What UNR does, and why

Portland grassroots group United Neighborhoods for Reform seeks to stem the demolition of viable, affordable housing and its replacement with expensive and inefficient large single-family homes. Our demolition/development resolution, developed through significant neighbor outreach, gathered endorsements from 43 neighborhood associations citywide. We also regularly take our message to City Hall, starting in December 2014, continuing in 2015 on Feb. 12, June 3 (UNR presenters start at 51:20), Oct. 14 (UNR at 1:07:35), and Nov. 25 (UNR at 1:05), and in 2016 on Feb. 17, Nov. 9 and 16, and Dec. 7.

"The time is always right to do what is right."
—Martin Luther King Jr.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Let's do talk about "housing choices"

It's clever, the PR campaign to tout "housing choices" to push a developer-driven agenda to rezone much of the city for teardown development. The only "housing choices" that tend to present themselves after demolition of old-growth construction tend to be the plex, as many units as can be crammed into a maximum-size envelope:

or the manse, a many-thousands-of-square-feet lot sprawler that permanently casts neighbors in shadow (1920s home at right shown for scale):

What'll it be—the plex or the manse? If you wanted, say, a modest bungalow built with care and of durable materials, those are becoming very hard to find. Just last year, Portland lost almost 400 of this type of home—unique units of housing with character, history, and generally good bones that would reward the TLC and sweat equity of any invested resident.

As Portlanders show increasing concern about the effects of rampant demolitions, and newcomers are faced with the nonchoice of expensive apartment versus expensive home, let's think about those hundreds of homes that went to the landfill, almost always more affordable than new construction and offering a toehold in the real estate market for those looking to make a long-term stake in their future here.

Those homes are hundreds of choices nobody got to make. Instead, the question remains: plex or manse? Every demolition narrows the in-between.

As if maintaining Portland's resource of well-built affordable housing wasn't enough of a goal in itself, there's also this for those building or considering new construction:

Courtesy Firefighter Functional Fitness

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Disposable housing—old and new—makes a hard sell in a city known for sustainable solutions

Planner Morgan Tracy (right), with Rose City Park chair Tamara DeRidder
looking on, says it's full speed ahead for the Residential Infill Project.
It's been awfully quiet lately, but with the big thaw land use again starts percolating to the fore. Maybe our city planners, like the incoming administration in D.C., are wondering whether to infuse the drinking water supply with antidepressants. They're also up to something else—read on.

It could be, too, that AirBnb, Everett Custom Homes, and other funders of the "affordable housing" effort out of the former environmental group 1000 Friends of Oregon still were digesting the City Council amendments requested at last month's outing for the Residential lnfill Project proposal, much of which had been smiled on, even prompted, by the two outgoing council members. What to do?

Last summer at Portland State University city planners shared the bill
with the developer lobby in an event showcasing the Residential Infill Project.
Glimmers came at a Rose City Park neighborhood meeting last week, where planner Morgan Tracy revealed the Bureau of Planning's mission with the Residential Infill Project. Apparently, planners consider so-called measures to curb demolitions, such as the recently passed deconstruction mandate (only for homes at least 100 years old—a fraction of the homes being landfilled now), as having made a difference in reducing demolitions. (It's also worth noting that deconstruction still counts as demolition—that home disappears from our landscape forever, just not in a cloud of toxic dust.)

The Bureau of Development Services' statistics show demolitions on the increase, now more than one a day on average and about 50 more than 2015 (not including the one-wall-left-standing "remodels" or demolitions occurring in commercial zones). The Portland Chronicle lists the 376 demolished homes of 2016 here.

Last summer's presentation at PSU for seniors and the disabled hit
a couple of snafus, including technology glitches and one woman who
asked why no pictures in the slide show showed accessible housing.
However, as Tracy said at the Rose City Park meeting Jan. 24 at the German American Society, the measures meant to curb demolitions (some of their drafters have disputed that aim) have worked because we would have seen even more demolitions without them.

