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The Truth About RIP From The Inside - A Minority Report Is Issued

Something very unusual has happened. As regular readers know, the Residential Infill Proposal (RIP), that is now before the city council, was developed by the Stakeholders Advisory Committee (SAC). A third of the RIPSAC committee, the "RIPSAC 7", has now issued its "minority report".

This report tells the truth about RIP, how the developers hijacked the process, and why RIP will destroy Portland's neighborhoods without producing affordable housing or any of the other promised benefits.

We'll reproduce the Minority Report in its entirety. It is long and detailed; but well worth reading. Take your time, and get angry at what developers are trying to do to our neighborhoods.

November 04, 2016

Linda Bauer, Appointee - East Portland Action Plan

Sarah Cantine, Architect - Boise NA Land Use

Jim Gorter, Appointee - Southwest Neighborhoods, Inc.

Rod Merrick, Architect - Eastmoreland NA Land Use

Rick Michaelson, Appointee – Neighbors West/Northwest

Michael Molinaro, Architect, Appointee – Southeast Uplift

Barbara Strunk, Appointee – United Neighborhoods for Reform

We are representing a coherent and cohesive third of the RIPSAC appointees. Our shared perspective is to approach planning as neighborhoods, building around centers in neighborhood context consistent with supporting Goals in the 2035 Comprehensive Plan.

We have given many hundreds of hours both in the RIPSAC meetings and in meeting as a group to formulate our analysis and recommendations summarized in this analysis.

We all care deeply about our city and we applaud the effort to consider how and where to focus housing density and how to guide the growth of the city in a period of rapid growth. This was a promising start that ultimately ran entirely off the rails. If the concern is affordability this project is a false promise. If the concern is a more walkable lively city, this is a false promise. If the concern is a reduction of house size this is a false promise, and finally if this is an attempt to reduce demolitions…well no, it is not.

Subject: Comment on the October 2016 Residential Infill Project (RIP) Concept Report

We focus first on the significant implications of the “Concept Report to Council”. Following this is a discussion of the 10 RIP Recommendations and how they address the issues that frame concerns underlying the project but fails to address from speculative demolitions and housing costs to a zoning code that is misaligned with policies and goals in the Comprehensive Plan. We then look for common ground in the three subject areas that the RIPSAC was chartered to address along with an assessment of the results in those areas. In the summary, we highlight recommendations.

Significant Implications of the “Concept Report”

 The entire inner east side and part of the west side of Portland is to be rezoned by assigning a “housing opportunity zone” overlay designation that increases allowed density by 200 to 300%. The already compromised R5 zoning density designation with its substandard minimum lot sizes is retained in name only. The plan encourages triplexes on every corner, duplexes or a house with two accessory dwelling units on every 3,000 to 7,000 SF lot, and small cluster housing plus ADUs on every lot of 10,000 SF or greater. This is an unprecedented “entitlement” for developers. It is not justified by a shortage of land designated for higher density in the Comprehensive Plan but by the claim that innovative housing is desired in Portland. At the same time it is a taking from every stakeholder for whom zoning provides stability and predictability promised in the Comprehensive Plan.

 Ownership standards are implicitly restructured from fee simple to a condominium basis since ADUs will no longer be “accessory” but able to be sold independently as will the duplexes, courtyard clusters, and corner tri-plexes that will be constrained to a single tax lot under the plan. Middle housing is primarily rental housing. Middle class resident owners will be displaced. Portland will transition to a city of investor-owners and renters.

 The density encouraged by this “overlay” is greater than that permitted in the multi-family R2 (2,000 SF per dwelling unit) zone further confusing the intent and integrity of the density designated code. The single family neighborhood zone, an essential characteristic of this city with one house per lot is effectively erased from most of Portland.

 By widely distributing density the proposal fails to focus density around centers consistent with the 2035 Comprehensive Plan. Neighborhoods that did not fit the ¼ mile bubble distance from corridors are declared “housing opportunity zones” in the name of “equity” without justification. The numerous skinny lots and lots with underlying lot lines less than 5,000 SF within this zone are defacto rezoned to R2.5. West side neighborhoods not within 1/4 mile of corridors and Portland’s west suburbs are not impacted presumably to diffuse opposition. The David Douglas school district is excluded while they develop a school expansion plan. Parking impacts are not addressed and transportation benefits are not analyzed. The false claim is made that this will produce more walkable neighborhoods.

 The purported scale reduction is a clever gambit. The one size fits all approach allows structures greater than roughly 80% of the existing housing stock. Except for constraining the few very large houses and limiting the size of triplex and small lot units, little has been done to reduce the scale of buildings. Unpopular skinny houses are enshrined and allowed to grow higher. Nevertheless the home-builders, who vigorously supported the concept, are already asking for a larger envelope.

