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Portland Poised to Adopt Strict Limits on House Size

April 19, 2018

Overview

Portland planning staff is proposing strict new limits on the size of houses that can be built or remodeled in most areas of the City. Included in the latest draft of its “Residential Infill Project” code amendments, the strict regulation of house size—in addition to the traditional tools of setbacks and maximum height limits—appears to have been proposed to address neighbors’ objections to the replacement of smaller, older dwellings by newer, larger ones. This is being done in conjunction with additional allowances for accessory dwelling units, duplexes, and triplexes. If adopted, it will be the first time in the City’s history that strict square footage limitations have been imposed on most single-family homes.

In general, the square footage of a home will be limited to half of the lot size; such regulation is known as a “floor area ratio” (FAR) maximum. A plurality of the City’s single-family lots are 5,000 sq. ft., more or less; under these regulations, the maximum size that a single-family home can be on such a lot is about 2,500 sq. ft.

To put this in perspective, the current setbacks and height maximums would in theory allow up to a 6,750 sq. ft. home on a 5,000 sq. ft. lot. Thus, the 2,500 sq. ft. maximum is a 62% reduction in the potential size of a home on the most common Portland lot. On larger lots, homes can be larger but are still limited in proportion to lot size. This will apply to remodels in addition to new homes.

Two important exceptions apply:

  • basements with at least 50% of their walls below grade will not be counted towards the FAR maximum
  • attic areas that are less than 80 inches (6 feet, 8 inches) will not count toward maximum residential FAR

For those with pre-war homes, these exceptions are helpful, but for those with mid-century and later homes, which may not have basements, these FAR restrictions could substantially constrain remodel and expansion potential.

You can read more about the proposed changes here: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/678802.

The new regulations will apply throughout most of the north and east sides of the City and some neighborhoods on the west side, although many west-side neighborhoods—including most of Portland Heights, Willamette Heights, Kings Heights, Riverdale, Garden Home, Collins View, and Dunthorpe—will not be impacted.

An interactive map of the new “a” overlay zone, which will implement the FAR restrictions, is available here: https://www.portlandmaps.com/bps/mapapp/maps.html#mapTheme=rip. The
“a” overlay zone is shown in hash marks oriented from the upper left to bottom right.

A study by Johnson Economics suggests that the new residential FAR limits will slow redevelopment of single-family neighborhoods and generally reduce the land value of single-family properties: “[O]ur analysis indicates that the proposed changes in entitlements would likely result in a lower rate of development and redevelopment in the study area, yielding less in terms of residential investment but likely a similar number of new units. The modest increase in allowable units is offset by the lower allowed square footage of new development, which generally reduces the supportable land value for new development. The lower supportable land value decreases the likelihood of development or redevelopment on a significant number of parcels.” See https://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/678769.

If you or your clients wish to testify regarding these changes, note that the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission will be holding hearings on:

  • Tuesday, May 8, 2018, at 5 p.m. at 1900 SW 4th Avenue, Room 2500
  • Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at 5 p.m. at 1900 SW 4th Avenue, Room 2500.

People who testify orally are usually limited to two minutes, but interested parties can submit written testimony per the instructions on the handout. Electronic testimony can be submitted through the interactive map.

The current schedule indicates that hearings on the FAR regulations will be held by the City Council in the fall of 2018. The effective date would be sometime after that, most likely at the beginning or first quarter of 2019.

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