Review of Better Housing by Design and Residential Infill Draft Reports

There are two new proposals for changes to zoning codes in residential zones; Better Housing by Design and the Residential Infill project.  The recently (almost) completed Comprehensive Plan process changed “zoning;” where housing, commercial, and industrial uses can be located and the level of development intensity in each.  Residential zones are split between “single family” zones (R2.5, R5, and R10) and “multi-family zones” (R3, R2, R1, and RH) – each zone is listed from lowest to highest development density.  Roughly half of Eliot’s residential lots are expected to be rezoned to R 2.5 from the current R2 zone. The rest of Eliot’s residential zones are R 2 or higher. In addition, most of the properties along MLK and Williams/Vancouver are zoned CM for mixed use projects up to 65’ tall.

The Better Housing by Design Concept Report affecting R2 zones was out for comment until August 5, 2017.  Code Development to implement the concepts is the next phase, which will include public hearings before Council adoption of City proposed changes to the zone.  The Residential Infill project that affects the R2.5 zone is further along. The concepts for it have been adopted by Council but final changes to the zone are pending.  Again, those will include public hearings prior to adoption of the revised code this fall or winter.

Existing residential development is governed by zones that specify things like allowed height, number of units on each lot, setbacks, and in some zones, parking and open space for residents’ use.  Changes to all of these are proposed in both code revision processes in (over) reaction by the Council to the recent increase in housing demand and associated construction costs and rents. Council’s reaction is to increase allowed development density within existing zones to increase housing options; more smaller units on each lot.  Opposition to this is behind a number of neighborhoods attempts to form Historic Districts, in the hope that will protect them.

There are parallels to a similar program enacted during the WWII wartime housing shortage; however, those allowed for temporary exceptions to zoning and building codes, and any changes were supposed to be reversed after the shortage passed.  This policy was successful in quickly increasing the supply of housing and preventing rent gouging; however, many of the new dwelling units were intended to house single shipyard workers, not families. That changed after the Vanport flood when many displaced families relocated into these kinds of units.  As has been well documented, the Council turned a blind eye to the increased unit density so long as it was confined to the “red lined” area to contain both colored and poor white populations laid off after the war ended. Overcrowding fit the urban renewal definition for “blighted” neighborhoods that lead to the widespread demolition of those homes to make way for I-5, the Rose Quarter, the Portland Public School headquarters building, and Emanuel hospital’s failed expansion.

This time, the Council is proposing radical, permanent changes.  The most significant for Eliot is the increased unit density allowed in a zone.  Currently unit density is tied to lot size. In an R1 zone, only five units are allowed in a standard 50×100 foot lot: 50×100=5,000 SF.  The density allowance for the R1 zone 1,000 SF/unit, for an allowance of 5 units in the example lot. In addition, building height and setbacks restrictions limit the size of the building shell.  Both Better Building and Infill proposals shifts to use of the FAR ratio with no limit on number of units. FAR stands for “floor area ratio,” which is also based on lot size, but acts as a limit on building size, not number of units.  In the example above, the proposal maintains the building shell limits on height and setback, but allows the number of units to exceed five.

The current R1 zone typically results in the development of row houses, often for ownership, which stimulates developers to maximize the size of each row house.  That tendency is reinforced by requirements for parking and setback limitations that increase construction costs and therefore asking price. In our example, the new zone will allow building area to equal 1 ½ times the lot area, or a 7,500 SF building.  Council hopes developers will build a building with far more than five units, either condos or more likely, apartments. Units as small as 250 SF are being developed in Eliot. If units that small are included, the new code might allow up to 30 units, rather than 5.  In addition, the setback requirements are expected to be relaxed and parking requirements eliminated near major transit streets, which is essentially all of Eliot.

The shift to an FAR-based standard is called “Scale-based zoning,” by Council.  The shift is expected to, and likely will, encourage developers to build structures to the full extent of height and setback limits allowed.  Rather than row houses that fit into the neighborhood fabric, they are likely to build boxes to maximize the number of units. Traditional sloping roofs will be replaced by flat roofs, increasing shading of adjacent properties and reducing privacy.

With respect to R2.5 zones, previous code would have limited the number of units on a typical lot to 2.  Previously, this would have limited development on a “typical” lot to 2 units. The Residential Infill proposal increases that to 3 or 4 depending on building design; a single building with three units, or two row houses, each with an ADU.  It also may allow a single-family home to be carved into smaller units. Your next door “neighbor” could become a collection of strangers – Air BnB on steroids, all competing for our limited parking spaces.

We all hope Eliot’s status as a “Historic Conservation District” will provide some protection, although it has been ineffective in the past.  Unfortunately, both Council and Legislative leadership believe preservation of historic buildings and neighborhoods is unimportant in the face of the “housing crisis.”  As a result, Eliot’s existing weak historic preservation restrictions will not prevent the development of over-sized, boxy infill and stimulate unethical realtors to entice our homeowners to sell out to one of the many greedy developers who build them.  Equally unfortunate, the Council’s anti-landlord policies and transferring its responsibility for affordable housing to developers is slowing development of larger apartment complexes. They are mostly ugly buildings with overpriced units, but the lack of new large complexes will shift developer interest to smaller scale projects, and to Eliot with its enviable location and remaining historic character.