Should Portland Grow In or Out? And Other Housing Qs

“How does Portland’s zoning and the metro area’s ‘infill philosophy’ contribute to homelessness and gentrification? Considering the available public transportation, might ‘outfill’ ease the crisis?” Duncan McEwan

We shared a little background on this question and the broader infill debate in today’s newsletterHere’s what else we learned.

The urban growth boundary

The urban growth boundary (or UGB) is our region’s outer limit for new development, and it can only be expanded with approval from our regional government, Metro.

Metro has approved dozens of UGB expansions for Portland and its suburbs over the years, and it did so again last year  opening up about 2,000 acres for development around Wilsonville, Hillsboro, and Beaverton.

The latest expansion will allow more than 9,000 new homes to be built in the Portland metro area — creating extra supply that could help ease our city’s housing crunch.

But developers and free-market economists who’d like to see more dramatic changes to the UGB will likely be disappointed, for a couple reasons.

The problem of sprawl

The best case against expanding the UGB might be this photo of Phoenix. Or this one of Los Angeles. Or maybe this one of Houston. They’re all massive cities that have let themselves spread out across hundreds of square miles, a footprint so big that building efficient public transit is virtually impossible.

Instead, people in these cities commute long distances in their cars, chugging along six-lane freeways and emitting carbon the whole way.

By sticking to a strict UGB, Portland has kept commutes shorter and made public transit and bike travel more feasible options. And that’s helping the city and the state close in on their climate goals.

The politics

There’s also a political case for limiting the UGB: As an elected official, if you’re going to invest big money in new bike lanes, new transit lines, and new public parks, you want to make sure developers build new housing in places that allow people to actually enjoy those amenities.

One way to ensure that happens is to limit where developers can and can’t build — and the UGB is a very effective tool for doing that.

Our Q&A with Tom Armstrong and Love Jonson

We also got questions about how Portland can maintain its public spaces as the city grows, and what’s going on with the city’s fee waivers for Accessory Dwelling Unitis (aka ADUs).

Here’s what Bureau of Planning and Sustainability wonks Tom Armstrong and Love Jonson told us about those Qs and more.

Q: How can we build more community spaces — and retain a sense of community  in our neighborhoods as they grow and change?

A: A Parks Bureau key performance measure is that every household is within ½ mile of a neighborhood park. Currently, about 80 percent of households meet this standard. Parks continues to acquire and development parks and open space in deficient areas, especially in East Portland where they have recently developed two new parks and are constructing a third.

Another key measure is that 80 percent of households live in healthy and complete neighborhoods, where people can meet most of their daily needs (access to transit, shops, services, parks and schools) within a convenient 20-minute walk or bike ride. Currently, about 64 percent of Portland households meet this standard. To achieve this goal, we need to add more people to our complete neighborhoods (about 75 percent of new growth happens in these areas) and create more complete neighborhoods through infrastructure investments, such as transportation improvements in East Portland.

Q: SDC fees have been reinstated for ADU construction making it HARDER for homeowners to increase density. What can citizens do?

A: The SDC waiver has actually been extended indefinitely — but only for homeowners who don’t rent their units on Airbnb or other short-term rental sites. System development charges will be waived if homeowners building an ADU sign a covenant stating that they won’t use the ADU or any other unit on their property for short-term rental (see more here).

The rationale behind this change is to make sure homeowners can use ADUs how they need to, whether it’s for visiting friends, aging parents, adult children, studio or workspace or additional income — while ensuring that new rental housing units are available to serve those who need housing in our community, not just tourists.

Q: How can we incentivize/build more diverse types of new housing that will serve people who want to stay in the neighborhood, not just move in for a few years and then move on.

A: One option is to make more opportunities for homeownership available. But homeowners aren’t the only ones who care about their neighborhood: About half of Portland residents are renters, and renters feel rooted in their community and contribute to their neighborhoods as well.

The perception of what “home” is has started to change. For instance, younger folks are more willing to live in duplexes or triplexes; they’re more affordable than single-family homes but still offer amenities like yards and outdoor space.

The Residential Infill Project would allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes to be built again, like they were in neighborhoods like Buckman, Kerns and Ladd’s Addition before exclusionary zoning was put in place. The basic concept is to allow more housing units within a single structure, while reducing the overall size of the building. With each additional unit (up to four), the structure (or building envelope) is allowed to be a little bigger, thus making it more feasible for builders.

So, more housing units and options within the scale of a low-density residential neighborhoods provides more Portlanders access to desirable neighborhoods with transit, parks and other amenities.

Q: What’s your take on the infill vs. outfill question? Does the city’s “infill philosophy” contribute to gentrification and homelessness?

Oregon’s legacy of land use planning calls for cities to accommodate people within their urban growth boundaries in order to preserve our rich farms and forests outside of them. Infill (more people living closer to their work and other places they have to go) supports public transportation, bicycle transportation and other ways of getting around than single-occupancy vehicle trips. “Outfill” would mean more people would live farther from the city, where public transportation service is generally less available. This would mean more single-occupancy vehicle trips, which thwart our climate goals and lead to more traffic, longer commutes and less time to be involved in your community.

The infill strategy does not directly cause homelessness. Gentrification, rising housing costs and displacement are largely driven by the growth of high-wage jobs coming out of the Great Recession. This phenomenon is happening all over the country. The trend of people moving to cities and other factors means housing prices will rise and those with the most resources will the greatest choice.

Infill and redevelopment have made some neighborhoods more attractive, which has increased displacement due to rising housing costs. However, preventing infill is not a solution; limiting new development in high-demand neighborhoods would constrain the supply of housing even more and put increased pressure on the existing housing (see San Francisco). It also denies more people the opportunity to live in desirable neighborhoods.