Portland City Council to vote on Residential Infill Project

Civic Affairs

Public hearing June 11, vote set for June 18

A residential street in Portland (Courtney Vaughn/Pamplin Media Group)

PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — One of the most impactful housing projects in Portland will come before the Portland City Council for a vote on June 18.

Following hours of public input on the Residential Infill Project (RIP), Wednesday, June 3, Portland city commissioners will hear from the public again during an afternoon hearing this Thursday, June 11 before voting on amendments the following week.

The RIP is an initiative years in the making, which seeks to amend Portland’s housing development codes and standards to allow for a broader range of housing in each area of the city. RIP targets Portland’s single-dwelling zones by allowing for the development of multi-family housing like apartment complexes in areas typically dotted with bungalows, Craftsmans, and ranch-style homes.

Proponents of the project say it’s a step in the right direction to add more affordable housing in Portland, as the city expects to add 260,000 residents by 2035, according to the city’s comprehensive plan. Allowing for more duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, condos and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) could alleviate the dearth of housing, and lessen the financial squeeze on low- and middle-income Portlanders. A 2019 Multnomah County report on poverty found that roughly a third of the county’s residents don’t make enough money to meet their basic needs.

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“This project and its amendments, promise to make living space more affordable to more people, in very slow motion,” Michael Anderson, a researcher with Sightline Institute, told the City Council.

Others say the change also opens the door for more diversity within Portland’s neighborhoods—particularly those occupied by larger homes or affluent families—by adding middle housing to the mix.

City commissioners will consider six amendments to the current RIP plan. Some are banal, cleaning up language to fall in line with Oregon’s Senate Bill 534 and House Bill 2001. HB 2001 sought to achieve much of the same goals in the original RIP, by adding density to zoning areas in cities throughout the state.

Others are more dramatic.

Commissioners urged to adopt ‘Deeper Affordability Bonus’

One of the key amendments is a deeper affordability bonus for housing developers. The affordability bonus would allow developers to add more units and allow an overall bigger building footprint, so long as at least half the units are made affordable for people earning no more than 60 percent of the median family income, according to project documents. In some cases, developers could build a six-plex if it met affordability requirements.

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The city’s planning and sustainability department warned that the incentive may not be financially viable for all developers.

“The economic feasibility of such a steep affordability requirement means that this provision is unlikely to be utilized without some additional funding sources in addition to current subsidies like [system development charge] and [construction excise tax] CET waivers,” plan amendment documents state.

The deeper affordability bonus is heavily favored by advocacy groups

Julia Metz, community development and housing manager for Catholic Charities of Oregon, said the revamped affordability bonus would allow for more family sized units per lot, which is sorely needed in Portland.

“While we acknowledge that the existing affordability bonuses, as well as the proposed deeper affordability option, do not require or inherently guarantee affordable housing … we’d like to emphasize the important role that these bonuses play in opening the door to an option that currently does not exist,” Metz said, speaking on behalf of Catholic Charities.

The Cully Association of Neighbors also wants to see the incentive. Noting an “Inclusive Cully” anti-displacement policy developed by the neighborhood association, David Sweet said the RIP and its affordable housing incentives would help the Portland neighborhood address “more than half the goals we established in that policy.”

“Most of Cully is zoned for single dwelling units,” Sweet noted. “This amendment will allow affordable housing developers to compete for those lots and build more affordable housing.”

Residents torn on tearing down historic houses

Another amendment, the historic resource demolition disincentive, drew mixed feedback.

The amendment would limit development options on lots where a historic home or resource was demolished within the last 10 years.

If a historic home or building is demolished, the lot could only be used for a house, a house with an ADU, or a duplex. More dense housing, like triplexes, fourplexes and additional ADUs, would be allowed only if the existing building is retained and converted for residential use.

As with any housing initiative, the project also has detractors.

The Multnomah Neighborhood Association has lobbed opposition to RIP for years, arguing against the demolition of single-family homes for new housing developments.

MNA has also alleged previously that the city is bypassing state land use processes with its middle housing addition.

“We oppose the current iteration of the RIP and believe a house that is standing has more value than demolishing it for big-box apartments/condos,” Maria Thi Mai, president of the neighborhood association, stated in a letter from MNA to the city. MNA wants the city to generate a new analysis of current housing stock, as well as a housing needs analysis “based on intrinsic values.”

“These values include costs of stormwater management (due to loss of pervious surfaces), traffic impacts, costs based on household incomes of working poor, and other values that define livability,” the letter states, asking the city “press pause on development and let nature heal.”

The city council has been holding meetings virtually, including public hearings, as many government buildings remain closed to the public due to COVID-19. Some have asked the city to postpone voting on RIP until the council can resume in-person meetings.

Tamara DeRidder, who runs land use planning firm TDR& Associates, said the city is leaving many residents out of the public participation process by holding hearings on a solely digital platform.

“This public hearing cannot be equitable if done in a digital/virtual platform alone and requires a physical gathering as well or it will be deemed unethical by the American Institute of Certified Planners(AICP),” De Ridder wrote, noting not all Portlanders have internet access, and many didn’t receive notice of the hearings.

The city council has not changed its scheduled June 18 vote.

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