By David Krogh

Planners learn through training and experience how to look 20 years into the future when planning for growth.  In fact, all cities and counties are required to do this through the creation of comprehensive land use plans following the adoption of SB100 in 1973.

But the Oregon State Legislature via HB2001 and SB10 (as discussed in the May issue of the SE Examiner), and, the City of Portland with its Residential Infill Project (RIP) are proposing to impose higher density residential uses beyond what has been previously planned for.  This induced growth spurt is not necessarily coordinated with city comprehensive plan growth management efforts.

HB2001 imposes greater densities in single-family residential areas, requiring allowances for multiple unit dwellings including duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes (fourplexes), and cottage clusters (tiny homes in groups).  RIP allows these plus additional accessory dwelling units (ADUs).  SB10 imposes higher densities within transportation corridors (light rail and high peak transit).  These corridors in Southeast include portions of SE Belmont, SE Hawthorne, SE Division, SE Powell, and SE Chavez, and several others.  None of the legislation mentioned includes provisions to support affordability, provide infrastructure expansion, or address livability issues.

There are also a lot of unknowns in play, especially in terms of how much expansion (how many structures and units) will occur.  RIP included a report by Johnson Economics indicating as many as 24,000 new units could be created as part of the densification process.  Of note, an additional City report indicates RIP will only create 4000 new units and provide potential displacement in areas of East Portland (including outer Southeast).

Generally speaking, property and housing costs/rents are heavily inflated in inner Southeast Portland and slightly less so farther out.  Likewise, housing within inner Southeast is fairly dense and of higher value than farther out.  Considering the cost factors, most new and redevelopment development and investment companies, not local homeowners will initiate activity.  In fact, per Metro data, approximately 35% of houses in Portland are currently rented and not owner occupied (indicating a considerable ownership for investment and by property management companies).

Since HB2001 and RIP are different than SB10, these are the potential impacts of each.

Southeast Portland will see some renovation of existing homes into multiple unit structures under RIP and HB2001.  There will also be demolition of smaller homes and those not in good condition to be replaced by multiple unit structures.  More of this will probably occur in outer Southeast where lot sizes are larger, several vacant lots still exist for infill, and where property values are generally less expensive than in inner Southeast. Because of the conflicting reports, City staff aren’t sure how many more units will be built.  According to prior information from Commissioner Fritz (see the May edition of the SE Examiner), there is already a surplus of apartment units anticipated according to the latest Portland Plan and a potential shortage of single-family houses.

The result of HB2001 and RIP will be a gradual transition and conversion of single-family neighborhoods into mixed housing. Fewer new houses will be built because of the high costs of property and construction.  Returns will be higher for the developers to construct multi-unit rental housing.  Therefore, there will be fewer houses available for sale, and those that are will be more expensive.  (Of note, several studies since January from Chicago, Kansas City, and other cities have indicated this very result.  That is, densification increases housing costs and reduces affordability.)

An opportunity in all this will be one of encouraging innovative housing.  Where several houses are demoed for new development, there could be the potential for cottage clusters or mixed unit types.  The City of Bend, for example, has already approved the first cottage cluster (a tiny home subdivision in this case).  SE Portland already has a mixed unit development at SE 43rd and SE Division (including both detached and attached units on a single property), which incorporates a central garden area.

SB10 is more controversial due to the tremendous densification it proposes.  If adopted, much of Southeast Portland could be rezoned for high-density apartment buildings, residential neighborhoods notwithstanding.  This is because SB10 focuses on wide swaths along transportation corridors (including those streets with 15 minute bus service).  SB10 has the potential change many of Portland’s inner Eastside single-family neighborhoods.

Both HB2001 and SB10 are still in committees right now and undergoing amendments.  Since this Legislative session ends June 30, it is possible these will not be completed this session and may come back next year when the State Legislature has a short (35 days) session.  RIP, on the other hand, may go to the City Council sometime this summer or may wait on the Legislature since bills the State adopts will supersede any actions not in compliance that the City takes.

If HB2001 or some version of RIP does pas, the replacement of houses with multi-unit structures will be gradual over the next 20 years except for areas where the potential exists for replacement of several houses or development of vacant infill lots at one time. If the higher estimate of 24,000 units does get built, most blocks in inner Southeast will generally see limited demos and renovations.  Even with free permits for ADUs, most homeowners won’t  build because of the expense–estimated by the Homebuilders Association to be within a range of between $40,000-$100,000 per unit.

What residents will notice most will be increased parking problems as Portland generally does not require or only requires minimal onsite parking for multi-unit complexes and apartment buildings. Also there will be a lack of site landscaping.  Portland requires street trees, but no vegetative landscaping onsite.

New development does not necessarily mean streets and utilities will be upgraded.  Currently there is no enforcement to upgrade an offsite facility or an entire substandard street.  Therefore, piecemeal street and utility improvements will generally be made as individual sites are developed until such time as the City funds larger scale projects.  Likewise, new park development is unlikely, especially considering the current Parks Bureau budget woes.  Existing parks will need to bear the brunt of increased population demands (unless a bond is passed or a new regional parks district created).

The legislation noted will not impact commercial development except to promote mixed use (commercial/residential mix).  Commercial areas (such as along SE Belmont, SE Hawthorne, SE Woodstock, and SE Division) are expected to grow and continue in vibrancy.  And as happens today, parking will spill over onto adjacent residential streets.  Meanwhile, bus and bicycle use will increase as traffic congestion and lack of parking make driving more inconvenient.

The residential changes will come slow since we’re looking at a 20-year time frame. Portland could ultimately experience a shortage of single-family houses and a surplus of rental units located on congested streets with limited parking–the future will be interesting.