By Gabe Frayne
On a quiet street off of NE Glisan, a one-story, century-old cottage fell to the wrecking ball three years ago to make way for a modern single home and a duplex beside it.
This routine housing conversion exemplifies what pro-growth advocates consider a wise use of land: where once there was one dwelling there are now three, creating more “housing choice” for a rapidly growing city.
The only problem with this proposition is that the original dwelling was an affordably priced rental, and the house and duplex recently sold for 587 and 933 thousand dollars respectively.
Clearly, the YIMBY/developer mission of “Portland for everyone” has succeeded beyond expectations in providing housing for upper income arrivals, but the rush to greater density has not been as kind to middle and lower-income residents.
The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) believes it has at least a partial solution to this dilemma: the Residential Infill Project (RIP), which will publish its draft recommendation in August.
In tandem with recently enacted state bill HB2001, the report will recommend zoning and building size changes that will incentivize construction of so-called middle housing: duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and ADUs throughout the city.
These changes immediately raise the question: where will builders find the land for up to 20,000 units of new middle housing?
RIP has struggled to come up with solutions to the severe affordable housing shortage in a city with a growing population and a finite amount of land.
The National League of Cities defines infill as “new development sited on vacant or undeveloped land within an existing community.” As Morgan Tracy, RIP project manager notes, “there’s not a lot of vacant land out there.”
Tracy tends to see the problem more in terms of underutilized capacity, meaning essentially, single-family homes on 5,000 square-foot or larger lots. Yet he strongly denies that the city is, or will be, facilitating more demolitions.
“There’s nothing that’s promoting a demolition agenda, and actually, with the FAR [floor-to-area ratio] and size limitations we’re proposing, there are disincentives for demolition,” Tracy explains.
He claims the demolition epidemic began with the proliferation of McMansions and that the RIP recommendations would incentivize building affordable multi-family units on the same amount of space, thereby reducing demolitions.
Margaret Davis, a long-time activist with United Neighborhoods for Reform, is skeptical.
“On paper that sounds somewhat believable, but in practice it’s not what I have seen,” she says. “I have never, ever seen a case where the new construction was less expensive than what was torn down.”
In other words, if there’s profit to be made, whatever the form, demolitions will continue.
Davis points to a section of a Bureau of Planning and Sustainability report released in 2016 that states: “The vacant and underutilized land within these residentially designated areas have a combined development capacity that is double the expected growth, after considering restraints. This means that it is possible to be more selective about where development occurs in residential zones.”
Here again, the key word is “underutilized.”
There is, however, at least some vacant and non-utilized land within Portland, but that does not necessarily translate to land available for middle-class middle housing. Consider three examples:
Gateway Project – A vacant, fenced-in and privately owned 5.1 acre plot of land at NE 102nd and Pacific has been the subject of urban renewal schemes for the past fifteen years, but the only residence mentioned in the latest community-inspired plan is an assisted living community.
Rossi Farms – The “Preferred Concept Plan” for the sites on NE 122nd calls for “a range of housing, including apartments, townhomes and cottages,” but no specific mention is made of duplexes, triplexes or fourplexes.
Zombie Houses – There are hundreds of abandoned houses in the city that could be cleared away for middle housing. However, a spokesperson for the Multnomah County Assessor’s office cautions that many of the owners of these houses are still paying their property taxes, and even properties that are delinquent can remain in limbo for up to six years before the county is able to execute a seizure.
The relative scarcity of land calls into question whether middle housing will actually be affordable to the majority of middle-income earners.
First, as high-skilled workers continue to migrate to Portland, “affordability” continues to be defined upward based on median family income.
Secondly, the current surplus of high-end apartments has had a minimal impact on housing prices generally. As Davis likes to point out, some owners are now painting “for lease” signs on their half-full buildings, but their investors still expect a dividend.
Not least, as Tracy suggests, the young and upwardly mobile prefer to live in the city’s “high demand” neighborhoods.
“Are the attainable sales and rentals in further out places high enough to support development of middle housing,” he asks. “I think what our report has shown is: No, that’s not yet.”
Thus it seems likely that until and unless the city is willing to consider less market-oriented approaches to middle-income housing, the furtive postcard offering “cash for houses” will remain the calling card of infill development in Portland.