What Portlanders Say About RIP – Part 1

The Planning & Sustainability Commission (PSC) received more public testimony on the Residential Infill Project than on any other re-zoning plan in recent memory.  Hundreds of Portlanders waited for hours to testify to the commissioners, and over a thousand more submitted written testimony on the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s website.

The public testimony was overwhelmingly opposed to the RIP.  Portlanders of all sorts told the commissioners that RIP isn’t necessary and will hurt our lower-income neighbors, urged the PSC to put ordinary families ahead of developers, and asked for so-called middle housing ideas to be tested and evaluated before a sweeping re-zone of all our neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, the PSC commissioners are appointed, not elected.  They are selected by city planners; many are themselves real estate developers or get their work from the real estate development industry.   Any guesses if they listened to the testimony of ordinary Portlanders?   After all of that public testimony, PSC expanded RIP to a sweeping redevelopment of 96% of the city’s neighborhoods to quadplexes with no parking, with zero protection for lower-income and vulnerable Portlanders.  #PDXisnot4sale

Even so, all of that public testimony was really important.  You see, the City Council will make the final decision on RIP, they are elected, and you can vote them out of office.  So let’s read what our fellow Portlanders wrote to the PSC, and let’s think about what we’re going to say to City Council.

Now we’ll excerpt some of the PSC testimony.  We’ll only use first names:

Testimony from Virginia:

“The depth and breadth of opposition to the RIP, especially the ‘a’ overlay, reflected in testimony on this site is stunning. And I believe it is largely justified. City planners’ assurances that the RIP’s ‘innovative development’ options designed to boost density will complement the character of single-family residential (SFR) neighborhoods ring hollow; where are the contemporary US examples to buttress that claim?

Nor have city officials made a credible case that newly constructed middle-housing dwellings in designated high opportunity neighborhoods will be affordable to those earning less than half the median family income (MFI). Metro’s recent housing snapshot (https://www.oregonmetro.gov/news/you-are-here-snapshot-greater-portlands-need-affordable-housing ) makes clear these are the individuals in need of affordable housing options. In contrast, Metro calculates there is a 98,000-unit surplus of housing affordable to those with incomes 50-80 percent of MFI in the greater Portland area. I believe that surplus, along with the softening in the city’s rental market over the last year and Zillow’s assessment that Portland’s home-selling market has gone “cold”, weakens the housing crisis rationale for the RIP.

Despite my qualms about the RIP and opposition to adoption of the draft proposal, I urge the Council to bless a multi-year pilot program. A pilot—in one or more of the handful of neighborhoods that support the draft proposal—could allow the current divisive philosophic debate to evolve into a calmer, fact-based one. A pilot should yield data that clarifies whether the posited benefits of expanding middle housing options (in terms of diversity and affordability) outweigh the potential costs of boosting densities in a large swathe of the city (in terms of loss of neighborhood character, increased traffic congestion, and school overcrowding).

I am convinced the alternative—enacting the current draft in the face of broad-based opposition—will depress residents’ already low opinion of the city’s land use planning, heighten their cynicism about the integrity of the public input process, and diminish further the share of those satisfied with the city’s once-vaunted livability.”  

Testimony from Adam:

“I have devoted many hours researching the proposed Residential Infill Project (RIP) taking advantage of BPS resources online, at in-person open houses, and during phone calls with City staff members. Because this plan has far-reaching effects on the future livability of Portland, it’s vital that we get this right. As the plan currently stands, I do NOT support it – particularly the proposed “a” overlay zone.

I argue this plan focuses too much on simply increasing the number and types of homes to appease buyers moving to Portland and not enough on maintaining character and affordability which have made Portland such an attractive place for new and existing residents. The RIP is an untested idea and I believe we need to study the impacts from a systems perspective before adopting this. Being an untested idea, we don’t fully understand its impact until it’s in effect (and therefore too late). This will have far reaching unintended impacts and the City hasn’t done an adequate job of assessing its potential impact. Frankly, I’m surprised that the RIP proposal has made it this far and I view that as a sign that the City is focused on policies that favor development over livability and preservation of neighborhoods.

Things I’m in favor of: Limits Size: The lot line to lot line 4,000 sq ft McMansions will be limited on standard 50×100 lots (but see points below). Internal Conversions: Allows an increase in density without demolitions.

My issues with the RIP are as follows: 1) Demolitions. Is the City able to guarantee that this proposal will not increase the rate of demolitions of viable homes? If not, I call on Council members to take additional time to evaluate this program before considering its adoption. When the first round of this proposal came out I thought it was likely increase the rate of demolitions. However, after digesting the information more, I now see that this proposal, in large part, REQUIRES demolitions in order to meet its goal of maximizing density in single family neighborhoods. With the exception of interior conversions, the RIP will undoubtedly accelerate the pace of demolitions. Lots (particularly those with small, unattractive homes) will continue to be purchased by developers and turned into profitable homes, duplexes, triplexes, and condos. This policy would encourage developers to continue this practice of outbidding potential buyers. I’m opposed to demolitions of viable homes and am not willing to sign off on anything that doesn’t protect existing homes. Further, the City has not put adequate health protections in place to safeguard the public who live near demolitions. If a home is built after 1913, it is legal for a developer to demolish rather than deconstruct the home. These older homes still contain lead, asbestos, and other toxic chemicals. If the City adopts a program that accelerates demolitions, it better be prepared for the health consequences to its citizens as a result of LEGAL demolitions which spread toxic chemicals to adjacent homes, schools, and businesses.