It's hard to say what the future could have held, or the effect purposeful anti-demo measures could have had on the bottom line. For now, it's well-known that demolitions take to the landfill (usually) a housing unit that probably has served generations, is better built than most new construction, and features old-growth materials. Federal studies show that mechanical demolition spreads hazardous materials such as lead and asbestos about 400 feet in every direction, polluting the air and Earth—people, too. There is no safe level of lead in children, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Get hip to hazmat

Recent reports of toxic levels of hazardous materials from glass factories and other industrial sources have grabbed headlines, but another source of hazmat can be as close as next door or the distance of about eight backyards away. You may not see the demolition, but it will affect you, your family, and immediate environment. Protect your children, and cover your organic vegetable gardens, for starters. (Submit your snail address in box at top right for an informational flier.)

A little lead can do a lot of harm.
As the spring construction season looms, so do our responsibilities to holding new leadership at City Hall accountable to the city's goals. If we believe in equity, let's keep the widest range of housing within reach of the most diverse group of homeowners, and the finite resource of affordable housing we already have standing. 

United Neighborhoods for Reform believes in public safety. When it comes to exposure to hazardous materials, Portlanders deserve at least the protections enjoyed by citizens of Vancouver, Wash., just a few miles up the road. We also believe in environmental stewardship and the value of Portland's store of unique, solid housing. Once trashed, we never get it back.

Let's build better

Why not create new neighborhoods—we're good at that, right?—where Portland has twice as much vacant land as it needs to meet density goals until 2035. That way, if newcomers don't keep turning up to sign leases, we'll still have our awesome old housing stock to fall back on. Now-rare durable and tight-grain materials can be restored to their former glory, and many people enjoy the chance to refresh a home and make it their own. These are often the people who stick around and take an active role in their communities, making great neighborhoods even better.

In a meeting last fall at the Northeast Community Center, then-incoming
Mayor Ted Wheeler talked about issues he expected to encounter in office. At a
 Jan. 12 meeting last year with anti-demolition activists, Wheeler called many of
the demands—items such as increased compliance, hazmat control, and more—
a no-brainer.
Tracy said that the Bureau of Planning will continue to work on the Residential Infill Project for many months, moving forward in mapping the massive Development Opportunity Overlay set to cover most of the east side and a lot of the west and make modest housing easy pickings for teardown and "plexing." Suggestions to narrow the rezoning, or try it in pilot projects or apply it to neighborhoods most keen on erasing their single-family homes for multiunit development, seemed to fall on deaf ears. It's a shame so much staff time and effort will go to fine-tuning an idea that may no longer have the support of Council and, given the testimony late last year, a wide sector of the public. Taxpayers have already ponied up some hundreds of thousands of dollars for this initiative that could trace its difficulties to the start, when its members were selected and the scope massaged for business interests.

The good news is that Portland has two new elected officials, who already bring fresh perspective to the proceedings. There's a lot to keep tabs on near and far, but with heartening recent changes in local leadership and oversight of the bureaus, people may soon rise above profits in plotting city progress.

Then, when that demolition statistic goes down, we really will have something to celebrate.

Monday, October 31, 2016

In runup to Halloween, planners release scariest trick of all

Portland prescient: If only all neighbors knew what planners
have in mind for the city's future. RIP city indeed.
The city's Joe Zehnder says
the RIP proposal won't
help with affordability. 
After months of discussion and open houses, we waited for the changes to the recommendations coming out of the Residential Infill Project (RIP), which were supposed to incorporate public input and—we hoped—reduce demolitions, an original goal of the project. That's not what happened, as the planners ignored the input and chose instead to recommend rezoning huge swathes of the city—64 percent of the east side alone—a move that promises to exponentially increase the destruction.

It's still true, as Portland's chief planner, Joe Zehnder, said at an East Portland open house in July, that the proposal won't help with affordability. Again: According to its own drafters, this proposal will not help with affordability. The frustration out there for tenants and homeowners alike looking to gain or maintain a foothold in the market is real, and the last several years of record numbers of teardowns has made the situation worse. The market has never built affordable housing on its own accord, and it never will. We would have seen some by now.

