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); in 2016 on Feb. 17, Nov. 9 and 16, and Dec. 7; in 2017 on May 17; and in 2018 on Feb. 1.

Next up: Portland Planning Commission takes up the Residential Infill Project at a briefing 5-7:30 p.m. April 24, then public hearings (prep your two-minute testimony!) 5 pm May 8 and 15 at 1900 S.W. Fourth Ave., Room 2500. Send written comment by May 15 to Planning Commission-RIP, 1900 SW 4th Ave., Suite 7100, Portland, OR 97201. (Please cc City Council—info at right margin, scroll down.)

RIP drop-in hours
3:30-5:30 pm Thursday, April 26, North Portland Library, 512 N Killingsworth St.
3:30-5:30 pm Monday, April 30, Hollywood Library, 4040 NE Tillamook St.
4:30-6:30 pm Tuesday, May 1, Woodstock Library, 6008 SE 49th Ave.
4:30-6:30 pm Thursday, May 3, Hillsdale Library, 1525 SW Sunset Blvd.

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

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Leaders step up

Commissioner Chloe Eudaly led the charge
for public health and safety last month.
Nowhere was there more evidence of change in the air than at a City Council session last month (demolition discussion starts at 1:16) where the mayor and commissioners clamored to have changes in demolition made effective as soon as possible.

Throwing his weight behind new rules effective at least by July 1, Mayor Ted Wheeler's opening salvo of "What would it take to expedite this?" seemed to show he's aware of the hits neighborhoods and Portland residents have been taking with unregulated demolition dust. As discussed here many times and shown by numerous studies, particulates of lead paint and other hazardous materials spread up to 400 feet from a demolition site, dusting people and properties and posing irreversible health and developmental effects.

Just a little hurts a lot. As the Centers for Disease Control has noted, avoidance is the best possible—and easiest—path to prevention.

Mayor Wheeler got in the spirit of public health and safety
at the February 1 session, noting that 25 mph—the allowable
limit for mechanical demolition—"is actually a pretty stiff
wind. That's not an inconsequential breeze." With such a low
barrier of protection and enforcement success unknown, it
may eventually be safer to require deconstruction for every
home or, better yet, keep homes standing in the first place.
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly boldly brought on the proposal, especially notable because she oversees the Bureau of Development Services, where all the magic will happen to enforce the new rules. In addition, she asked and received support for expanding notification of affected neighbors twofold, from the previous 150 feet to 300 feet, to ensure people could try to protect against exposure, cover their food plots, and so on.

Other high points of the session included Tony Green of the Ombudsman's Office discussing how current demo rules created inequity because many neighbors would be more exposed to hazardous materials just because the homes in their neighborhoods were not as old as in other parts of the city and therefore not subject to the deconstruction requirement.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz chimed in to say that with this, and other issues relating to demolitions generally, it's shown that activists in a small number of neighborhoods are doing work that brings benefits to people citywide.

Tony Green of the Ombudsman's Office applauded
deconstruction but found that the city's mandate, which
 only covers houses built before 1917, has resulted in
"geographically disparate community benefits."
Watch here starting at 1:47.
As courts work through the liability of hazmat exposure elsewhere in the country, and the complicity of knowing about it, our leaders seem sincerely interested in making change for the better.

This steady evolution of City Council hopefully will continue with the forthcoming addition of a new commissioner. With a shift toward representation of people who live here rather than the mostly out-of-town business interests preying on viable affordable housing to tear it down for larger-margin projects, things can only get better.

This is especially heartening as the Residential Infill (Refill?) Project hurtles down the pike, which makes a demolition opportunity zone of much of the east side, exempting just a few areas because of the acknowledged displacement risk involved in upzoning.

If new zoning allows a multiunit payout on what had been a single-family property, the house currently there doesn't stand a chance. With few city protections for existing viable, affordable homes—even with many Portlanders embracing an environmental ethic of reuse and sustainability—the loss of old-growth housing will increase. But hopefully, thanks to City Council's efforts last month, we can all breathe a little easier.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

"No place will stay special by accident"

This from Ed McMahon, the senior resident fellow for sustainable development at the Urban Land Institute, when he spoke late last year at the University of Oregon's White Stag building. McMahon's focus on repurpose and finding win-win solutions bolsters the institute's mission to provide leadership in responsible use of land.

Before we lose them, it's worth asking.
How wonderful to see the possibilities of longer-term visioning for our evolution that are more healthful, sustainable, and inclusive than demolishing-at-all-costs, which thus far only provides more expensive housing, with little to no benefit to the community where it rises. (In fact, the hazmat dispersal involved in mechanical demolition is toxic pollution with permanent consequences for human health and development.)