 The proposal entitles developers of new or remodeled multi-family structures on a salable area of roughly 3875 square feet including the basement level plus a 15% density bonus in all impacted neighborhoods zoned R5. On a 7500 SF lot for example the salable area increases up to 6200 SF. Additional height and area bonuses for converting existing homes to multi-family is proposed. The economic analysis (Appendix A) presumes that the saleable area of the structure is the FAR ration or 2500 SF for a 5000 SF lot.

Consequently the economic analysis may be characterized as flagrantly erroneous. Increasing the number of rental or condominium housing units on a site will certainly accelerate speculation, demolition and displacement in the most vulnerable neighborhoods and remove our most affordable housing stock.

 The “innovative” building types promoted by the plan are neither innovative nor apparently in high demand. All are currently allowed in the multi-family zones in the city of Portland. Very few developers have taken advantage of the available density entitlements. In fact most infill in the R2.5, R2, and R1 is built to a lower density than allowed. Three reasons might be that small scale condominiums are often problematic to finance, own, and manage.

Older houses divided into rental apartments are perhaps the most common examples of what the Report is calling “middle housing”. As an incentive to increase such existing house conversions a size and height bonus is recommended. Because fire, seismic, and acoustic privacy requirements make remodeling of existing housing is expensive, planning staff suggested that they will recommend changes to the Building Code to reduce requirements tailored to such conversion projects. This is unwise - except to protect historic resources.

 In character, the Report is a uniquely untested collection of hastily considered proposals that promote a density agenda, high-jacked by the housing availability crisis, marketed in the disguise of affordability, innovation, and compromise. The report contains an unprecedented radical redefinition of zoning that ignores most of the relevant goals and policies of the Comprehensive Plan.

 The RIP outreach process was non-responsive to the public comment process. Staff chose to portray a complex and confusing survey as the primary basis for claiming that there was wide support for the Project. The project statistician described it this way: “In total, 2,375 respondents answered at least one non-demographic question, and 610 completed every closed-ended question”. A survey completed by 600 people covering a wide spectrum of issues and a far less aggressive approach is presented as the basis for claiming a wide diversity of public support for the RIP. The overwhelming opposition in public meetings to the ¼ mile bubble from folks who took the time to attend meetings and the 32 Neighborhood Associations that provided thoughtful comment go unmentioned. Of these, 28 expressed strong opposition to widespread application of middle housing. Only 4 expressed support.

Within the 4 neighborhoods expressing support some or all of the Recommendations may be appropriate. If so they should be considered as test sites for the “overlay” for a period of 5 to 10 years to evaluate the implications of these unprecedented policies.

 The RIPSAC itself was overwhelmingly weighted with builders, their lobbyist, developers, and industry partners along with the “housing advocates” who appear to have initiated the “grand bargain” theory that they cribbed from a failed Seattle process. In the end staff described this group as the majority perspective when they agreed with the staff proposed policies.

The Proposals: How they address concerns that should have guided the Project

We oppose one-size-fits-all zoning standards that we perceive as contradictory to goals in the adopted comprehensive plan and are not respectful of the variety of neighborhood characteristics that exist in the city, and which lead to simplistic and polarizing regulations. Recommendations 1, 2, and 3 speak to improving scale, height, and setback standards they are little more than a distraction. And significantly they fail to recognize that contextual standards should be a guiding principle. Los Angeles and other cities are modeling a contextual approach. Portland is proposing a generic solution that encourages undifferentiated neighborhoods. Not grand and no bargain.

We support the diversity of the neighborhood character. This is a clear mandate in the 2035 Comprehensive Plan. District planning is needed to guide where and how additional density should be accommodated. The process should recognize that the condition of housing, scale, history, transportation, economic factors, and displacement considerations all play a significant role in defining what is appropriate. All of the recommendations fail on the point and instead recommend a uniform overlay that creates uncertainty for existing residents and owners and enormous opportunities for investors with no incentives to protect or enhance character.

We support “truth in zoning”. This is essential for rebuilding public understanding and confidence in the planning and zoning process and providing clear guidance for owners, designers, builders, and for the land use review process. Considering the primary metric for the zoning code is density, we oppose the widespread and indiscriminate application of a density “overlay” proposed in Recommendations 4 and 5 and 7 and 8 in the R5 and R7 zones. This only serves to confuse the public and to undermine the integrity and clarity of the code. Densities proposed for the now meaningless “R5-R7” zones would exceed those now allowed in the R2 zone and in some case the R1 zone.

We oppose recognition of historic underlying lot lines except where these align with the density standards within an appropriate zone designation. The result for all neighborhoods burdened with these has been destabilization, demolition, and speculation. Recommendation 8 and 9 are the nails in the coffin. The introductory narrative poses the misleading statement that “State law requires cities to recognize these lots as discrete parcels”. Significantly, Oregon law does not require that parcel boundaries trump zoning. Recommendation 8b appears to support that fact. Recommendation 8a recommends that such narrow (and skinny) lots be recognized everywhere in the housing opportunity overlay and simultaneously rezoned to R2.5! Since almost all are within the “opportunity overlay” this uses historic lot lines to trump zoning. The present restraints to demolition of existing housing are removed.

