PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – As the City of Portland tackles its lack of housing and growing vacancies in downtown office buildings, the city passed two ordinances this week to incentivize converting commercial office space into residences.

One ordinance would cover up to $3 million of seismic retrofits, and the other would lower the seismic standard to levels required in other major cities in seismic areas. Portland’s current rules are higher than the national standard.

“If we want to be relevant going forward, this is the kind of strategy we need to pursue and think about,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler, during Wednesday’s city council meeting. “It causes us to rethink some of the rules that were put into place in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s that may not have aged so well.”

But what could those conversions look like and what hurdles could the city face? Those are questions KOIN 6 took to Portland State University’s School of Architecture.

Sergio Palleroni, a professor of architecture at PSU and director of the Center for Public Interest Design, said having populations downtown creates healthier cities.

“We in architecture, especially in the last 100 years, we think every building is very specific to its function, and yet, we know historically, for thousands of years, buildings that serve multiple purposes are able to shift, make for more vital areas,” Palleroni said.

Palleroni added that these kinds of conversions are happening in other cities across Europe. But in Portland, it may take lowering more than just seismic codes. Issues could remain in plumbing, fire and accessibility standards that are higher for residences than offices..

“Plumbing is a huge issue, how are you going to get all those bathrooms in? Kitchens, those have different fire codes and health requirements and stuff…” Palleroni said. “There’s going to be some changes in code, there’s going to be some changes in what we expect buildings to do. We may have to lower the barrier in some of the things.”

In larger office buildings, that could mean looking into types of housing with shared communal spaces, like bathrooms. It’s an idea the city will consider as affordable housing helps solve Portland’s homeless crisis.

“We’ll have to introduce bathrooms and kitchens and things like that, but we may not introduce as many as in normal housing. Some of it, we may need to share – which may lead to a different kind of housing,” said Palleroni. “The way as Americans, we’ve expected to have our own kingdom, we have everything in our house. Maybe we have to move a little more to like Europe where people share things, amenities.”

Despite the potential code and transition hurdles, Palleroni said that Portland – with an abundance of parks and public transportation – is the best example for this method of living, 

“Wouldn’t it be great to put people of all economic levels here in the heart where they can take advantage of these things? Because otherwise, we have a city that’s a big donut where nobody lives…” Palleroni said. “I can think of few cities in the country where it would be more tactical and more productive to do what’s being proposed.”

So far, the city has only identified about a dozen buildings that will be able to be turned into housing, but those behind the new ordinances say it’s a first step in the right direction.