Better Housing by Design

By Don MacGillivray

Housing in Portland is in crisis. Not only the lack of affordable housing, but the affect market rate housing has on changing neighborhoods, displacing people, and in general, making the city less desirable for people who have lived here for many years.

Local government cannot do very much about it other than write aspirational plans and watch while landowners and developers change the older cityscape. Politics won’t allow government to create an ideal city even if there could be agreement about what this would be.

Private development and business interests are perhaps the strongest lobby within local government and many of their policy positions come from even stronger national interests.

While local government representatives wish this was not the case, their hands are tied politically. They cannot create a kinder and more representative city that functions economically and socially in the best interests of everyone.

One of the best ways of making the public case for a better city is though the urban planning process. Portland has a planning methodology that includes a wide range of interests that understand the difference between good planning and a problematic urban environment.

In crisis now over affordable housing, homelessness is one result and homelessness is more than a lack of affordable housing. Its causes include issues around: health, income, justice, education, discrimination, to name just a few.

Also, there are societal issues far greater than ability of Portland’s local government to manage effectively. Many of the solutions require additional financial resources, but local governments can’t reduce their spending to redistribute money to these needs nor can they raise money through taxation or fees.

For thirty years there has not been a major overhaul of taxation in Oregon in spite of the need to rectify the property tax reductions in the 1990s, Solutions lie with national priorities and private organizations that have the greatest influence over both public and private policies.

Just a small portion of the national defense budget over ten years would solve or at least reduce many of these problems and save money in the long run; not to mention the improved well being of millions of people. We would still have a national defense at least ten times that of any other nation on earth.

The latest Planning study currently underway is the Better Housing by Design project. This builds on the previous work of the last five years relating to the Comprehensive Plan.

As Portland grows, more people will be living in multi-family housing in and around bustling centers and corridors. By 2035, up to 80 percent of the anticipated 120,000 new households will likely be in multi-family buildings and other compact housing types.

The city is trying to ensure that new housing apartments and condominiums will be more affordable, fit the character of the surrounding neighborhood, provide amenities to both tenants and neighbors, and help make open space and transportation more available to everyone.

New rules  are needed to ensure new construction better meets the needs of current and future residents and encourage better development to provide quality living environments, connected to schools, shopping and transit.

This project proposes building small scale housing such as duplexes, triplexes, four-plexes, and small apartments. This is known at the “Missing Middle.”

When successful, there will be more usable outdoor space for play areas or gardening, a greater diversity of housing, more options for the physically handicapped, building designs responsive to the surrounding context, sidewalks and streetscapes that provide comfortable walking environments, and a wider variety of housing types to meet the needs of the citizens of Portland.

One of the sources of these ideas is looking at what already exists in Portland’s inner neighborhoods. Much of it was built a century ago before there were cars and shopping malls. Older apartments accommodated more households. In the 1920s, 34 units were often built on a quarter of city block while in 2015 only 9 units were built on the same sized site.

The 2035 Comprehensive Plan provides for many types of housing options, with more intense development in centers and corridors rather than only four to six story market rent apartment buildings.

The current Zoning Code prevents the mix of mid-scale housing built between 1900 and 1960. Middle scale housing developments tend to be more affordable than single-family development, allow more households to live on a lot without increasing the size of the building and they are more accessible to people with mobility limitations.

New development would contribute to street and pedestrian connections by orienting the building entrances to streets and minimizing blank walls. Front facing garages will be limited in multi-dwelling zones. Sidewalk use could be made more desirable for people using wheelchairs, walkers and strollers. Requiring rear parking or no off-street parking garage or carports in areas close to transit.

These ideas and many more are in this forthcoming plan for Better Housing Design available through the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability website at

Better Housing by Design

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