The R2.5 designation confers significant density and size bonuses. Recommendation 9 a,b,c,d,e allows 3 floors, larger(.7) FAR multiplier, higher roof and requires at least two unit replacement housing. The authors are playing false on every count. Assurances made by the PSC in 2015 to fix the underlying lot phenomenon in zoning reform are voided.

We support additional zoning density around Centers, and where appropriate along Corridors as in the current and 2035 Comprehensive Plan, to reinforce the establishment of new and existing centers, walking scale neighborhoods, use of transit and reduced auto dependency. This is a successful model advocated during the past 40 years and is yet to be realized, either in Portland or in the Metro Region. Scattered site middle housing in Recommendations 4, 5, 6, and 9 undermine this goal.

We oppose scatter site density that will be the result of rezoning the entire eastside as a “housing opportunity zone overlay.” Recommendations 4, 8, and 9 are diametrically opposed to the shaped density advocated in the Comprehensive Plan. The last minute Comp Plan amendment P45 set an overly ambitious bubble around ill-defined corridors. Scattered “middle housing” defeats comprehensive plan goals to focus density around currently underbuilt walking scale centers. Our data will show that widespread application of “middle housing” zoning will accelerate land price increases in an already overheated market, decrease affordability, destabilize neighborhoods, cause loss of viable and more affordable housing, and increase demolition and displacement.

We object to untested “speculative” zoning - zoning that has some presumed social good intended but where zoning regulations are implemented without testing and modeling physical and economic impacts prior to implementing code changes. Too often these initiatives seem to be driven by interests whose primary concerns are for a particular niche of real estate development in contrast to the public interest. Earlier decisions to allow recognition of underlying lot lines, encourage skinny houses, and compromise lot sizes are prime examples. Recommendations 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 are in this category and the “analysis” is fundamentally flawed. The illustrated examples are not modeled to the allowed envelope. The black box economic analysis in Appendix A begins by using the wrong numbers for “saleable area”.

We object to unsubstantiated claims of creating “affordable” housing for everyone by Portland For Everyone. Recommendations 4 through 10 are being promoted as a “grand bargain” by housing advocates who have modeled their faith on a failed Seattle initiative using the same slogan. There has been no analysis and no evidence that these proposals will result in affordable housing regardless of how it is defined. The economic analysis in Exhibit A is a flawed analysis based on false assumptions.

Higher density does not equate to less expensive housing. As long as there is strong demand for housing and it can be profitably built and sold, rezoning for increased density will cause the value of the land to increase, the demolitions to accelerate, and the housing prices to rise accordingly. We need examples of the densified city that is thereby made more affordable unless in a state of decay and depopulation.

Where is the example of a split lot where the one or two replacement houses (regardless of size) without public subsidy are less expensive than the house demolished? When is the cost per square foot for a smaller house less than for a larger house? Given the same quality the reverse is true. We must address housing affordability as a regional issue with care and urgency not an excuse to provide a handout of unwarranted entitlements and speculative profits at the cost of demolition, displacement, and livability.

Project Objectives, Points of Agreement and Results

Considering the three areas included in the RIPSAC charge are there were areas where we found common ground and points of agreement with the staff proposal and fellow RIPSAC members but almost none in the Report to Council.

Scale and Massing Issues: There was a good deal of consensus about the need to address issues of size, height, setbacks, placement of garages, off-street parking, etc. One of our principle concerns and one clearly expressed in the Comprehensive Plan is “one size does not fit all”. Both the Staff Report and The Report to Council clearly fail to address the issue. The Recommendations simply recognize the size of most recent infill and codify that building envelope, height, and setback. Where do we agree? We support floor area ration (FAR) as an additional tool to regulate size, support adjusting the regulation of side lot bays and eaves (Recommendation 3b), and support reducing the impact of garages on skinny houses (Recommendation 10) as a half measure.

Narrow and Skinny lots and Recognition of Underlying lots of record (lot splitting): There is a good deal of disagreement here since the one-for-two house demolition infill and skinny garage housing has become a business model for some developers who have represented these as “affordable” housing and thus aligned themselves with housing advocates. At $600,000 to $700,000 in some neighborhoods they don’t contribute to affordability.

These lot line policies have been applied indiscriminately across the city, are making a lot of adjacent neighbors very unhappy, have a heavy carbon and poor space use footprint, create an unattractive streetscape, and are not producing much additional or affordable housing. Market rate new housing is not affordable but is very profitable and is systematically removing more affordable housing. We supported the initial staff recommendation that began to address Truth in Zoning by limiting the use of these underlying lot lines for splitting lots in the R5 zone. But in the Report to Council these lots are being redefined as spot zoned R2.5 and that erases any point of agreement.