A sign of the times shows the proposed "overlay" for what it is.
As we gear up to tell City Council what a bunch of poor ideas they're about to consider on Nov. 9 and 16 (please join us, and pipe up if you can attend), let's keep pressing for our mission. It's simple: Reduce demolitions. Control hazardous materials if demolition must occur.

Granted, the RIP isn't an all-out failure. It got people talking, and invested, in our city's future. Far more people now know about FAR (Floor Area Ratio). Many more people are alerted to the potential changes afoot. Ultimately, it showed the prevailing winds among our leadership and city staff. And it certainly showed the need to ask that the concerns and well-being of local stakeholders and residents take priority over short-term and usually out-of-town profiteers. More of the same years of record-breaking demolitions won't give us needed affordable housing (especially while erasing it from our neighborhoods); why should we give the nod to more?

Planner Noré Winter came to town in mid-October
talking about his work to help cities grow. His big
question when it came to RIP was whether the
recommendations enhance the unique housing
that we have. 
Waves of people are waking up to the economic and environmental realities of build at all costs, as rents and home prices ratchet up along with the pace of new construction, and the air and Earth are dusted with lead and asbestos. The wholesale loss of mostly modestly sized and affordable homes must stop, and the neighbors and environment protected from irreversible effects of uncontrolled hazmat.

This Halloween, let RIP RIP (rest in peace), and leave the pro-demolition forces behind as we craft a safer, more sustainable city.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Winter comes with inspiration

While the Planning Bureau fine-tunes the recommendations out of the Residential Infill Project to have them better reflect what neighbors want, a celebrated urban planner comes to share with Portlanders how other cities have kept their character and their faith that new development can be an asset to the place where it rises. 

Man with a plan: Noré Winter protects
and inspires pride of place.
As we've recently seen in Portland, that's rarely been the case. The record numbers of demolitions also have involved so many unregulated emissions of hazmat that more news outlets are taking note. How long until we live in Superfund sites?

Noré Winter crisscrosses the country spreading a sustainable message. He's helped other cities protect resources such as affordable old-growth housing and buildings and at the same time designed improved guidelines for new construction. (Education break: Here's an article on why people love old buildings, a lot of which also applies to homes.)

Mr. Winter will discuss his experiences helping fast-growing cities plan for growth while protecting existing single-family housing. His comments will suggest alternatives to the recent recommendations of the Residential Infill Project in moderating scale of new builds in our neighborhoods.

Sound good? Instead of shaking your head at the arrival of another trackhoe down the block, get inspired by some fresh thinking beyond teardowns and demolitions from 6:30 to 8:30 Monday, Oct. 17, at the White Stag Block, University of Oregon Portland campus, main event room (142/144), 70 N.W. Couch. It's free, but please register.

After the contentious open houses over the summer when the public sensed the profit-driven basis for planners' first try at capturing the intent of the Residential Infill Project, local planners have their work cut out for them to create measures that better fit the original mission of the task force. Over Winter's 30 years in the field, and projects in 48 states, he has done work noted for its successful implementation and ability to create a climate for investment. Good development benefits everyone, and its environs.

All these months, activists were told that the Residential Infill Project was meant to reduce demolitions and address issues of scale; unfortunately, the first ideas out of the project would accelerate teardowns. Perhaps many of Portland's planners are insulated from this destructive trend; for instance, the director of Portland planning lives in Irvington, a neighborhood largely protected from demolition development.

It's all the more reason to be writing those letters, submitting comment, and appearing at City Council. If they don't hear from us, they're only hearing one side of the story, presented by the people who can afford paid lobbyists out of their profits.

