By Midge Pierce

The final vote on the Residential Infill Project (RIP), five years in the making and re-making, has been postponed in recent weeks as City Hall has been working on technology to run an effective virtual public hearing.

At the end of April, the City announced they are close to setting up a remote system for public hearings with tentative plans for Portland residents to testify sometime in June.

In the meantime, written testimony on RIP remains open at portlandmaps.com/bps/mapapp/maps.html#mapTheme=rip.

To submit testimony, interested parties will be asked to select a parcel on the map to comment on.

Construction in Oregon has been deemed an essential industry and no serious impacts on local commercial construction have been reported so far, according to Executive Director of Associated General Contractors Oregon-Columbia Chapter, Mike Salsgiver.

At some point, the economic downturn is bound to hit, he adds, with consequences that are as yet unforeseen.

During the limbo, questions have come up about whether increased densification makes sense in an era of social distancing. For now, positions for and against RIP remain unchanged.

Proponents of Deeper Affordability Bonus (DAB) amendments (allowing six-eight units in formerly single dwelling residential zones) are adamant that more housing equals economical housing. Those against RIP question cost assumptions and site destabilization of neighborhoods caused by demolition of existing affordable homes.

RIP supporters say the economic downturn will make the need for housing even more acute and that the City’s position of expanding housing types will encourage income equity and diversity. Fourplex advocate and developer Mary Vogel has submitted testimony debunking claims that density is dangerous.

Opponents say the crisis will enable speculators to take advantage of those who have lost their livelihoods, encourage teardowns and further erode greenspaces that can help keep us physically distant and healthy.   

Critic Paul Majkut says Portlanders do not need the “housing of all types” that the City proposes and instead need affordable, sustainable housing. The City’s first priority, he says, should be to preserve existing neighborhoods, homes and vegetation.

The DAB proposal would add densification beyond what the state requires, contribute construction pollution, create additional heat islands and benefit opportunity zone developers who exploit federal funds for their own gain.

Architect Rod Merrick calls RIP “unplanned random density” that fails to retain access to gardens, parks and open space.

Critics fear that in response to COVID-19, permit and material shortcuts could be allowed that could lead to subpar construction.

What kind of growth and whether it will be affordable when business resumes a normal rhythm is yet to be seen.

RIP Project Manager Morgan Tracy points to a Square Root Recovery scenario the state is reviewing which indicates a big economic dip, followed by a fairly shallow rise.

The study shows that growth depends on pent-up demand, the amount of damage the state has sustained and the policies that are implemented.

For City workers, delays are not just discouraging. As projects like RIP languish, real jobs are at stake in the downturn.

Builders Have Their Say

A month ago, construction in Oregon was still going at a “blazing” rate, according to Associated General Contractors Oregon-Columbia Chapter. That could change quickly in the event of an economic dip with finances getting tighter and materials becoming scarcer.

“In a high volume/low margin industry such as ours, it is likely we will see some businesses seriously damaged,” says Executive Director Mike Salsgiver.

Salsgiver’s primary concern is what happens to the 83 percent of builders in Oregon that are small businesses and will potentially be hurt by new and proposed legislation.

He says he joined the broader business community in requesting delays in implementation of the new gross receipts Commercial Activity Tax and opposing the failed Cap and Trade legislation.

Metro Portland’s Home Builders Association (HBA) confirms strong current housing demand, but acknowledges recent challenges ranging from supply chain shortages to permitting delays.

Ezra Hammer, HBA Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs, says remodelers dependent on homeowner equity have already been hard-hit by tighter money and changing financial priorities.

The slowdown, he adds, coincided with new computer software intended to make the City permitting process quicker and easier, but the system did not anticipate remote workstations.

Following stay at home orders, applications and inspections became much more difficult, he says, and new building permits were suspended for several weeks. Social distancing requirements added construction complexities that extended completion timelines.

To keep people employed, builders are chomping at the bit to get RIP passed. They were the primary drivers of RIP’s initial Stakeholder’s Advisory Committee, representing roughly a two-thirds majority.

The minority opinion’s dissenting views of infill came from critics like architect Merrick, members of United Neighborhoods for Reform (UNR) and preservation advocates’ demolition concerns.

UNR claims that each iteration of RIP moved farther away from original City goals of keeping infill close to transit and compatible with existing neighborhoods. The organization hopes the COVID-19 slowdown will encourage more thoughtful development and preservation going forward.

Market rate housing remains the basis for infill housing. RIP opponents remain skeptical that dense infill will deliver affordability, fearing instead that it will disrupt stability and displace vulnerable residents.

What the market will bear post-pandemic is unknown. Scarce materials mean higher costs, but land prices may fall as homeowners lose property to financial hardships.

HBA’s Hammer acknowledged that preservation may have a role in the revised RIP. He is cautiously optimistic that revised zoning and removal of red tape may allow conversion of existing homes into needed multi-residences. “That creates a whole new housing opportunity on a lot.”