Portlanders turn conservative when cheaper housing is proposed near them

The Oregonian addresses housing issues in the Portland area:

As progressive as Portlanders like to believe themselves to be, there’s no issue like population growth and housing to bring out their inner conservative. As the city’s population has surged, established neighborhoods have sought historic designation to guard against change. Homeowners in wealthy enclaves are posting yard signs decrying demolitions. And longtime residents are bemoaning the loss of “neighborhood character” amid the growth.

So it’s not surprising that the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is pulled in different directions, trying to calm irked neighbors while laying the groundwork for how the city will absorb new residents. Unfortunately, some of the proposals in the bureau’s draft “Residential Infill Project” – a plan for updating development rules in single-family neighborhoods – lean too heavily on ensuring the comfort of existing homeowners rather than helping create new ones…

But Tracy said the bureau felt it important to continue discussion about the challenges and opportunities that these narrow lots provide. The bureau’s right and deserves both credit and support for being willing to push forward the issue. Because for as much as people want to blame Portland’s housing crisis on greedy landlords or “McMansion” developers or rich California transplants, the problem boils down to the dispassionate laws of supply and demand. There are far too few homes and apartments in the city at far too few affordable price points for far too many people who need them.

I do not think it is easy anywhere in the United States to convince wealthier homeowners that cheaper housing should be built near them. It is one thing to suggest that wealthier residents should pay more taxes or promote affordable housing in the abstract. It is whole other deal to suggest that such homeowners should have to live near those people who need the affordable housing.

Another way to put it: if Portland with its well-known liberal politics and metropolitan planning boundary cannot promote affordable housing, who can?

(A side thought: it would be interesting to hear more from local experts how race plays into this. Portland may be a progressive city but it is also quite white – “the whitest big city in America.”)

Regulate McMansions in order to provide more housing

Expecting population growth, Portland, Oregon is looking to limit house sizes:

The zoning changes are in the planning stages, and it won’t be until early next year that City Council will vote on whether to approve the changes.

New zoning laws could limit the size of homes, allowing single-family homes to be half the size of the lot. A standard lot in Portland’s inner eastside, which is primarily zoned for single-family homes, is 5,000 square feet. The proposed zoning code would limit that home to 2,500 square feet…

The city says it’s heard complaints over so-called “McMansions,” or homes that are much larger than the rest of the houses in a neighborhood…

The new zoning proposal also calls for increased flexibility in building duplexes, and on corner lots triplexes could be built. The city says increasing density will give families more options where to live.

This is an interesting approach to regulating McMansions. Rather than emphasize their poor architecture, excessive use of resources, or threat to neighborhood character, instead stress that the land could be used for more housing units. And because Portland has both stricter development boundaries regarding its metropolitan region as well as expectations for population growth, zoning for higher density could make sense. It would be interesting to see if this approach cuts down on criticism that property owners should be able to do what they want.

There are probably already a number of McMansions in the Portland area but it is interesting to contemplate a major city or region without any McMansions.

Small house movement spreads in ADUs

One way to encourage smaller homes and affordable housing is to allow Accessory Dwelling Units:

The cottage, which won a top design award last year from the American Institute of Architects, is technically called an “accessory dwelling unit,” or A.D.U. Portland has been ahead of the curve in allowing these smaller housing units, which are illegal in many cities and towns under current zoning rules…

In 2010, during the economic slump, when many building plans were being shelved, Portland presciently began to allow homeowners the right to develop accessory dwelling units on standard 5,000-square-foot residential lots for the first time. The city also eliminated development charges of up to $15,000 for new accessory dwelling units to spur homeowners to build.

More incentives followed: Homeowners could build and even rent out a unit that did not have off-street parking; any design not visible from the street could be built without input from neighbors; and new height limits — raised to 20 feet from 18 feet — encouraged two-story units, like Ms. Wilson’s…

Not surprisingly, the concentration of accessory dwelling units has been in central, higher-income areas close to amenities like transit and shops. “Part of this could be due to the fact that people with large amounts of equity can more easily secure financing,” Mr. Wood said. “The City of Portland and Portland State University will be working on a project to encourage and facilitate A.D.U. development in more diverse neighborhoods.”