Portland Together presents the Noré Winter event, with help from United Neighborhoods for Reform, Portland Coalition for Historic Resources, individual donors, Architectural Heritage Center, Restore Oregon, and the University of Oregon Preservation Department.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Who let the unicorns out

Sunnyside chair Tony Jordan (left) goes through the motions
at a neighborhood meeting at Southeast Uplift on Aug. 11.
This week Sunnyside Neighborhood Association joined King in voting in favor of replacing their neighborhoods' single-family homes with multiunit housing. Those neighborhoods feature many unique homes built of old-growth materials, but if the land under them increases exponentially in value they won't stand a chance.

This after a presentation from Portland for Everyone, which sends people out to the neighborhoods to share a utopian vision of housing for all. Their PowerPoint shows quality, creative architecture of the kind that usually isn't built anymore, and likely would be replaced with bigger, new construction with vastly superior income-earning potential. 

Portland planning chief Joe Zehnder at last month's East Portland open house touting the similarly flawed Residential Infill Project admitted the multiunit housing slated to replace single-family homes was assumed to be rentals for Portland residents, not projects for them to own. Turning people into long-term tenants works great for landlords, but a Metro study shows that's not what most Portlanders want

As we've seen under the city's current demolition-favorable policies, and in the last few years of record-breaking numbers of demolitions, seniors, minorities, veterans, and low-income people will have to make yet another exodus if Portland for Everyone has its way. So many already have been displaced in the rush to create "market-rate" housing. With the ready cash that developers have at their disposal, ordinary Portlanders will be hard-pressed to outbid them and buy even modest homes.

Many neighbors only have to look beyond their property line to see the kind of developers plying Portland, and the impact-heavy products they typically throw up after trashing a vintage property, but here's a video refresher just in case. Instead of modestly sized projects on what would usually be a lot for one home, Portland for Everyone advocates for multiunit buildings, up to octo-plexes, where all single-family homes now stand. 

The market in Portland is increasingly controlled by nonlocal, even Wall Street, interests, which necessarily have little oversight or concern for the property and the community where the investments occur. It's all about the rent checks.

At the Sunnyside meeting, you could almost feel the befuddlement in the room as most of the neighbors who spoke up voiced concern for loss of trees and permeable surfaces for handling runoff, open space, and the ability to age in place, among other issues. As the Portland for Everyone proposal sailed through a yes vote, it seemed not even its presenters were happy with how it went down. Maybe it felt yucky to ignore the divergent voices in the room, or to have a board that already knew how it would vote, and got it done. 

Still, I was happy to share the tools United Neighborhoods for Reform (UNR) has developed to counter the loss of homes (the Neighbor Pledge) and to help people protect themselves and their families from known toxins during demolitions.

The Sunnyside presentation's subtext of "We love you Portland—now change" begs the question: Why move to a place so unsuited to one's ideals instead of accepting and trying to understand a city's history, including its built landscape and the people who call it home? Wouldn't it be easier to live in a place that was less developed and therefore more moldable, that had plenty of open space to test and execute the idea of a zoning free-for-all? How about picking a place to live based on its existing appeal, and helping to protect those appealing features?

Real density proponents always have Manhattan.

The group sponsoring Portland for Everyone is the former environmental group 1000 Friends of Oregon. 1000 Friends may be a friend to the state, but not to Portland's old-growth resources. That includes the houses made of durable materials, and the mature urban tree canopy that typically accompanies them. Why would a group proud of its environmental leanings endorse a rezoning that involves even more demolitions and the uncontrolled release of hazardous materials such as lead and asbestos?

When the Portland for Everyone train rolls into your neighborhood, be sure to catch the slide show that includes great architecture (if that was what was being built today, UNR probably would not exist), a pro forma based on a $250k lot (do tell where), and even a still from Happy Days. Yes, the Fonz lived over the garage—and he still can under current zoning code. We all want happier days here again, but looking beyond the unicorns and rainbows, it's going to take a lot more than feel-good proselytizing to fix Portland.

