Mailbag: ‘Why Are You Shilling for Residential Infill?’

Your constant spewing of YIMBY talking points is too much. The Residential Infill Project was designed by those who will profit off it. The fact that you are shilling it, as though it will actually help with affordable housing, is shameful.” —S.A. 

And so the debate begins! 

ICYMI, we wrote in Monday’s newsletter about Portland’s residential infill plan — and why researchers like Michael Andersen think it will move the needle on housing affordability. 

But reader S.A. disagrees, so yesterday she and Ben traded arguments about what residential infill will do, who it will benefit, and who can be trusted. 

Here’s an excerpt from that debate for anyone who wants to judge for themselves. 

Ben: Thanks for the note, S.A. The point you’re making (that residential infill and other pro-housing measures are a giveaway to developers) is one I’ve heard a lot, but no one has explained to me why a plan that marginally benefits developers should be disqualified even if it also benefits renters?

Yes, up-zoning is going to create an opportunity to make money, and anyone who decides to convert single-family homes into duplexes, triplexes, etc. (whether they’re private homeowners or commercial developers) will benefit from that opportunity.

But the down-zoning that happened in the ’50s also created an opportunity to make money, in that case by holding onto an asset and simply letting its value appreciate. Why should we be scornful of a developer who makes money by building a thing, when long-time homeowners have accumulated wealth just by buying something at the right time?

S.A.: Look around the city. Take note of what is currently be built for renters: apartment buildings. Check those prices. Nearly every one of the new buildings going up has very high rent. Why do you think a new triplex is going to be any different, especially if a developer is trying to make a profit on it?

Add to that the people who may have been living in that single-family home who get booted out by the landlord, so they can sell it off to developer. They get displaced. Then they’re forced to live further out, possibly at a high rate of rent.

Why should we be scornful of developers? Who is profiting massively off the displacement of a great number of Portland residents? And who are they in bed with? The money trail is not a pretty one. It would take a long time to go into all the details, but you can start here. Clyde Holland has his fingers in a lot of local pies.

Ben: But there’s a big difference between the luxury towers that Holland and his ilk are building and the duplexes, triplexes, townhomes, etc. that we featured in today’s newsletter and that would be allowed under residential infill.

In places where those low-rise, multi-family developments are already being built, we’re seeing homes in six-plexes go for $298,500, homes in a 12-plex go for $279,800 and ADU condos go for $299,000 (credit to Michael Andersen for the heads-up on these).

Those prices are way below the city’s median sale price, and for someone like me, they make homeownership seem feasible without moving east of 82nd Ave. and continuing the march of gentrification into East Portland and Gresham.

I see this as a renter, too. My partner and I rent a townhouse in NE Portland that’s affordable for a writer and a social worker today because it was built in the 1940s and has aged into affordability. We’d love to live closer to the city center, but this type of “missing middle” housing really is missing from much of the city.

What if Laurelhurst and other central neighborhoods had more 70-year-old townhouses on the rental market instead of so many expensive single-family homes? I’m pretty sure thousands of renters like my partner and I would be choosing to live in those bikable, walkable, commuter-friendly neighborhoods — and not driving up rents and home prices by looking for housing further and further east.

I recognize (and today’s newsletter points out) that infill development won’t change the affordability picture overnight, and I’m definitely wary of developers accumulating and profiteering from political power like they have in New York City over the years.

But I don’t see that happening in Portland right now. Portland City Council is passing tenant protections. The state is passing rent control. The city’s inclusionary zoning policy is placing a tax on developers. And voters are electing tenant advocates like Jo Ann Hardesty.

That doesn’t seem to me like a city that’s caving to big-money developers a la President Trump.

In fact, I see a different political fault line — between renters who’d get better access to Portland’s most desirable neighborhoods and certain homeowners who’d rather preserve the physical character of their neighborhoods. Is that too simplistic?

S.A.: Holland and his crew are not just building luxury housing; they’re also behind a lot of other things being built in our city. And anyone involved in opportunity zones (OZs) is using this scam put in place by Trump to line their own pockets.

The example in your newsletter is an outlier. As someone who’s been observing what’s happening in our city for a decade, this type of project is not the norm. While I am glad to see it exists, let’s be realistic: It’s not typical. A much greater portion of what’s already been built lands in the category of unaffordable for the majority of Portland residents.

Did you know that most of the people on the Residential Infill Project committee will directly benefit from it? Developers, real estate and architects are all on it. The citizens who objected to it (in particular, several people of color) were outnumbered.

Ben: Well first things first, I don’t understand how opportunity zones can be lumped into the same conversation as a proposal like residential infill. OZs are a Paul Ryan fever dream that, as you say, give huge tax breaks to developers, often for little-to-no public benefit. I’m with you there — that’s big-money politics at its worst.

But residential infill is a policy that would let duplexes, triplexes, and four-plexes return to the same neighborhoods that Portland banned them from 50+ years ago (for some pretty shady reasons). The biggest projects wouldn’t have 40 stories, or even four stories. They’d have four units, so it really feels like a stretch to paint that with the same brush as the luxury apartment towers going up in opportunity zones.

As for affordability, new housing is rarely affordable for low- or even middle-income renters. It becomes affordable over time. My townhouse is NE Portland is a great example of that. In 1949, I’m sure it was the cream of the crop. Seventy years later, it’s a little worn around the edges, and that’s why we can afford it.

But to end with something we agree about, I’m glad that four members of the RIP committee voted against the draft proposal that’s now going to City Council. Almost all of them described voting ‘no’ as a way to send a message that the final version should have even stronger anti-displacement provisions. That’s a fight worth fighting, and if they succeed, it’ll be a better policy.

Of course, I don’t want to forget why the Residential Infill Project started in the first place: because older, more affordable neighborhood homes were being demolished by the dozen and replaced with gaudy McMansions. That’s bad for affordability, bad for the environment, and bad for “neighborhood character.” So while I think the city’s proposal can still get stronger, I don’t think it’ll take much to beat the status quo.