It may be helpful to compare the ADUs to other alternatives for affordable, small housing.

  1. Would residents and communities prefer tiny houses on their own lots or in communities of tiny houses? The first could be expensive due to the cost of land, defeating the purpose of the smaller housing which is supposed to be cheaper. The second could be too much of a change for some places. ADUs make use of existing lots and aren’t necessarily grouped together.
  2. Would residents and communities prefer larger apartment buildings? On the plus side, you can build more units up and everyone knows that this is an apartment structure (with its higher densities and other unique features). On the negative side, apartment buildings can alter the character of a neighborhood, may require parking, and people often have stereotypes about who lives in apartments. The ADUs hide the higher densities better than apartments – back behind the main housing unit – but don’t provide as many units.

Given the resistance of many municipalities to denser housing, I imagine ADUs could be attractive as they don’t require the density or size of some alternatives. Additionally they can use existing land and generate income for local residents. Even given all that, I think it would take a lot for many cities to adopt this. There is a large need for affordable housing throughout the United States and many communities don’t seem to be moved to do anything; I’m not sure ADUs are attractive enough to tilt the scales.

 

Would you rather have more McMansions or denser neighborhoods?

Portland is looking into ways that residential neighborhoods might change:

McMansions could be thing of the past in Portland if city planners get their way.

But densities could also increase in parts of many existing single-family residential neighborhoods.

Those are two of the proposals in the recent staff report of the Residential Infill Project. It includes several recommendations intended to balance the need to create more housing in Portland while protecting the character of the city’s established neighborhoods…

The comments represent a split that emerged on the committee in recent months. As housing affordability has become a bigger issue in Portland, the developers have joined with those concerned about rising home prices and preserving the urban growth boundary to accept size restrictions in exchange for the ability to build more homes. Some called it “the grand bargain” during the meeting.

The neighborhood representatives have argued that even smaller homes won’t necessarily be inexpensive — and could still undermine the character of existing neighborhoods. Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association representative Rod Merrick denied that any bargain had been agreed to.

This is an interesting trade-off. Established residents in many communities wouldn’t like either option as it (1) could significantly change the character of the neighborhood they know and (2) each option has particular downsides (McMansions could be oddly designed and bring in wealthier residents, higher densities could lead to many more residents and different kinds of structures). But, if cities like Portland are serious about affordable housing and don’t want to promote endless sprawl (and Portland is quite unique with its urban growth boundary), density is really the only option.

If I had to guess at the outcome here, the new denser housing will be constructed only in certain places (perhaps in redevelopment areas or in places where residents are less organized) and it won’t be as cheap or as plentiful as needed for the region. Creating more affordable housing is not an easy task…

Rise of the granny flat in Portland

Here is another version of the smaller house movement: changes to regulations in recent years have led to more “accessory dwelling units” in Portland.

And additional living spaces are springing up everywhere, providing affordable housing without changing the feeling or texture of established neighborhoods the way high-rise developments can…

Eric Engstrom, a principal city planner, has seen these small structures become increasingly popular during his 16 years working for the city. And as he put it, “Given the low vacancy rate, when they’re done, you can rent them out in about an hour.” Which means that adding an accessory dwelling unit, or A.D.U., increases the value of a piece of property.

Since the 1990s, Mr. Engstrom said, zoning laws in Portland have been slowly changing to accommodate the buildings. “There’s been a lot of pressure on us to allow them,” he said.

But it was in 2010 when the biggest changes took place. That was when the city relaxed the limitations on size and began offering the equivalent of a cash incentive by waiving the hefty fees usually levied on new development. Other cities in the Northwest have been moving in this direction, but Portland is the first to offer a significant financial benefit and one of the few that does not require owners to live on the site, provide additional off-street parking or secure the approval of their neighbors — all of which have proved to be obstacles elsewhere. Apart from Santa Cruz, Calif., and Austin, Tex., where secondary dwellings have long been allowed, Portland is alone in this country in its aggressive advocacy of the units.

