By David Krogh
Inner Southeast Action (ISA) held a panel discussion as part of their monthly meeting March 2 to discuss the Residential Infill Project (RIP) and related programs adopted by the city.
ISA describes itself as “an antiracist SE Portland community group focused on making the city better and more equitable for everyone.”
This goal is progressively oriented especially considering Portland is the nation’s whitest large city and SE Portland is second only to SW Portland within the city in terms of a demographic dominance by white residents.
The citizen group is led by a four-person board of Chrystal Brim, Erik Mathews, Daniel Amoni and Kat West. None of the board members are BIPOC (Black, indigenous or people of color), however, there are citizen participants who are BIPOC.
Board member Kat West says, “it’s an Oregon non-profit that was formed two years ago by a group of about 25 community members in SE Portland. It was formed for the purpose of providing progressive-minded community members a way to make a difference.”
The group meets monthly, has several action committees working on a variety of topic areas, and a listserv of several hundred who have expressed interest in group activities.
Most of the group’s activities revolve around support and participation in various locational functions such as Sunday Parkways, Greenway gatherings, Hawthorne safety and business cleanup issues and Portland United Against Hate.
The ISA strives to provide information and links for getting involved with other civic-related activities within the city. They have partnered with other civic groups including SE Uplift, Oregon Walks, SOLVE and the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association for specific activities.
The panel discussion was comprised of Madeline Kovac from the Housing Action Collective; Tony Jordan with the Parking Reform Network; Bandana Shrestha of AARP Oregon Director of Community Engagement; and Neil Heller, designer and co-founder of Small Development Counts.
The topic of discussion was Portland’s Successful Zoning Reforms: Portland’s recent progressive zoning reform successes focused on the Residential Infill Project (RIP) and Better Housing by Design.
Their intent was to determine the extent of zoning reforms, their successes (or not) and lessons learned. The panel attempted to address the principal housing issue for most people: affordability.
Kovac feels policies are needed for “bringing down costs and increasing affordability.” Shrestha stated that AARP “wants older people to have living options including affordability,” and that these options need to include accessibility, transportation opportunities and neighborhood amenities.
The panel acknowledged that RIP does not include direct provisions to mandate affordability, but does allow for higher density which will in itself create a larger variety of housing types available.
Heller stated that the city should focus more on middle density housing, the housing type existing between apartments and single family residences saying, “There is a market for these types of housing and a job creator for smaller builders.”
Jordan mentioned the need for subsidies to builders in order to economically support the creation of affordable housing. “You can’t expect a city to solve issues that a builder could,” he said.
Discussion continued regarding how Portland was able to eliminate its exclusionary zoning (no longer having zones exclusively for single family houses). The consensus was that density advocates swayed the city to adopt the changes.
In reality, the changes would have come about with the adoption of HB2001 by the State Legislature. However, Portland’s RIP program was intended to comply with that.
Kovac said that system is closer to what Oregon’s Statewide Housing Goal calls for and is a better system than what is now in WA and CA.
Jordan offered that parking advocates were also heavily involved in lobbying for RIP. The addition of onsite parking is a high cost for builders and tends to take away from affordability.
Heller concurred and stated that short of building smaller units, the only way to realistically provide affordability is to include subsidies and/or incentives to builders. He concluded stating: “Zoning codes can reflect political aims, but not address market realities.”
The question was asked, “Will people still bring their cars?” Jordan stated there was a study which showed around 70 percent of apartment dwellers still have cars. This correlated with a 2012 study by the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) which was updated in 2019.
This means apartment dwellers park on neighborhood streets because of the lack of parking where they live; a Catch 22, as the addition of parking for apartments reduces the number of units for the site, creating higher unit costs.
Jordan went on to state that the city needs to provide full service transportation options, including the better management of curb space. This ultimately may result in the city initiating more parking permit programs in residential areas which had never experienced parking problems before now.
Due to a lack of time the panel was not able to address the full extent of the topic. In reality, it is likely too early to discuss successes and the lessons learned from RIP given that it has only been in effect since August 2020.
“The bulk of the changes, including rezones, new overlay zones, increased options for housing and limits on building scale are slated to go into effect on August 1, 2021,” according to Project Updates provided by the BPS.
The panel agreed the adopted version of RIP still hasn’t addressed many questions citizens have raised including displacement due to gentrification, purchase options for renters and the need for better identification of neighborhood disparities. Additional discussion on this topic is anticipated.
For more on ISA, visit InnerSoutheastAction.org.