June 12, 2020 – Originally given June 3, 2020 as oral testimony to Portland City Council on behalf of Portland, OR Small Developer Alliance. Items in brackets were added to the testimony for this blog.
Hello Mayor and Commissioners:
I’m Mary Vogel, Principal of PlanGreen and co-founder of Portland Small Developer Alliance. After the events of this week, I hope the amendments before you—as well as the RIP [Residential Infill Project] itself—can play a small role in allaying some of the pent up anger at a housing system that especially excludes African Americans.
African American Historic Resources Endangered by RIP
In consideration of Denyse McGriff’s March 10 testimony about unequal impact of RIP on African American historic resources, we DO NOT suggest eliminating Amendment 7—(Although we would like to see it revised). Could it instead apply only to the area that was part of the 1993 Albina Plan? Or could we come up with a revised amendment that addresses McGriff’s concerns without becoming a loophole for wealthy neighborhoods to avoid the RIP?
[When I talked to Denyse McGriff, now a City Commission member for Oregon City, she told me that her involvement in historic preservation spans several decades. She is on the Board of Oregon’s Architectural Heritage Center and is proud of some of the work they have done with the African American community. “Cornerstones of Community: Buildings of Portland’s African American History” (adjacent) is an example. Others can be found on AHC’s website.]
Wealthy Neighborhoods Try to Weasel Out of RIP
This way wealthy neighborhoods with historic designations won’t be able to weasel out of providing more housing choice—as those testifying against Amendment 7 fear. [E.g., see Ethan Seltzer’s excellent short testimony on Map App.]
[For those of you who won’t go to links, Ethan writes in part: The RIP is one of the most important planning decisions the City will be making in my entire time in Portland, now going back over 40 years. . . Rather, it’s past time to expect that every neighborhood offer the opportunity for broad range of housing options to be found there. . .First, I am in opposition to Amendment Package 7. As written, it could apply the term “contributing structure” to an entire district. This only furthers the perversion with which historic districts have been created throughout the city, mostly, in my view, with dubious links to history and too little specificity regarding the rationale for historic significance.
My own neighborhood, Alameda, were it to be proposed for historic status, would, like all of the other historic districts in the city have to be recognized for it’s legacy of overt racial and ethnic segregation and exclusion, the true historic legacy of these neighborhoods. Amendment package 7 simply creates another barrier to real housing production and reform due to its sweeping language and invitation for imprecise application. . .]
Adaptive Re-use Recommendations
If the goal is to encourage adaptive re-use of historic resources—the City needs to provide building code changes and appropriate incentives to ensure their success. In Small Developer Alliance’s Feb 13 testimony, Garlynn Woodsong had in-depth suggestions for regulatory changes
Amongst the areas it covered were Building Code Classification (commercial v residential)–then such common items in the Oregon State Building Code as fire sprinklers, window openings, insulation, sound transmission, elevators and greywater that make it very difficult and expensive to do internal conversions/adaptive re-use of existing homes. Portland’s City Code largely obstructs adaptive re-use of large single-family homes for group living as well.
Building Code Change Coalition
We are aware that City staff is already working to change some of these regulations at both the state and local level and we hope we can coalesce folks to support the City’s efforts in the building code change process as soon as you pass RIP! Continued work on such changes—as well as incentives—will make it economically feasible to adapt and re-use historic homes at reduced cost without any sacrifices to safety or health.
Mary Vogel, CNU-A/PlanGreen consults on climate resiliency and climate justice and co-founder of the Portland, OR Small Developer Alliance, a group related to CNU and the Incremental Development Alliance. She welcomes your response to this blog.
June 7, 2020
Portland City Council held hearings on three policies involving housing density in May and June. One of them–the Residential Infill Project–has been FIVE YEARS in the making. A number of neighbors point to the current pandemic as a reason NOT to amend zoning regulations that would add more density to their single-family neighborhood (or historic district in the case of Central City 2035). I think that would be a big mistake as there is abundant evidence that density is NOT dangerous! In fact, denser communities give their residents better infrastructure to shelter in place.
Facts Don’t Support Argument
Congress for New Urbanism journal editor Rob Steuteville’s Facts Don’t Support the Density is Dangerous Narrative was the first data I saw on the topic. Two comparisons that were particularly telling were:
• Suburban Montgomery County, PA v. Philadelphia, PA. As of Friday April 3, the county had one case per 2,924 people where Philadelphia had one case per 3,940 people. So Montgomery County had a greater infection rate, yet it has one-seventh the density.
• In New York City infection rates in Stanten Island were approximately the same as Manhattan—with 8.5 times the density.
I’ve taken quotes from a few more studies that may be helpful in assuaging our neighbors’ fears that further density in their neighborhood may fuel pandemics.
Density Is Not Destiny
In Density is Not Destiny: Covid in Cascadia in City Observatory Joe Cortwright states “Vancouver [BC] is in the same region, and roughly the same size as Portland and Seattle. It is far denser, and yet it has performed the best of the three in fighting the spread of the Corona virus. It should be pretty compelling evidence that density is not a determining factor of whether one is vulnerable to the pandemic or not..”