McMahon wasn't the only one bringing inspiring ideas to town, noting that not only do "places make us" (moreover: "placemaking must be rooted in authenticity") but "sameness is a minus, not a plus, in today's world" and that "older smaller buildings consistently punch above their weight class" while also making use of durable old-growth resources.

Alex Gilliam likes it local, creating
projects with and for residents (as below).
Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop came last fall, too, courtesy of Pacific Northwest College of Art/Oregon College of Art & Craft, with a message about how development efforts succeed best with heavy grassroots involvement. Neighbors know what works, and projects prove all the better for their input.

Courtesy Ed McMahon/
Urban Land Institute
Ironically, while these two influential thinkers detailed the success of community-driven and -minded projects, Portland city staff seem to be moving in the opposite direction. In subtle and other ways, a move to diminish neighborhood associations' influence in city governance shows the increasing hold that business interests want to take on resources such as old-growth affordable housing.

Courtesy Public Workshop
Lately, the effort to demonize neighborhood associations seems to have gathered steam (helped by paid lobbyists); disgruntled Portlanders should take courage and be the change. If your neighborhood association doesn't represent you, run for the board. Show up to meetings. Vote!

Nothing could be more egalitarian than a neighborhood association, where all you have to do is exist somewhere in Portland to be eligible to participate—no common background, choice of transportation, or shared special interest required. No place is more inclusive and transparent at the ground level than a neighborhood association, which is bound by public meetings law, election rules, and voting processes.

Neighbors plant trees in Northeast, especially important as teardown
development razes mature urban tree canopy throughout Portland.
Commercial interests at the federal level increasingly call the shots—Portland is not immune—but for all the national grumbling about democracy, no one has seriously called for dismantling it and abandoning elections altogether. Why similarly move to negate neighborhood associations' power in self-determination, and disregard residents' pride of place? (Is it because the parasitic profiteering of teardown development is threatened by environmental and socially just protectionist efforts?)

Neighborhood associations are accountable, a conduit for information both directions between city staff and the street level, and are necessarily engaged groups dedicated to improvement. After all, neighbors know how to make positive change, whether it's planting trees, staging cleanups, solving local transportation issues, organizing neighborhood watches, and otherwise helping make this city such a fine place to live.

Another hallmark activity of neighborhood associations aside from
engagement in local land use issues are boots-on-the-ground,
hugely popular events such as bulky-waste cleanups, here manned
by Roseway board members and other volunteers.
Other critics of neighborhood associations say they're a waste of time. Some long meetings aside—few activists enjoy them (we would love company or to be spelled once in a while)—the neighborhood meetings are where the people meet and together collaborate on and enact a future.

One could argue that the diminished power of neighborhoods has had the resultant effect on participation. Give the people something more important to decide than what movie should play in the park that summer, and they will show up, as evidenced by meetings focused on land use issues.

This year, how about resolving to show up for your neighborhood? Read on for more reasons why or be inspired to act by the cautionary tale of near-total displacement experienced in one of Portland's classic neighborhoods—with all the free screenings coming up, there's no excuse to miss it.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

It gets better

Courtesy N.E. Lettanay
Neighbors and their neighborhood associations are starting to hear back from planners regarding the comment just submitted to the city on the becoming-notorious Residential Infill Project (RIP), and here—finally—is the admission we activists always suspected.

An even bigger question remains: What problem is RIP trying to solve?

Seven more hours to make your voice heard

With today's 5 p.m. deadline for comment on the Residential Infill Project, or RIP (send to residential.infill@portlandoregon.gov!), we're running this guest post and graphics (left) by activist N.E. Lettanay, which nicely summarize the situation—and hopefully inspire more comment to planners (again: send to residential.infill@portlandoregon.gov):

QUESTION: What do you get when the Home Builders Association, real estate investors, and developers like Vic Remmers hijack a project originally intended to mitigate displacement, create smaller, more affordable housing options, and reign in an unprecedented demolition epidemic? 
ANSWER: A Trojan Horse, a lie cloaked in the words we want to hear, an opportunistic land grab that will put the current evisceration of our city to shame if passed. 
We live in a city that allows unrestricted demolition of sound, habitable structures. Without the ability to restrict demolitions and shape the kind of development that builds the equitable communities we want and need, the Residential Infill Project zoning changes will exacerbate and perpetuate our current housing state of emergency. RIP is being brought to this city by the very same industry that cultivated the affordable housing crisis to begin with. Sign and share the petition, make noise, RESIST RIP. 

AND REMEMBER: There is no "housing crisis," there is only an *affordable* housing crisis.