Let's start by saving houses.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Talking points come in the nick of time

Neighbors pack Tabor Space on June 28 to hear a vision of the city
that came out of the Residential Infill Project. Overheard
outside afterward: "Honey, are you ready to move out of Portland yet?"
Many have spoken up at the open houses held so far to review the Bureau of Planning's recommendations that came out of the becoming-infamous Residential Infill Project (RIP). This week brings two opportunities, from the neighborhood office in East Portland to the German American Society, Northeast 57th Avenue and Sandy Boulevard. Check the banner for more dates and details to make your concerns known.

Speaking of concerns, United Neighborhoods for Reform (UNR) developed a set of talking points to keep the conversation going, and in favor of viable, existing housing. Some highlighted excerpts, with background following:

 The RIP Process

·      The RIP Stakeholder Advisory Committee was supposed to be a balanced group representing varied interests. Instead, the RIP scope/process was hijacked by developers, “housing advocates” and moneyed interests who used it as a platform to create more opportunities to pad their profits by encouraging demolitions and building many more homes unaffordable to 90% of existing Portland residents.

·      Essential analysis and modeling has not been done by our “green” city to predict the economic, neighborhood and significant environmental impacts of the proposal and whether any part of the BPS plan would produce the original desired results. The burdens and costs of this proposed development will fall on current residents.

·      Adequate infrastructure of streets, sidewalks, sewers, public transportation and traffic management does not exist to support the increased density. The RIP process is seriously flawed by not including input, available to the public, from transportation, environmental services and other city staff responsible for infrastructure planning.

“Affordable” Housing

·      There is no evidence that the proposed plan will result in “affordable” housing and reduce displacement. There is, however, strong recent evidence that new construction results in significantly increased housing unit prices. Building more units will not decrease the price of the units.

City planner Sandra Wood makes some power points at
the RIP open house on June 28 in Southeast Portland.
·      Truly affordable housing for those with lower incomes requires ongoing governmental subsidies. This Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) plan is not a solution. To argue the BPS plan will solve Portland’s housing crisis is inaccurate.

·      Stating that more construction will result in “affordable” housing is a smokescreen created by developers looking for more construction opportunities and profits.

Increased Density

·      The City Council proposal, supported by BPS, to open up huge areas of the city to radically increased density (density that is greater than currently allowed in zone R2) without any modeling is irresponsible.  Increasing density a quarter-mile from Centers, Corridors and frequent transit and Max stations includes most of the city and is not necessary.

At the Kenton Firehouse on July 6, planning chief Joe Zehnder
takes a turn touting the current proposal making
the rounds citywide. Neighbors have debated its merits, intent,
and value through three open houses since mid-June.
·      The city’s Growth Scenarios Report states there is adequate vacant and undeveloped land to meet the city’s projected growth needs twice over until 2035 without increasing density in existing stable neighborhoods.

·      If the city wants to increase density in single-family residential neighborhoods a zone change and proper public input/process is required.

·      Indiscriminate infill density increases will greatly accelerate the demolition trend, resulting in the loss of many additional viable, relatively affordable houses.

Lot Divisions

·      Lot divisions involving historic narrow lots should be allowed in R2.5 only. 
·      Allowing lot divisions throughout the city will stimulate many more demolitions of viable houses.

And finally: 

UNR Supports

·      The only portion of this proposal we can support is the plan for substantially reduced house size based on the size of the lot, using the tool of Floor Area Ratio (the total square feet of the building related to the total square feet of the lot).  However, an improvement to this proposal would be: house height, size and setbacks to be determined by the local neighborhood context, in contrast to the one-size-fits-all neighborhoods concept proposed by this plan. One zoning code does not fit all the varied areas of the city.

The RIP was initiated by Mayor Hales because of the following concerns of residents, none of which are adequately addressed by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability proposal resulting from this project:
o   Demolitions of viable, relatively affordable houses.
o   Construction of large, out of context, expensive replacement houses.
o   Lot divisions that result in demolitions and the replacement by two or more out of scale houses.
o   Threatened loss of cherished neighborhoods.

