My View: City urgently needs infill zoning changes
When I was a student in Portland in the 1960s, I lived with other students in a house that rented for $50 a month, which we split nine ways. That was an extreme case of affordability even then, but not unique.
Today that house is long gone and a large apartment complex occupies the site and, of course, I miss it, but do I resent those apartments? No, I don't, because more than that building, I miss the days when students and working people could afford to live in inner Portland.
The inner east side of Portland has a lot of nice old houses, but history is not only architecture. History also is people.
In the 1980s, my then-wife and I were able to buy a house in Irvington. Homes were less expensive below 15th Avenue because, due to a history of redlining, it was more racially diverse there. To us, the lower price was an attraction, but so was the diversity.
We were, I fear, among the gentrifiers. We watched as the old-timers around us died off and young, affluent families bought their houses. Today Irvington is a historic district, and it stands as a museum of architecture where increasingly only the rich can afford to live.
In fact, most of the inner east side of Portland is becoming a museum of architecture for the rich. I love the ambience of old Portland and I miss it, and I myself have always preferred to live in older houses, but times change and we have to ask, what do we want Portland to look like in the future?
Do we want an inner city for the elite, with everyone else forced out? If not, then we need more housing in the inner city, and lots of it, which includes adding some gentle density to our beloved neighborhoods.
We also must ask what kind of urban environment we would prefer to live in: a neighborhood of single-family detached houses (which are getting steadily larger under current zoning), or a mix of single and multi-unit dwellings?
Portland is growing up, becoming a real city, and my vision for that city is one that is more diverse, with greater population density.
Greater density has its pros and cons, and among the positive factors are: permitting more people to live near where they work; more amenities and shopping near where people live; better public transportation and walkability; and a sense of fairness.
We have to give up some things for that, but we can't preserve the past in any case.
The city will change regardless, and the question is, how?
An argument against zoning for more density is that older, smaller houses are affordable, and that the new homes being built are not affordable.
Regarding older, smaller houses, they are indeed typically more affordable, but that does not mean they are affordable. In inner Portland, no single-family house on a full-size lot currently is affordable to an hourly wage worker supporting a family, to rent or buy. Regarding the new homes being unaffordable, that is in large part true, because developers build huge, expensive single houses because the zoning permits nothing else.
Decades ago, a lot of the bigger houses in Portland were subdivided into smaller units, or in some cases rented rooms. In neighborhoods like Buckman and Sunnyside, many of those remain divided, but many others have been restored to their original splendor as individual houses.
One of the best alternatives to building new stuff is to retrofit existing large houses into two, three or four units. We need zoning to permit that, and the Residential Infill Project makes that kind of reuse possible.
The bottom line is, as long as the residential neighborhoods are zoned only for single-family houses, that's what the builders will build. Houses will be knocked down to build huge houses because that's the only feasible scenario. We urgently need the zoning changes in the proposed Residential Infill Project in order to diversify and increase the housing in Portland and accommodate growth in an acceptable and sustainable way. It's important to re-frame the way we think, citywide, if we're serious about housing everyone.
Looking at a large apartment building under construction near Division Street, a friend asked me if I would want to live there. I told her that's the wrong question.
The question is, if I could afford to live there or out beyond 122nd Avenue, which would I choose?