We do agree is that the underlying lots should be recognized where the lot division is consistent with the density standards in the zoning code. Otherwise the experiment with complex and confusing code provisions encouraging this kind of wasteful demo-development should end.

Innovative housing Types: As we explored these ideas it became increasingly clear that the housing types discussed (except cottage clusters) were not so much innovative as not being built where the code allows. Developers are not building to the density already generally allowed around centers and corridors. In preparing the Report to Council, staff commissioned a special study to see if carving up examples of existing housing into smaller apartments is feasible. Possible yes, and expensive. The current zoning around centers is appropriate and needs refinement not more scattered density across broad areas of the city. The cottage cluster proposal (Recommendation 6) appears to allow approximately five 1,000 SF units on a 10,000 SF lot plus basements. For some reason outside the “overlay” there would be 10 units allowed including the “ADU”s. This is the density of the R-1 zone with no off street parking and appears to be a hand out to niche developers.

These proposals in the first and more constrained version received a widespread and justifiably hostile reaction from the public as a handout to developers and a formula for speculation, accelerated demolition, and neighborhood disruption and displacement.

Summary Recommendations

Summary of recommendations in the context of the project goals include:

Scale and Massing Issues:

1. Create development typologies that fit neighborhood context and aspirations. (look for examples such as Nori Winter’s work in other cities) One size does not fit all.

2. Ensure that scale of houses fits neighborhood context, protect solar access and privacy, and maintain individual and shared green spaces.

3. The code must be clear. Use commonly understood terms. Provide clear definitions of what is allowed in each zone. Restore “truth in zoning.” Avoid inconsistent and confusing criteria such density when lot sizes or “overlays” governing dwelling unit counts, or unit size are the governing criteria.

4. Save viable existing housing. The most affordable housing is almost always housing that is already in place.

Narrow and Skinny lots and Recognition

5. Remove provisions that allow lots smaller than 4500 SF in the R5 zone. Allow historically platted narrow and skinny lots to be confirmed only in the R2.5 zone. Recommendation 8b is a start. End the use of historic lines to trump zoning as advocated in Recommendation 8a. This is not consistent with the Comprehensive Plan or a mandate of state law.

Innovative housing Types:

6. Direct density around centers, consistent with the above commentary and the Comprehensive Plan, to reinforce the establishment of centers, walking scale neighborhoods, use of transit and reduction of auto dependency.

7. For areas in the City intended for higher density, evaluate why the existing regulations not working well, adjust and proceed with rezoning for the higher density to reinforce centers and corridors where appropriate.

8. The dispersed density model recommended in the Report will destroy our best loved history and most admired assets. “Middle housing” is for transitional density between single family and higher density multi-family. There is no transition if middle housing is “everywhere” housing.

9. Authorize limited testing of middle housing ideas where the neighborhoods have expressed strong need and support for such an experiment and subsequent evaluation of the policy. Robust evaluation of the proposed policy impacts is necessary.

10. Test and model physical and economic impacts for significant changes to the zoning code prior to drafting and implementing such changes. Testing includes implementing zone changes in neighborhoods that support the proposals and evaluating the impacts.

Summary of recommendations for advancing:

 The RIP Report should not be endorsed or accepted for implementation by Council. We have a shortage of housing not a shortage land or a shortage of areas zoned for housing. The RIP Report may be looking forward one-hundred years but the development entitlements proposed are in effect the day of approval - and once given very difficult to unwind.

 The process and many of the recommendations are inconsistent with the goals and policies of the Comprehensive Plan on many levels as discussed above. Instead of “grand bargains” the BPS needs to understand how the current R1, R2, and R2.5 zones could be improved to accommodate transitional or “middle housing” densities.

 The City needs implementation of the Comprehensive Plan in the form of a modern flexible and easy to understand regulations with a long term focus on district and neighborhood planning. Actively engage neighborhood and business associations to participate in decision-making during planning exercises and for major developments to improve understanding of context and needed design guidelines.

 The Recommendations are not aligned with the Mayor’s goals to reduce demolitions, meaningfully temper the scale of houses, or increase density and provide smaller scale housing around centers. Expect much more demolition, speculation, reduced affordability and increased auto dependency from diffuse density.

 The unprecedented use of the Housing Opportunity Zone Overlay is no substitute for planning but rather a bone thrown to speculators, niche developers and housing advocates without regard for the existing context or fabric of the city.

We challenge ourselves and all Portlanders to think in terms of a vision for Portland and the region that builds on the structure of the good neighborhoods that we have and figure out how to encourage other cities in the region before we do irreparable harm to what we have with poorly conceived ad hoc policies represented by this Report.


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