By Midge Pierce
Like it or not, quadplexes and possibly six or eight plexes are likely coming soon to Portland’s single family neighborhoods.
That is the expectation following city council testimony largely supportive of the long-simmering Residential Infill Proposal (RIP) to allow multiplex housing in residential neighborhoods.
At January’s two-day public hearing, it was no longer a question of whether to add multi-units, but how many.
A Deeper Affordability Bonus endorsed by pro-densification groups calls for doubling the number of allowable units from four to eight. Questions persist about whether deep densification will improve affordability, slow demolition and lessen displacement.
After nearly five years of revision, planners claim RIP limits the size and scale of houses, while allowing duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes and other middle housing types like cottage clusters. Structures with multiple units could be 3,500 square feet; larger than RIP’s single family home allowances of 2,500 square feet.
The proposal also removes on-site parking requirements and includes some incentives, but no guarantees for affordability, by allowing bonus units in lower income projects.
While elimination of single family neighborhoods is already mandated for most Oregon cities, Portland’s proposal to allow quads, goes beyond state legislative allowance for duplexes.
After testimony, three of the four sitting Commissioners signaled readiness to adopt RIP, possibly by the time you read this. Mayor Ted Wheeler said the longer Portland waits to implement upzoning, the longer neighborhoods remain exclusive.
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly referenced the need to end discriminatory zoning. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty told the chamber it was time to stop letting income determine zip codes, despite an earlier admission that RIP did not address affordability.
Soon-to-retire Commissioner Amanda Fritz was the lone dissenting voice. She said she and the late Commissioner Nick Fish reviewed city planning assessments showing capacity for multi-family houses on 249,000 buildable lots, most along transportation and commercial corridors that would not require demolitions or scattershot “one-size fits all” development everywhere.
Both pro and con sides pressed for affordability and anti-displacement measures. Pro-growth supporters claimed that more units increase affordability odds and that displacement of one serves the greater good of housing many. Skeptics called RIP affordability magical thinking and said increasing units would exacerbate demolition.
Warning of impact on Portland’s most vulnerable, Coalition for Historic Resources Chair John Liu said, “Every rental house is at risk of displacement.” Liu introduced anti-displacement measures that would require an inclusionary unit in all quadplexes and a pilot program to test policies before citywide implementation.
Emphasizing the need for affordability incentives, he shared projections that monthly costs of an 1,100 square foot quad unit would average $2,297, nearly double what low income Portlanders can afford and beyond the reach of residents making 80 percent of the annual median income – roughly $46,000.
Sustainability concerned both sides. Bike Loud enthusiasts praised the lack of parking requirements as a way to discourage cars, encourage alternate means of transit and preserve street trees. RIP critics warned of loss of tree canopies from residential lots increasing heat islands, strains on infrastructure and congestion caused by growth and construction trucks, a major pollutant.
To address unintended consequences, community volunteer Linda Nettekoven called for tools to monitor upzoning and mitigate demolition and displacement.
To increase housing in more eco-friendly ways, Maya Foty of the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission recommended adaptive reuse and repurposing of existing houses.
Adding units to older homes, many built with old growth timber, she said, is typically more sustainable than environmentally damaging new building construction.
Statements that the greenest, most cost effective house is one that already exists, were repeated by United Neighborhoods for Reform members, advocates for focusing density around town centers, who cited pricey, market rate units and some 16,000 current vacancies.
From RIP proponents came a sense of urgency and stories of a generation being priced out of Portland. Proud Ground’s Diane Linn called densification a way to solve homelessness.
Portland Welcomes Neighbors’ Madeleine Kovacs, formerly of pro-densification lobbyist organization 1000 Friends of Oregon, said four-plexes could be offered at one fourth the price of McMansions. Several supporters called for financial subsidies for low income buyers.
Although outnumbered by RIP advocates, RIP critics raised notable considerations. An Eastsider said anti-family practices favored development of pricey, micro units over family-friendly residences.
She described displaced parents driving their kids long distances to stay in neighborhood schools and wondered what happens if the city fails to provide suitable family housing.
Buckman’s Rick Johnson criticized RIP’s lack of provisions for schools and a long-promised inner SE Community Center. The never-delivered Center was also championed by Sunnyside’s Mary Ann Schwab who took aim at foreign investors already profiting off tax breaks in the city’s many redevelopment Opportunity Zones.
Despite a petition calling for a vote on RIP, opponents seemed resigned. After the hearings, the online comment surfaced, “The more units penciled out, the more houses will be erased.”