My View: One-size-fits-all infill proposal filled with negative consequences
A Seattle transplant, I've been closely following Portland's Residential Infill Project proposal, and how it might impact residents and neighborhoods. Seattle went through a similar scenario with their Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda proposing citywide up-zones. Dialogue around HALA devolved into YIMBY vs. NIMBY supporters. A similar, polarized debate is playing out with RIP.
Portland, you're better than this.
Both sides agree on common goals of adding density and much-needed affordable housing, but, as in Seattle, the policy does little to achieve those goals. A look back at RIP's history sheds some light on how things morphed along the way.
RIP policy evolved from a growing alarm about the "McMansionization" of Portland's single-family neighborhoods. The city's Historic Landmarks Commission highlighted this "epidemic of demolitions" (Priority 5, page 9) in its State of the City Preservation Report 2014. Proposed mitigation measures included local zoning code changes; residential infill standards, especially in historic districts; and incentives for rehabilitation and adaptive reuse to align with the city's carbon reduction goals. The City Council responded by convening the Development Regulatory Advisory Committee subcommittee to address demolition regulatory reform.
At the same time, the grassroots United Neighbors for Reform prepared a Call to Action, backed by 30 neighborhood associations, addressing DRAC's policy recommendations. Portland for Everyone came out in full support saying that RIP will result in more affordable and diverse 'missing middle' housing options. The Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission ignored the vast majority of neighborhood associations who expressed opposition to RIP.
Five years later, RIP's proposal encompasses 96 percent of single-family areas to allow duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes, but without any affordable housing guarantees. There are no proposed infill design guidelines to address neighborhood compatibility.
The city's economic analysis by Johnson Economics revealed other red flags: the majority of redevelopment will be investor-owned; result in smaller, expensive rental units; and increase demolitions — the initial impetus for the RIP policy. The displacement risk analysis is equally disconcerting and seems to recognize that vulnerable populations will be especially hard hit. At a Feb. 12 PSC hearing, Commissioner Baugh shared this takeaway: "It seems like we're making the problem worse for some populations and for other populations it seems like it's a good deal, and I'm concerned about the unbalancing of that issue."
Contrary to the YIMBY narrative, we can't simply build our way out of the problem. The one-size-fits-all nature of the RIP proposal will likely have unintended negative consequences. It's about adding more of the right supply that needs to be affordable. As the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Research and Policy Lab argues, "A lot of cities are growing rapidly. We should address ways of including new development alongside the old in a way that leans on the strength of buildings and affords additional housing supply."
With its Residential Infill Pilot Program, the city of Tacoma offers an example of a more deliberate, nuanced approach to promoting innovative residential infill. The pilot program invites proposals from developers and property owners to help inform future housing infill types and appropriate zoning districts.
Portland thrives on innovative, entrepreneurial solutions. A plan that achieves density without demolition and displacement, and without sacrificing livability, is something about which all Portland residents should give a RIP.
Brooke Best, who lives in the Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood, is with the Portland Coalition for Historic Resources.