By Midge Pierce

After five years of heated debate, City Council’s passage last month of the Residential Infill Project (RIP) codifies the allowance of up to six housing units on formerly single-family lots in Portland’s residential neighborhoods.

Focus now turns to Infill implementation and anti-displacement measures for Portlanders whose homes are replaced with multiplex development.   

RIP is slated to take effect in August 2021, giving time for map changes that, among other things, reflect rezoning of some 7,000 parcels from R5 to R2.5.

The 3-1 vote in favor of the ordinance came over Commissioner Amanda Fritz’ lone no-vote warning that RIP would cause carbon emission increases antithetical to climate goals. While her objections were no surprise, the vehemence of her statements was unexpected.

“Our planet is on fire,” she said. RIP will make Portland “burn faster” with the fuel of newcomers’ cars, construction traffic and inadequate transit connections.

Claiming that it was the saddest vote she participated in during 12 years on Council, Fritz said RIP threw out 40 years of land use planning. She indicated that RIP fails to provide housing stability and affordability for the low income Portlanders it was intended to help.

Residents of homes at risk of demolition in neighborhoods like SE Lents and Brentwood-Darlington will be a likely focus of anti-displacement measures.

For the three other Commissioners, a key to RIP passage was a Deeper Affordability Bonus that allows six-plexes in all geographically-viable residential neighborhoods providing half are affordable to lower income families. Duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes will be allowed with few restrictions.

While the policy reduces the size of new homes on formerly single family lots from 6,700 to 3,500 square feet, bonus incentives may add square footage. Off street parking will not be required.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said RIP will help repair the damage of Portland’s exclusionary housing practices.

Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, credited with pushing visitability requirements that will make multiplexes accessible to those with disabilities, said RIP opens the door to so-called middle housing for city residents of modest means.

Wheeler said allowing more housing types and a greater mix of incomes is a crucial step in the right direction, especially since COVID-19 has exacerbated houselessness and the need for low income homes.

He thanked pro-RIP groups ranging from the Homebuilders Association to Portland for Everyone for their support.

RIP upzoning surpasses mandates passed by the state legislature last summer that eliminated single family residential zones and allowed duplexes on all lots in most cities statewide.

National watchdogs have called it either the most progressive or untenable housing policy in the country, topping Minneapolis’ two-year-old allowance of triplexes in single dwelling zones.

Presaging passage, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) and a housing coalition began an Anti-displacement Action Plan to reduce the harmful impacts of involuntary removal of Portlanders from homes and businesses.

The Plan’s priorities are racial equity and targeting vulnerable populations. Minority applicants are encouraged to apply for the plan’s Anti-displacement Task Force.

Portland’s RIP was initiated by former Mayor Charlie Hales after Metro released figures that 260,000 new residents would arrive in Portland by 2035.

Those estimates, not updated since 2016, do not account for the COVID-19 downturn or recent social unrest in Portland. New growth allocations are expected later this year, according to RIP’s lead planner Morgan Tracy.

While Hales’ directive was to add density, it did not specifically address demolition or affordability. Planner’s thinking then, as now, is if enough units are built, prices will tumble. Critics fear that it is affordable houses and neighborhood stability that will tumble as long-time renters and owners are displaced from lower cost homes and families are pushed out of town by slice and dice development lacking sufficient yards, trees or parks.

Fritz, the only Council member who was in office when policy discussions began, claimed that RIP veered from original intentions of upzoning only within a quarter mile of transportation options.

“By allowing development far from centers and corridors, we are allowing housing to be developed in areas without safe, immediate access to transit,” said Fritz. “We are promoting our continued reliance on cars.”

She indicated that Portland already had sufficient zoned capacity to accommodate growth without densification that fails to take infrastructure needs into account.

Eudaly acknowledged concerns that RIP could cause demolition of affordable housing and displace vulnerable populations.

With a nod to critics’ comments that an existing house is the greenest house, she advocated conversions of single family houses into multiplexes and granting low income locals’ access to capital, enabling them to convert their homes into multiplexes.

She also dismissed fears of widespread demolition by predicting that RIP would not “bulldoze” neighborhoods. RIP would result in about 5,000 units over 20 years, she predicted, equating to 250 units per year.

Reactions to RIP have been swift. 1000 Friends of Oregon took an online victory lap for its lobbying group, Portland For Everyone, indicating that its advocacy for more multiplex units made RIP even stronger.

Conversely, a Stop Demolishing Portland posting cautioned that the housing situation was “about to get even worse for Black, Brown, immigrant and low income renters” because of land value increases and real estate speculation.

RIP passage may not be the final word on upzoning however. Objectors have a limited window to file appeals to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA)–within 21 days of the August 12 decision.