Protect Portland

·      Many of our neighborhoods are vibrant, walkable, healthy places to live—the reason so many people want to live in Portland. Why destroy these neighborhoods in the name of density and developers’ profits?

Monday, June 27, 2016

Summer politicking ready to sizzle

Here come the dog days of summer. And here comes a huge reason to rouse out of that chaise lounge, starting tomorrow (Tuesday) night.

At last the recommendations by way of the Residential Infill Project move to the fore in a series of open houses to be staged this summer around the city (see banner above for details). The first open house, at the Multnomah Arts Center in mid-June, drew so many activists demanding to be heard that organizers had to change the event format away from neutralizing small-group discussion to an open Q&A.

This is the time to stand up for yourselves and your neighborhood. Entrenched and well-financed players stand ready to increase demolitions across the city.

That's why we're here.
It's a shame because the Residential Infill Project—an idea that came out of United Neighborhoods for Reform's resolution—engaged some people who are deeply committed to improving new construction while also protecting affordable housing in the neighborhoods. The Residential Infill Project slogged through long evenings not without some drama—the rep from the Home Builders Association threw a tantrum and walked out of one event, and someone in the pro-developer crowd once called some of the other members "racist" (which really stings given the mass exodus of diverse people and seniors from the close-in neighborhoods under current demo-favorable city policies).

A few of the recommendations tackle the original intent for the effort, providing new guidelines for scale such as height and volume of new homes. If they work, they could put those McMansions on a diet and, better, reduce the financial incentive of knocking down a modestly sized home that was accessible to many more buyers. Living smaller is a great, green way to live, too.

However, the vast majority of the rest of the recommendations (starting on Page 12 of the Bureau of Planning doc) amount to a rezoning of existing neighborhoods that puts thousands more homes in the cross-hairs. Is your neighborhood a profit center, or is it a place to live? As one activist attendee of a meeting last spring with incoming Mayor Ted Wheeler noted, "Once the market starts to dictate a community, it ceases to be a community."

The 43 neighborhood associations listed at right already have indicated they want more of a say in their future. Developers and city staff can trust us Portlanders—after all, didn't we lay the groundwork for some years of astonishing profits for (usually out-of-town) business interests? We are up to the task of self-determination, and—given the hounds at the door and what they have in mind for us—we're going to need it.
Heather Flint Chatto talks about tools that came out of the
forward-thinking, problem-solving Division Design Initiative
at last week's Citylove event.

Citylovers get serious

At Friday's gathering called Citylove, activists fighting demolition along Southeast Belmont, monitoring the city's Mixed Use Zone activity, and dispelling density myths with sound number-crunching countered the idea that it's necessary to raze Portland to rise it.

KGW, a local station, dug in and showed that Portland has plenty of vacant, buildable land ripe for development without demolishing a thing.

Moss doesn't lie

Fallout from hazardous materials remains one of the biggest, avoidable impacts of demolition. The Forest Service recently reported that moss growing in Kenton tested off the charts for lead, with no glass factories nearby to blame. Instead, as noted in the update to the Portland Mercury story, all signs point to demolition of a small house that occurred across the street as the source for the dispersed lead. (The actual data: The Kenton sample tested at 129 milligrams of lead per kg of dried moss; other readings of moss citywide tested between 2 and 6 mg/kg.)

Hazardous-materials fallout is important even if, as indicated by the Bureau of Development Services's Nancy Thorington, head of a city subcommittee tasked with managing demolition impacts, the city is far more worried about provoking developers' lawyers than it is about permanent health effects and environmental toxicity among Portland's people. That may change given the litigation already starting after moss samples registering high in toxins early this year led scientists to largely unregulated emissions from glass factories.

We are grateful for the continuing interest and exposure by media outlets and other fact-seekers on all these issues.

At the grass-roots, supporters of the antidemolition effort keep multiplying, and are increasingly anxious to bring about more beneficial development that becomes an asset to the neighborhood.