Is PSC Turning Deaf Ear in the Name of Profit?

By Midge Pierce

Tens of thousands of residents could be displaced by a rezoning proposed by the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC) to allow up to four houses on virtually any single family lot in the City as part of the Residential Infill Project (RIP), according to data analyst Meg Hanson.

PSC’s recommendations would expand so-called upzoning to 96% of single family neighborhoods, a considerably broader densification swath than the 60% proposed by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

The Commission purports the expansion is needed to accommodate more than 100,000 new households in coming years, but Hanson warns it incentivizes demolition that could displace more than 40,000 current residents.

The group is a volunteer commission in which some members have development ties, guides City planning processes. Its recommendations are likely slated for final Commission vote in November, and from there to City Council to approve early next year.

Hanson, an affordable housing activist, tenant’s advocate, researcher, historian, blogger and planning watchdog, has a word for Council: DON’T.

That’s because rezoning single family neighborhoods for multiplexes encourages razing sound, comparatively modest-priced homes with no guarantee of affordable replacements, she says. Turnover and rising housing costs will result, hitting vulnerable, low income tenants hard.

“There is no housing crises,” she contends, “only an affordability crisis.” The City turns “a blind eye and a deaf ear” to legitimate concerns, she adds, for the sake of profit and real estate speculation.

According to Hanson’s analysis, proposals to upzone most of Portland could impact more than 18,500 non-owner occupied single family homes. Assuming 2.5 members per households, that’s 46,350 renters who could be displaced, she says, to make way for costly-to-build duplexes, triplexes or four-plexes that, with bonus allocations, could cover up to 4000 square feet.

“Who is RIP for,” she asks. “It’s not for low-income families and it’s not for communities of color, so clearly it can’t be called ‘affordable or equitable’.”

Expect a new wave of gentrification, says United Neighborhoods for Reform’s Margaret Davis. As Portland’s demolition derby continues, she says, the loss of diversity as well as affordability will accelerate. Without affordability requirements, even four-plexes will be beyond reach.

“You never get a cheaper house than the one you tear down,” she says.” This is Robin Hood taking housing from the poor and giving it to the rich.”

Frequent RIP critic Michael Molinaro adds, “As for lowering housing costs, what developer has come forward with a cogent four-plex proposal? None.” The units, he says, cannot be delivered to market for less than $400k each due to labor, construction and material costs.

“And parking? There are 1.4 cars per household in Portland. PSC is ignoring this reality.”

While PSC chair Katherine Schultz has said RIP will increase housing options, ownership opportunities and a more livable Portland for more people, Molinaro warns that no accommodations are being made for infrastructure, schools, transportation, green spaces.

Facts, adds tenant advocate Hanson, are the only way to stop RIP from moving forward.

Those facts are in short supply according to Rod Merrick, a RIP stakeholder advisor who, like Molinaro, accused the project of developer bias. Citing a failure of due diligence, Merrick says the promised impact analysis from BPS is absent, with no modeling for affordability, displacement, demolition, market and land value impact, environmental waste, tree canopy, livability and tax valuations.

Merrick says the PSC recommendation ignores strong opposition to RIP expressed over two years at multiple hearings, in written testimony and again during heated PSC testimony.

Crying foul over conflicts of interest, he says PSC members are affiliated with builders and groups like 1000 Friends of Oregon’s Portland for Everyone’s (P4E).

“For them, zoning deregulation unlocks profitable redevelopment opportunities.” False information peddled by pro-RIP paid advocacy equals Portland 4 Sale, he charges.

After pushing for expanded infill, P4E seems elated by PSCs decision to extend RIP’s housing overlays, including into outer East Portland, an area planning staff excluded for lack of services.

Postings on its website praises housing advocates for doing the “almost impossible” by convincing PSC to back multi-unit housing almost everywhere. P4E holds that densification fosters affordability and greater housing options, citing a local realtor who said, “Because land is half the price of a Portland home, cutting lot size down will reduce the purchase price.”

Michael Andersen, a Sightline Institute fellow and P4E blogger, called the September PSC meet a showdown in which housing advocates slightly outnumbered “defenders of the status quo.” He describes RIP as a “re-legalization” of a 1959 ban on plex housing, as well as a way to stop the “mansionization” of Portland and lower housing barriers.

The narrative is convincing for many renters struggling with high housing costs.

Jessica Engelman is an affordable housing proponent who hopes greater options will enable more young people to partake of the American dream.

After a recent SE Uplift presentation on Metro’s Housing Bond by Metro Councilor Bob Stacey, Engelman suggested that the need for housing is so acute, building should be allowed in steep, geographically-exempt westside hillsides.

Passion for housing everywhere is a hallmark of so-called YIMBYs – Yes in My Backyard – now a progressive political party in California. YIMBYs have accused NIMBYs (not in my backyard) of racist practices to protect the status quo.

While no love is lost between YIMBYs and NIMBYs in Portland at least, both share concern about the need for affordable housing. How this is accomplished is the challenge.

Merrick laments that next March an ill-prepared City Council will be asked to approve RIP’s “complex, untested and unwarranted rezoning” that, in the name of profit, will forever alter the face and fabric of the City.

[Editor’s note: The SE Examiner has heard from readers critical of its RIP coverage. In response, the Editor believes journalists have an obligation to report contentious viewpoints (often not represented in other publications) that are critical of City policies and proposals in order to hold government and staff accountable.]

Is PSC Turning Deaf Ear in the Name of Profit?

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