By Midge Pierce
Grassroots support for the City’s Residential Infill Project (RIP) slipped during last month’s testimony before the Planning and Sustainability Commission raising the opposition’s hopes that planners might reconsider RIP’s massive impact on the face, fabric and affordability of Portland.
In an interesting twist, pro and anti-RIP camps delivered similar pleas for affordable housing guarantees–lacking in RIP’s market rate plan–to upzone single family neighborhoods. RIP proposes to densify residential areas by allowing multi-unit dwellings that include duplexes, triplexes, and bonus interior or exterior ADUs.
Southeast Portland is ground zero for RIP’s so-called new overlay zones. Planners contend close-in areas are the most opportune for transportation and services.
While pro and anti-RIPers find common ground on the need for affordable housing, they are poles apart on how to achieve that goal. One side claims that more density everywhere equates to affordability. The other wants RIP tested first in areas that can expand infrastructure readily and sustain growth without decimating existing neighborhoods.
Those who feel that developer’s heavy influence on RIP is akin to Goliath driving the process, warned of demolitions, gentrification and rising rents. Supporters–well-prepped at pub meet-ups by alleged developer-funded groups like 1000 Friends of Oregon–grew increasingly passionate about the difficulty of finding housing and called for more Infill Everywhere, including excluded parts of St. Johns, Cully, and steep westside hillsides. “If you love your neighborhood, let it grow,” said a Cully resident, echoing the views of many who urged allowing six or more units on a single family lot.
C racks in full-on support started to show as Portland for Everyone’s staunch pro-RIP Madeline Kovacs modified her enthusiasm by calling on planners to extend the project to the relatively affordable outer Eastside that planners considered off-limits. On cheaper land, housing can be built at less cost to serve vulnerable populations.
Critics concur that filling empty tracts in outer Eastside is preferable to refilling land that is already some of the most expensive in the City. A bulk of the 87,000 homes that would be upzoned are rentals in the inner inside, resulting in pricey redevelopment that watchdogs say could cause severe tenant displacements.
Circulation of intensive research showing massive numbers of rental units at risk–many in Southeast–further frayed pro-RIP arguments. In a surprising testimony, a representative of Portland’s Tenants United declared that RIP does not serve renters well. “Profit goes to those who tear down existing affordable rental housing,” a spokesman acknowledged. Later adding that low-income renters should have been considered in the RIP process to avoid displacement.
Written and oral testimony from critics condemned a flawed process in which the City failed to properly inform the public about the “nature, magnitude and consequences” of rezoning 65% of the City’s single family homes without regard for infrastructure, schools, transportation, parking, parks or street improvements.
A major concern also emerged over RIP’s impact on Portland’s tree canopy–a major defense against climate change. One neighborhood association wrote that Portland would go from green to gray as mature trees, yards and gardens vanish.
Exorbitantly expensive Seattle is increasingly cited as proof that Infill Everywhere does not work. An initial round of Seattle upzoning caused tree canopy loss between 41% and 69% percent depending on lot designations, according to data posted on Stop Demolishing Portland. Recent, more rigorous redevelopment endorsed by Seattle for Everyone is causing even more serious “urban clear-cutting”, according to residents.
The many pro-RIP hold-outs claim development is worth it because more housing will eventually result in prices filtering downward once enough units are built and new builds lose their luster.
In testimonies, online posts and conversations, residents grumble about noise, congestion, cars parked end-to-end and urban canyons caused by tall multiplexes blocking sunlight. By contrast, a blogger praised the cooling power of big trees, open spaces and the beauty of historically valuable houses. “…You’ll never get back neighborhoods full of diverse homes of all sizes and styles–at a wide range of price points.” In a spin on the argument that the greenest house is an existing house, she continued, “Old growth housing prevents the loss of more old-growth trees.”
As backlash grows, one observer called it the Tina Kotek revolt. The state House Speaker has referred to those opposed to densification as racist NIMBYs. The about-face from renters and housing advocates may change her tune.
While the planning commission reviews testimony of the RIP proposal, a legal challenge is mounting to stop RIP.