Think Out Loud’s Future of Cities

By Don MacGillivray

Portlanders are having difficulty just finding housing and they often must take what is available instead of what they need or want. As Portland works to create a sustainable future, all housing should be affordable with a variety of housing types suitable for people of all ages, incomes and lifestyles. When a person’s circumstances change everyone should still be able to find a proper place to live. Communities should include safe places to work, shop, learn and play that make use of alternate forms of transportation and reduce the use of motorized vehicles.

On May 27, ”Think Out Loud” on Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) aired a program about the future of cities. The ideas expressed in this article are generally those from four of the speakers that participated in the YIMBY (Yes, In My BackYard) conference about many new housing innovations and the growth of Portland.

Housing has been a problem throughout the entirety of Oregon’s history since the 19th century. During World War I, Oregon declined to create a housing authority because it was opposed by wealthy landowners. Portland finally got one in 1941 and soon after Vanport became the largest public housing project in the nation with over 40,000 residents. When the disastrous Vanport Flood occurred in 1948, it caused an even greater disaster in the local housing market when a third of city’s residents left the city because they could not find a place to live. 

After World War II, affordable housing for low income people became older housing in need of repair, and therefore of lower value. In recent years older homes and apartments have been sold, rehabilitated and made into ones that are often as expensive as new housing.

In Oregon 150,000 homes are needed to fill the backlog of housing and only 20,000 homes are built each year so a deficit will be with us for a long time. Nationwide 3.8 million new homes are needed. A shortage of housing creates an excessive amount of both financial and social damage within the economy.

Oregon’s land-use goals require cities and counties to provide abundant, diverse and affordable housing for everyone. Goal 10 of the 19 land use goals describes housing. The state Land Conservation and Development Commission is in charge of the oversight of these goals, but they have been reluctant to use their authority to see that they are carried out. Portland is now in its seventh year of a housing crisis and local codes and rules need to be improved.

Portland was the first city in the nation to eliminate the single-family zone. Similar legislation has since been adopted by the states of Oregon, California and Washington in all but the smallest cities. This will increase the housing density in cities by facilitating the construction of more housing and help to address global warming. 

Since the zoning reform laws took effect, Portland has built 36 accessory dwelling units, 72 fourplexes, nine triplexes and 10 duplexes for a total of 371 homes in seven months.

New developments in Portland neighborhoods upset many neighborhood residents. Neighbors have often tried to block the development of new housing by protesting at neighborhood meetings and by complaining to the authorities. Usually these housing projects will move forward in spite of the opposition. The owners, developers and officials have followed the rules and any serious changes would delay a project making it more expensive and less affordable.

New housing should not be such an important asset to financial investors. Housing is often required to provide double digit returns and its value as a commodity takes precedent over the functional, utilitarian and societal values.

Homeowners are fed up with the homeless situation in Portland and the public wants the problem solved. Homeless campers living in residential neighborhoods are a threat to lives and property and the authorities often won’t or can’t address situations that occur.

New housing construction would benefit from large scale solutions. Several hundred affordable units per year is not enough and most of the new units under construction are not affordable to those without shelter. Bigger projects that are several thousands of units in size are needed. Lloyd Center, which was recently for sale, was a lost opportunity. It could have been developed as a mixed-use community for as many as 10,000 residents.

Climate change is also becoming an important aspect of new housing, which can provide more efficient energy use, greater freedom of movement and better access to the environment. 

The guests in this recent “Think Out Loud” program were the Executive Director of 1,000 Friends of Oregon, the Chair of Albina Vision Trust Board, the Director of the Portland State University Homelessness Research Collaborative and a visiting staff writer from The Atlantic magazine. Hear the full program at bit.ly/ThinkOutLoudMay27.

Think Out Loud’s Future of Cities

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