2) Green Spaces. The RIP is in direct conflict with green spaces. Speaking just of “a” overlay zone, this policy encourages: duplexes on standard lots and triplexes on corner units. If developers provide affordable housing, they get a bonus unit. The home size limit of 2,500 sq ft is still a large house/footprint, as this calculation doesn’t include the square footage of the basement. After a 2,500 sq ft house is built, plus 1-2 ADUs, where is the area left for permeable green spaces? How is this policy even being considered given the City’s other goals of green space protection and expansion? When a single family home is demolished on a higher density lot (e.g., R2.5), the owner would be REQUIRED to build TWO new units instead of replacing it with one home. Two houses on a lot that used to have one constitutes an increase in impervious surfaces. Permeable surfaces are vital for filtering stormwater runoff which, in turn, reduces the stress on wastewater infrastructure and improves ecological health. You’re proposing more structures with more roofs which take the place of permeable greenery. This would put undue burden on our wastewater infrastructure and cause pollution of nearby lakes, rivers, and wetlands due to increased stormwater runoff. Did BPS consult with BES on this proposal? I’d like to see BES’ comments about how this would impact things like green space and stormwater. If the City wants to pass this policy, they need to do a much better job of communicating how they plan to balance new impervious structures with ecological health and City infrastructure. I’d also like to mention that this proposal seeks to maximize density, which means more people for the same amount of parks. Does the City plan to dedicate new spaces for green spaces? If not, I strongly recommend a reconsideration of the RIP.

3) Helps Developers. This policy would favor developers at the expense of livability and neighbors’ desires. Already a tremendous amount of animosity exists between long-time residents and (often out-of-town) developers who have little to no interest in the neighborhoods in which they build. I could cite NUMEROUS examples in my neighborhood alone. The RIP essentially states: we need more housing options, in the “a” overlay zone we need developers to build duplexes, triplexes, and ADUs, and elsewhere we need more units in higher density zones. All that new development will line the pockets of developers, real estate companies, and architects. Now if everyone had a shared interest in serving the community rather than maximizing profits, I wouldn’t object to this. However, many (if not most) developers are driven by profits and will continue to raze properties, build cheaply, and flip units to appease their investors. They can skirt by meeting minimum code requirements and disregard input from the neighbors. From firsthand experience, I can testify unequivocally that many developers do not care about the neighborhood or the views of the citizens who are impacted by their buildings. Much of the new development is built for new residents and the desires of existing residents are disregarded in many ways. The RIP is a complete handout to developers. A developer can make more money off of selling three small units of a triplex than a single family home so of course they will build these everywhere. What plans will be put in place to minimize animosity between citizens concerned about the conservation of their neighborhood integrity and developers wishing to maximize profits?

4) Design Standards. I wouldn’t have a problem with new development if it better matched the design of adjacent buildings. Portland single family neighborhoods are filled with beautiful historic-looking homes (e.g., bungalows and craftsmans) that help make neighborhoods so attractive. The majority of new homes are out of character with other homes and contain design elements that don’t match much of the surrounding aesthetics (e.g., roof overhangs, ornate woodworking, etc). I’ve asked several times whether the RIP could include some basic design criteria to ensure compatibility with neighborhoods, and I’ll ask it again. I believe this proposal fails to meet its originally intended goals, one of which is to have redevelopments be “better integrated with existing homes.” (Morgan Tracy, email, Oct. 2016). Without some very basic design standards to boost compatibility, I cannot support this policy. What I’ve seen built are very modern (and often ugly) designs juxtaposed with historic craftsman homes. I understand every decade has a preferred building style but I, for one, don’t want this policy because it increases the incompatibility of neighborhood styles. A large modern home looks very odd next to a row of 1950s ranch houses. Are design criteria not important to BPS? Also, because homes are maxed out at 2,500 sq ft, I expect to see most new developments maxing out at this scale because it’s most profitable. This will create a homogenous landscape of 2,500 sq ft homes.

5) Affordability. The RIP needs to address housing affordability head on. New developments are on the rise yet we haven’t seen a dip in housing prices. The notion that we can build our way to affordability hasn’t been proven and is a false narrative sold by developers.

The RIP is not good for Portland. It’s untested and will have long-lasting negative unintended consequences on Portland. PLEASE DO NOT PASS THIS WITHOUT SOME MAJOR REVISIONS AND FURTHER STUDY!!!”

Okay, that’s it for now – later, we’ll see more of what Portlanders told the PSC – and hopefully what many more Portlanders will tell City Council.

P.S.  If we happen to quote your testimony, and you want to add more thoughts, please get in touch with us.  PDXisnot4sale@gmail.com

Posted in: RIP