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OP-ED: Why MAX Proximity Matters for Developers, Homeowners

June 18, 2018


It has been widely reported that by 2035, the number of households in Portland will grow by more than 100,000. Various ideas have been floated – both by the city and by private developers – to address the expected housing boom: inclusionary housing, “tiny homes,” rent control, to name a few.

Not surprisingly, many of the city’s ideas have been met by opponents arguing that these “affordable housing” options do more harm than good. For example, since passage in 2016 of Senate Bill 1533, which allowed the city of Portland to mandate that development projects with 20 or more dwelling units participate in the inclusionary housing program, new multifamily construction has fallen to almost zero. Without more housing units being delivered, simple supply and demand theory suggests that the affordable housing problem would only be compounded.

The latest solution proposed by the city of Portland is its Residential Infill Project. The idea is to take a fresh look at the rules and regulations that govern the types and sizes of homes allowed in Portland neighborhoods. Like other previous solutions, the Residential Infill Project has been widely criticized by developers and homeowners. If implemented as written currently, the rules would: 1, limit the sizes of houses in the R7, R5, and R2.5 zones by establishing a limit on house size using a floor area ratio (FAR) calculation; 2, revise how height is measured (e.g., measure from the lowest point near the house and not the highest point); 3, increase residential setbacks; and 4, change building designs (e.g., limit how high a front door can be above ground).

But the Residential Infill Project isn’t all bad. It includes at least one proposal that can give even the most skeptical developer or homeowner hope. The proposal would create a new “Additional Housing Options” overlay zone in the R7, R5 and R2.5 zones within a quarter-mile of centers and corridors near MAX stations, and in “higher opportunity housing areas” that have close proximity to community centers, parks, schools, etc. According to the Residential Infill Project summary, the new “a” overlay zone would allow the following additional housing types:

  • a house with two accessory dwelling units (ADUs), one attached and one detached
  • a duplex
  • a duplex with one detached ADU
  • a triplex on lots abutting a corner

These housing types would be allowed as long as they are no larger than a house allowed in the zone. In addition to the freedom to build the housing types above, the city is sweetening the deal by not requiring additional parking and allowing the FAR for all structures to be combined for triplexes on corner lots. The only catch at this point is that one of the units on a lot must incorporate “visibility” features, such as a no-step entry, wider halls and doors, and a bedroom and bathroom to be located on the ground floor of one of the units.

The deal is even sweeter if at least one of the additional units on site is considered “affordable” (i.e., up to 80 percent of median household income) or the owner pays a fee in lieu of providing an affordable unit. If eligible, an owner of a lot could take advantage of: 1, a 0.1 FAR bonus; 2, flexibility in housing types; and 3, the allowance of a triplex and ADU on corner lots.

The proposed rules for the new R2.5 zone also aren’t so bad. The zone would require at least two units when new development is proposed on a lot that is 5,000 square feet or larger, but for land divisions, the new rules would reduce the minimum lot width from 36 feet to 25 feet, allowing more property owners to divide lots. Furthermore, the new zone would allow property lines to be adjusted so that an owner could create a small flag lot less than 3,000 square feet as long as a house is retained on the lot. The new house that could be located on the flag lot would not come without its restrictions, however. The house, no larger than 1,000 feet, would require certain design elements, including a height limitation of 20 feet.

So, as I mentioned earlier, the Residential Infill Project isn’t all bad. Testimony on the proposed draft concluded in May. The Planning and Sustainability Commission will incorporate that testimony into a new recommended draft, which will be sent to City Council in fall 2018 for additional public testimony, hearings and amendments. Eventually, the City Council will vote whether to approve the project plans. Portlanders get to decide whether the proposals described above are something they want to fight or support. Unlike previous “affordable housing” options put forth by the city, the Residential Infill Project may provide at least a couple reasons to support it.

Column first appeared in the Daily Journal of Commerce on June 15, 2018.

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