No Quick Fix to Housing Crisis

By Midge Pierce

At the current pace of more than one demolition per day, some 800 more houses could be razed over the next two years before City code and zoning policies can likely change. The earliest date for implementing task force code and zoning recommendations is likely 2017.

Yet, as a record number of houses tumble, the affordable housing crisis worsens. With no quick fix in sight for the related issues of demolition and affordability, rents are still too high, home prices remain out of reach for most and the homeless go without roofs over their head.

Zoning code band-aids enacted by the City this year to extend waiting periods for demolitions are not working. Not one house has been saved despite citizens’ arduous appeals.

Based on projections, a record-setting 400 houses will come down by the end of 2015. Teardowns in Portland are reportedly more robust than in any other comparable city in the nation, and the cost of replacement homes is often twice as high as the original home.

Urgency was apparent at a recent hearing on the mayor’s proposed $25,000 fee on demolition of serviceable homes. Acknowledging that emergency measures enacted earlier this year were insufficient in saving “good old homes”, the mayor said his proposed fee would have the dual purpose of serving as a deterrent to demolition or, failing that, providing funds for affordable home ownership.

Both demolition friends and foes struck back at the mayor’s proposal. Some questioned what constitutes a liveable home and how areas of blight might be excluded. Others warned of exemptions that encourage demolition by allowing single family teardowns to be replaced with multiple dwellings that rip the fabric of well-loved neighborhoods.

“We can’t wait 18 months,” said Janet Baker of United Neighborhoods for Reform (UNR), referencing lengthy timelines for recommendations from the recently-formed Community Residential Infill Advisory Committee. She added that small, starter homes are routinely torn down despite the city’s need for housing stock for first-time buyers.

Barbara Strunk followed with UNR’s proposal for a $35,000 flat fee that would be simple to implement. She said $25K was not much of a deterrent to developers who build million dollar replacement homes. She also testified against loopholes and rebates that would encourage developers to build two houses in place of one.

Representing Southeast Uplift, Robert McCullough, who was instrumental in saving Eastmoreland’s sequoias, claimed $25K was too high in neighborhoods like Brentwood-Darlington or outer SE where residents may seek to renew and refresh substandard housing.

In a truly paradoxical moment, developer Randy Sebastian echoed a similar sentiment saying $25 K would prevent redevelopment in neighborhoods that want it, yet when Commissioner Nick Fish asked about the average price of his Renaissance Homes, he hesitated before acknowledging they typically sold for more than $700,000.

On the affordable housing side, a representative from Habitat for Humanity called for some level of demolition, claiming that 12,000 new single family homes are needed for the 120,000 projected new residents.

The Architectural Heritage Council proposed graduated fees based on the age of a house. The older the house, according to one approach, the higher the demolition fee.

Ironically, Portland’s demolition boom breeds strange bedfellows. Driven by exorbitant market prices, developers exploit City land-use policies that encourage denser, more affordable housing.

Likewise, activists who support freeing up lots for equitable housing inadvertently play into the hands of builders who claim to provide jobs and density with teardown replacements that price out most Portlanders.

In a bizarre twist, housing squatters keen on saving a house on Hawthorne somewhat awkwardly align with preservation interests.

Intensive administrative groundwork was laid in October for the City’s newly-appointed Citizens Infill Advisory Committee comprised of stakeholders in the building industries as well as preservationists and residents.

For the latter, the scope of work – or rather its limitations – was both surprising and alarming. Scale of houses, lot sizes and alternative housing options are part of CAC’s charge. Demolition policies are not. Some of that work may be addressed by the Deconstruction Advisory Group (DAG) or the Development Review Advisory Committee (DRAC) that has been criticized for being stacked with developers.

At City hearings, a common refrain is emerging: “We need to push past the one size fits all zoning,” Infill Committee member Rob Merrick said. “We need a code more customized to the distinctive nature of neighborhoods.”

It will take more than a year for the CAC to plow through myriad documents and dissonant group dynamics.  Even if the committee reaches consensus, its recommendations may still face lengthy Council deliberation.

So the clock is ticking. The average price of a teardown is around $200 K with a replacement house typically priced for more than $500 K, but increasingly, stately homes on large lots are subdivided and de-treed to accommodate multifamily housing – or new monster houses.

Demolition and redevelopment is rapid and most logical along commercial corridors. Preservation in mixed use commercial and transit zones are hard to defend given density targets.

No part of the city is immune to change. While NE and SE are ground zero, it was residents of the SW Burlingame neighborhood who patiently waited almost three hours at a CAC meeting to protest teardowns of small, one stories  replaced by three-story houses towering over neighbors. Residents claimed that codes are being manipulated to maximize height and coverage limitations.

Burlingame’s commitment is praised on the UNR website which urges more Eastside residents to get involved, attend hearings, and respond to the Preliminary Comprehensive Plan that will determine the shape of our City for the next 35 years.

Deconstruction solution 

A local nonprofit is pitching a solution to Oregon’s lax asbestos oversight. A Habit for Humanity executive says deconstruction is a viable alternative to demolition methods that release cancer-causing toxins into the air.

Vice President of Retail Operations Joe Connell says residents panic when they think lead and asbestos will drift into gardens and playgrounds. Deconstruction is a safer alternative that ensures that hazardous material is found and dealt with properly.

The City requires no absolute proof of abatement. As a result, asbestos may be ignored or overlooked when it just gets  “crunched up” by giant backhoes during a mechanical demolition.

Deconstruction, he says, can be a careful dismantling process in which everything from old growth timbers to lighting fixtures are removed and resold.

The nonprofit is among the tangled pieces caught in the demolition debate. Connell laments that little demolition material (about 2 percent according to Restore Oregon) is recycled.

Habitat salvage efforts keep about 5,000 tons of reusable goods out of landfills annually. Items range from windows, doors, furniture and appliances. They are sold at discounted prices at Habitat’s three area ReStore retail centers, including one near Mall 205. Proceeds are put toward building affordable houses.

Connell says if a house has to come down, work should be done carefully and with minimum wastage. “When a house is deconstructed all layers are exposed. If asbestos is found, work can stop so that it is properly abated.”

A voluntary pilot program was implemented by the City this fall to incentivize deconstruction through training, education and grants. It is too soon to know what impact it will have on demolitions. MP

No Quick Fix to Housing Crisis

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