are planning to meet again.

Southeast Uplift, the coalition of neighborhoods, voted to support the resolution for Eastmoreland earlier this summer. Those that want the issue to go away seem to believe that it is impossible to make everyone happy. So until something is done, the “claw of the backhoe” will continue to do its dirty work.

For more information, see the five Housing Needs Analysis Reports, the background for the Comprehensive Plan at: www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/59298

Home Demolition Epidemic

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