By Midge Pierce

In the midst of the dual challenges of pandemic and civil unrest, Commissioners heard two days of public comment on amendments to the controversial Residential Infill Project (RIP).

A City Council vote on each amendment is slated for July 9, with final consideration of an amended draft tentatively scheduled for August 5.

The public record is now closed. The sessions, held June 3 and 18, were the last opportunity for testimony. Planning and Sustainability Director Andrea Durbin says building size decisions will be deferred until Portland’s plan is reviewed by the state.

Last summer, the Oregon legislature passed laws requiring rezoning of single family neighborhoods in most cities to allow multi-unit housing. How many units per lot can be allowed is left up to individual jurisdictions. Durbin says RIP’s earliest implementation is August 2021.

A key issue at Portland City Council hearings was whether six or more units could be allowed per lot as part of a Deeper Affordability Bonus amendment attached to the original RIP proposals. The amendment goes beyond minimum mandates by the state legislature.

Both supporters and critics claim to seek affordable housing solutions. Where they diverge is on how affordability can be achieved.

Advocates contend more units mean affordability and more choices for more Portlanders, especially those who have been subject to housing discrimination.

Critics counter that RIP contains no affordability guarantees since it adheres to market rate practices that benefit developers known to demolish low cost homes, displacing vulnerable populations and failing to provide options for families.

The June 3 session tapped into fears that densification exacerbates pandemics. Durbin, who oversees RIP, said dense cities are safer and easier to monitor during pandemics.

She was followed by a majority of speakers that support the approval of RIP and its amendment for six or more units. Comments from both sides echoed Durbin’s call to “right the wrongs” of inequitable housing.

The social justice focus grew sharper as RIP supporters and opponents cited Portland’s racist history as a reason for either speedy adoption of RIP or great caution in its application.

Testimonials from members of groups like 1000 Friends of Oregon, Living Cully and various housing nonprofits stressed that adding more units to a formerly single family lot reduced the cost per unit.

PDX Forward testifiers suggested going further than six units to provide compact, low cost housing everywhere.

Activist Tony Jordan described RIP’s Deeper Affordability Bonus amendment as a way to counter redlining of the past.

Buckman resident Susan Lindsay objected to the exclusion of parts of the West Hills from RIP.

Sightline’s Michael Anderson said density provides cities with multi-generational abundance.

Climate activist Anna Kemper spoke of injustice foisted on minorities pushed to the margins of the City where pollution exposure is higher.

Nick Sauvie of Rose Community Development said densification enables non-profits to compete for building sites.

Objections from SE Portland residents like Ana Azizkhani countered that RIP itself is a racist policy in disguise.

“Don’t sell the city,” Azizkhani said. “Private equity firms displace black, brown and communities of color.” She continued that Portland has no shortage of buildable land without demolishing existing, affordable houses.

Architect Rod Merrick called the Deeper Affordability Bonus, “simply deeper deception” that would put pressure on single family homeowners to sell, displacing low and middle income households and families with children.

Adaptive reuse advocate Jeff Cole called for housing for working class families through “addition, not subtraction.”

Restore Oregon’s Peggy Moretti called for protections for existing affordable houses, adding that blanket rezoning favors high end market forces at the expense of minorities and wastes the embedded sustainability of housing built with old growth wood.

Testifier Christopher Brown warned of RIP’s impact on the poorest parts of town where modest homes might be replaced with three-story, 35-foot tall structures that would fill lots, block light, eradicate gardens and fell trees as well as houses.

Analyst M.K. Hansen used the city’s own data to show how market rate redevelopment would price out low income minorities.

During both sessions, residents called for assurances that affordability and displacements would be tracked. BPS’ Durbin promised tracing by race, income and age.

Given the intensity surrounding the five-year RIP debate and ongoing racial tensions within the community, SE resident Frank DiMarco called for a November ballot measure on RIP and its amendments to allow residents to exercise their rights of self-determination.

He questioned whether testifiers (numbered at 75) and 300 pieces of written testimonials represent the population.