The New Face of Urban Density
Liam Dillon, LA Times staff writer in Coronavirus: The New Face of Urban Density writes “At the same time, there’s lots of evidence that shows density isn’t destiny. . . “An analysis by New York University’s Furman Center found no relationship between the coronavirus and overall population density within New York City, with neighborhoods in Manhattan, the city’s densest borough, having some of the lowest infection rates.” “. . . The same is true for America’s next densest big city, San Francisco, which. . . [in late April] had reported only about 1,300 confirmed cases — compared with more than 8,450 in the city of Los Angeles.” The LA Times continues to track figures throughout the state and the ratio holds today.
Evidence from China
On a World Bank Blog, Wanli Fang and Sameh Wahba’s write in Urban Density Is Not the Enemy in the Coronavirus Fight: Evidence from China:
“. . .To find out whether or not population density is a key factor in the spread of the coronavirus, we collected data for 284 Chinese cities.” They found that China’s densest cities tended to have the lowest infection rates. They surmised that “Higher densities, in some cases, can even be a blessing rather than a curse in fighting epidemics. . .For instance, in dense urban areas where the coverage of high-speed internet and door-to-door delivery services are conveniently available at competitive prices, it is easier for residents to stay at home and avoid unnecessary contact with others.”
Crowding Is Dangerous and New Zoning Policies Will Help
The NYU Furman Center study and the China study too, did find that the virus is more prevalent in areas where more people are crowding into homes—say six people into a two-bedroom apartment. So it’s CROWDING that is dangerous, not density.
Crowding exists in Portland too, BUT rarely in the neighborhoods where neighbors are expressing the greatest concern. Adopting the housing policies under discussion: Expanding Opportunities for Affordable Housing and Residential Infill Project and Re-adoption of Central City 2035 will likely help to lessen, not exacerbate, such over-crowding in the Portland lower-income neighborhoods that currently experience it.
There is abundant evidence that density is NOT dangerous! In fact, denser communities give their residents better infrastructure to shelter in place. Regardless of whether you support proposed infill housing policies or not. I hope you will continue to educate yourselves! Please study the facts!
Mary Vogel, CNU-A/PlanGreen consults on climate resiliency and climate justice. She is also co-founder of Portland, OR Small Developer Alliance, a group related to CNU and the Incremental Development Alliance. She welcomes your response to this blog.
May 22, 2018 I just returned from the 26th Annual Congress of the Congress for the New Urbanism in Savannah, GA where I took the opportunity to go on the “Missing Middle Housing: Found!” walking tour with Savannah architect, Eric Brown, his two young staff members and about two dozen Congress attendees. It was revealing!
As a city that has preserved a great deal of its 285-year history in its buildings and neighborhood layout, Savannah (founded 1733) is an ideal place to understand how what we now call “Missing Middle Housing” was an integral part of the development of our towns and cities in this nation since the 1700s. Duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes along with carriage houses and lane houses coexisted nicely beside single family homes and mansions.
Since the current top priority of the Portland Small Developer Alliance is to get fourplexes allowed as a use by right in all Portland neighborhoods, I will focus on fourplexes first. I believe the images speak for themselves but do read the captions!
While many of Savannah’s row houses from the 1800s came in sets of four, some are in sets of three–as illustrated below. I’m calling this a triplex!
Duplexes were somewhat common too. They came in a variety of forms.
Although many of the English basements serve as ADUs, I found this one off a courtyard that appeared to be a shared space.
Apartment buildings were an occasional part of the scene too.
I saw a number of drivers parallel park on the street while I was taking these photographs. They did not appear to have been circling to find a place as there were empty places on the street–even though I was photographing during “rush hour”.
I hope that the above images make a compelling case that fourplexes, triplexes, duplexes, ADUs and small apartment buildings can fit nicely into a neighborhood. They were certainly part of our early historic heritage–a heritage that I hope we will learn from as we now make single family-only neighborhoods a part of our history–a part of our history that has proved unsustainable. Let’s give our young people the opportunity to share our close-in walkable neighborhoods with housing prices that allow them to thrive. Let’s give our small developers the opportunity to build in ways that make sense for our current desire for 20-minute neighborhoods. The survival of our planet may depend upon it!
FOR PSC COMMISSIONERS READING THIS POST
The following is an amendment proposed by Portland Small Developer Alliance that we would like you to sponsor:
PSC Proposed Amendment to RIP
Allow four housing units on all residentially-zoned lots, by right, if within walking distance along a continuous pedestrian network to transit. Four units is considered by the Federal Housing Administration for mortgage lending to be a “house.” It is common sense to synchronize our zoning regulations with existing federal policy and definition. Given the high cost of land and development in Portland, new single-family houses on full-size lots affordable to average residents cannot be built. Dividing up the costs of site acquisition, design, permitting costs, impact fees, construction, and lending by four units allows the resulting cost per new home constructed to be affordable to a middle-class Portland household. Unit counts have a tiny impact on the surrounding community compared to building scale; within the regulated size of new projects, we should allow more units. Allowing a fourth unit gives us the opportunity to make the units we build more affordable to more people while still maintaining the scale and character of the neighborhoods we all enjoy.