Seems like this approach could be a reasonable solution in many communities: allow small dwellings that can be used for multigenerational family space, generate a little extra income, provide more affordable housing opportunities, and/or expand the inhabitable space for the household. Yet, the article says little about why this has moved forward in Portland and a few other places but hasn’t caught on elsewhere. Is it seen more favorably in cities with limited space and relatively high real estate prices? Does it require more progressive politics?

Selling car insurance by the mile

The idea of replacing the gas tax with a tax by miles driven is being tested so what about car insurance by the mile? One company has introduced the concept in Portland:

You wouldn’t buy an unlimited fare card if you only took a few transit rides per month, but when it comes to car insurance that’s pretty much how things work. Drivers who are similar in age, gender, and residence pay about the same premium even if some drive 5,000 miles a year and others 50,000 miles. The problem is not only that low-mileage drivers end up subsidizing high-mileage ones — it’s that everyone has an incentive to drive as much as they can.

One idea to undercut this system is pay-per-mile car insurance. Earlier this month at The Atlantic, Matthew O’Brien explained (via this 2008 Brookings report; PDF) just how much America stands to save with such a service. Driving would fall 8 percent nationally; oil usage and carbon emissions would drop 2 and 4 percent, respectively; fewer traffic and accidents could be worth upwards of $60 billion a year.

Since city residents have transportation alternatives at their disposal, they’re likely to benefit from mileage-based systems more than most. That’s the basic idea behind MetroMile, a new per-mile car insurance company that launched earlier this month in Portland, Oregon. While conventional car insurance companies dabble in mileage programs, MetroMile was created explicitly with that low-car lifestyle urban driver in mind — even down to the name…

MetroMile users receive a device called a Metronome (sadly, the “N” isn’t capitalized) that plugs into the car and tracks mileage in real-time. Drivers pay a monthly base rate that’s around $20-30, says Pretre, then pay 2 to 6 additional cents per mile. He says anyone driving fewer than 10,000 miles a year should start to save, and once you get down to 8,000 miles, the savings approach 20 to 25 percent over major car insurers…

While it makes sense to introduce this in Portland or a number of other dense cities where mass transit usage or alternatives to driving are common, would this work as well in the suburbs? Would the costs of paying car insurance be enough to prompt people to change their living patterns? Maybe it depends on how much cheaper that car insurance could be or perhaps the quest for the cheaper house that provides more bang for the buck would still win out.

The 2008 Brookings report cited above titled “Pay-As-You-Drive Auto Insurance: A Simple Way to Reduce Driving-Related Harms and Increase Equity” makes an interesting point: increased driving is related to increased income (see page 10 and 40). In other words, Americans who have the money to do so drive more. This helps explain the reluctance of higher-income Americans to use buses.

Portland: the city where the young retire/are underemployed

Researchers have found that Portland, Oregon is indeed a place where young workers are often underemployed:

Portland may not be “a city where young people go to retire,” but it’s the place they go to be underemployed, a new study found.

A famous quip by Fred Armisen on the television show “Portlandia” led Portland State University researchers to investigate the reality behind the comment. The quirky IFC network series pokes fun at the Oregon city’s many eccentricities.

The researchers’ review found that Portland is a magnet for the young and college educated from across the country, even though a disproportionate share of them are working part-time or holding jobs that don’t require a degree.

In short, young college grads are moving here, and staying, because they like the city’s amenities and culture, not because they’re chasing jobs. Their participation in the labor force tracks with other cities, but they make 84 cents on the dollar when compared to the average of the 50 largest metropolitan areas, the research found.

Not exactly a shining place for the “creative class.” I don’t remember Richard Florida talking much about the employment or economic struggles of the creative class; rather, such cities are often depicted as tech hubs with lots of exciting companies and opportunities. A city may be a cultural magnet but it also has to have enough jobs so that people can stay.

What is most interesting to me about this is that it appears the migration of young adults to Portland has continued in the last few decades even when there are not enough full-time jobs. Is there a threshold point when people will stop going to Portland? At what point do economic realities trump the cultural vibrancy of Portland?