Infill Doesn’t Promise Affordability

By Midge Pierce

More housing is no guarantee of affordability, say critics claiming housing advocates are “drinking the density Kool-aid”.

At neighborhood meetings last month, pushback on packing people into Portland swelled as residents reacted against Bureau of Planning and Sustainability infill proposals that could squeeze a bulk of Portland’s projected 250,000 newcomers into SE by 2035.

The BPS plan for “middle housing” would allow multi-dwelling units in “amenity rich” close-in residential neighborhoods.

It stems from an amendment to the 2035 Draft Comprehensive Plan that essentially enables lot divisions to accommodate duplexes, triplexes and in some potential cases, four-plexes on single family streets within a quarter mile of commercial and transportation corridors.

That covers virtually all of SE based on maps buried deep within the City plan.

In addition to recommendations on multi-dwelling codes and massing, BPS is considering whether to recommend upzoning some R5 zones to R2.5 to allow more middle housing.

Advocates say more density and greater variety will lower housing prices. Urban studies graduates see infill as an acceptable way to make room for utopian models of equitable dwelling units. “Everybody gets a quarter of a house,” someone was overheard saying.

As citizens question what is the targeted saturation point, BPS’ handouts cite New York City rowhouses and London’s stacked flats as examples of middle housing. A meeting attendee commented that fliers are distributed “without irony”.

At last month’s SE Uplift Landuse and Transportation board meeting, Residential Infill Project Stakeholder Advisory Committee (RIPSAC) member Michael Molinaro provided a neutral tutorial about the process.

He described the Infill Committee as two divergent groups: one concerned with neighborhood context and preservation and the other with maximizing housing options and land usage.

He cited areas of common agreement such as reducing building scale and removing gaping garages from the fronts of skinny houses. He explained how builders could get square footage bonuses by adding attached and detached ADUs.

Buckman Neighborhood co-chair Susan Lindsey questioned the legality of the plan. “I don’t get it. This (infill) amendment was introduced after the Comp Plan hearings grand finale.”

Molinaro took off his committee hat and stated simply. “This is wholesale rezoning.”

City charts and graphs indicate that the majority of City housing is on single family lots. Most are considered large. Large is defined as 5,000 square feet. While questions remain about how infill could divvy up lots, analysis seems to show that a current R 2.5 lot could essentially be treated as a 1.8 lot.

A housing advocate with 1000 Friends of Oregon’s Portland for Everyone wants to splice lots even smaller to 1.5 or 1.3.

“Getting four $250,000 houses on a single lot is far more affordable than one $800,000 house. Isn’t this what everyone wants?”, an earnest presenter asked.

Opponents call it wholesale absurdity. As values are reassessed, taxes could rise even more forcing out existing residents.

Housing progressives welcome change that makes way for newcomers and an upcoming generation of buyers unable to afford housing prices beginning to rival San Francisco.

Madeline Kovacs from Portland for Everyone, said every neighborhood must do their share to meet “the fair and just distribution of the benefits and burdens” of an equitable city.

This is “intergenerational equity” according to Kovacs who asked, “Do we want economically diverse neighborhoods or economic segregation?”

A local realtor called infill’s back door rezoning a wholesale injustice. Alyssa Isenstein Krueger, a Ladd’s Addition resident representing United Neighborhoods for Reform, said developers fabricated a mythical “missing middle” under the guise of affordability and equity.

As a RIPSAC observer, Isenstein Krueger said the task of preventing more demolitions and creating affordable housing was tossed out in favor of providing incentives for developers to maximize profits by tearing down affordable, vintage housing in the inner city where building is in highest demand.

“The most affordable house is the one that is standing. And the greenest house is the one already standing.”

She added that housing built over the last few years has mostly been rentals that have displaced long term, working class tenants. “Our city is becoming whiter and wealthier. Is this really what we want? If so, then keep buying into these myths.”

The question of how much density is needed arose at the infill meetings. Questions like, “When is enough, enough? Why are we building for the people of the future when we’re not taking care of those who are already here?” resonate through meeting halls along with the refrains, “Not everyone can live close in. Developers want to build close in only because that’s where the profits are.”

Even those supportive of the middle housing concept question its practicality. Based on current trends, ADUS will likely be used for short-term Airbnb-style rentals, not permanent housing.

A Kerns property owner was surprised that a Portland for Everyone presentation featured her 1940s Spanish tiled condominium complex as an example of viable courtyard-style housing. “They don’t build them like that anymore,” she said. “Certainly not for $250,000.” She added that HOA fees price many buyers out of courtyard-style living.

In Montavilla, a resident grieving the loss of a classic Alder St. Victorian and its signature trees calls the city’s focus on inner SE short-sighted.

“It prohibits affordability. The City pinpoints inner Southeast for growth because that’s where the activity is.” If SE is to absorb more than a quarter of the 250,000 new residents, it will need more services expenditures and costly infrastructure improvements not covered by system development fees, she says.

Firebrand activist Mary Ann Schwab slams what she calls the inner SE gold rush. She said large tracts of underutilized parking lots and farms in outer SE are better options than demolishing existing neighborhoods house by house.

An added plus of developing large tracts of existing land is that the lots would be sufficiently large to apply inclusive zoning, she claimed, and widespread demolition would be unnecessary.

“We don’t need rezoning because courtyard-style housing and multi-dwelling single family homes already exist in Sunnyside and Richmond. Developers created the infill middle concept for their own benefit. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Planners have been careful to remind citizens that the infill proposal is not a done deal. Any changes to formally incorporate middle housing into the Comp Plan would be subject to public hearings.

An Infill Survey is available until mid-August at:

Infill Doesn’t Promise Affordability

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