RIP process flawed from the start

[looking at the graphic (below) of people involved in the drafting of RIP]

Courtesy Jesse Simpson

Those marked in blue are the members of the RIP committee (aka RIPSAC) who drafted the "majority" report recommendation—to upzone the entire city without requiring affordability or restricting demolitions. Notice a common thread? (Some, like Living Cully, had good intentions and do great work in the community, but were IMHO misled by developers' talking points.) 

Those marked in orange as the RIPSAC 7 are unsung heroes who have been sounding the alarm since it became apparent that this initiative was being driven by the profiteers in quest for greater wealth extraction.

Svengali's got to gloat

Lest we forget just what kinds of tactics the Home Builders Association is willing to employ in order to manipulate, lie, and polish up that Trojan Horse of theirs... let's revisit their brag piece about how they defeated the demolition tax by employing a new controversial tactic of "seizing the progressive agenda," "attacking from the left" and "engineering testimony."


Lettanay also offers a highlighted academic study by a Lewis & Clark Environmental Studies major on the entire RIP process, noting that "his astute observations and conclusions should be a wake-up call for everyone. This is what rollout Neoliberalism looks like"—see https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2BymwFHHWtTc011ZEdDamRwVVU/view.

Want more? Watch the video version of her testimony here. Also, we volunteer activists don't have money for massive billboards, offices downtown, or paid lobbyists like Portland for Everyone and other pro-developer assistants, but if we did we'd love to see this truth given the play it deserves:

Courtesy N.E. Lettanay

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Here's your nitty-gritty on RIP

Architect Sarah Cantine models development proposed under the Residential Infill Project, showing
the massing and scale of duplexes throughout the R5 zone. Four-plexes also would be allowed.

Portlanders have until November 30, 2017 to send comments to the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) on the discussion draft of the Residential Infill Project (RIP). See formal responses by United Neighborhoods for Reform (UNR) below to the proposal.

Send comment to: residential.infill@portlandoregon.gov and/or City of Portland Bureau of Planning, Attn: RIP, 1900 SW Fourth Ave., Suite 7100, Portland, OR 97201.

This and the next two pics show the
state of current Portland allowances
as a teardown development takes
hold on Northeast Ainsworth 
Street. RIP smiles on such projects.
Photos courtesy Michael Johnson
RIP proposes sweeping changes that would affect the majority of Portland’s east side and areas of the west side. Significantly increased density would result along with the potential loss of many more viable, less expensive houses through demolition. There is no analysis that this plan would actually result in less expensive houses. Areas of our neighborhoods would be upzoned from R5 to R2.5 without any formal public process.

The proposal goes to the Planning Commission early next year, with final decisions to be made by City Council in early spring.

Visit the Residential Infill Project website for the city's info on the project. Please read more than the summary document; in particular, you should at least read Volume I. 

Through careful analysis and dialogue with planners, UNR has developed a position on the proposal and messages we want to send to the city (read on). We hope these will help you formulate your comments to BPS; feel free to also address any specific impacts the proposal will have on your neighborhood.  

Planners say RIP "limits"
new construction to 2,500 feet, but
the top and bottom floors
are excluded from the calculation. 
If ever there was a reason to speak up about the future of our city the Residential Infill Project is it. 

If you believe it is time to stop the demolitions, also consider buying a yard sign from UNR. Submit info at top right.

Message #1:  The RIP does not incorporate the amendments approved by City Council on December 7, 2016.
  The RIP ignores City Council’s amendment disallowing rezoning of narrow lots in R5 zones to R2.5.

Required green space is 12 x 12 feet;
RIP does nothing to increase this.
  The RIP ignores City Council’s amendment to provide options for the housing opportunity overlay zone map.

  The RIP ignores City Council’s amendment allowing front-loaded garages on narrow lots.

Message #2:  The RIP will not result in homes affordable to most people.
  By limiting the proposed areas of higher density (the “opportunity area”) to well-established, i.e., “complete neighborhoods,” which come with associated high house and land prices, developers will not be able to build homes affordable to most people in these areas.
  The city needs to make infrastructure investments, including transportation improvements, in all parts of the city. With this infrastructure in place, lower land prices in many areas will allow for additional housing. Grocery stores, restaurants, and other services will develop with the influx of new residents. This will help create new, additional “complete neighborhoods.”
  Very little analysis of the impacts on neighborhoods has been done to support the proposed radical change in zoning. The city needs to do the analysis and share the analysis with the public.
Message #3:  The RIP will result in more displacement of renters.
  In Volume I of the RIP proposal (pages 44-48), city planners acknowledge displacement of renters as a potential outcome of the upzoning and “opportunity” overlay but only exempt some areas in three neighborhoods and East Portland.

  Many renters already have been displaced from the “opportunity” overlay. Many more rental homes will be demolished under RIP because builders profit from tearing down an affordable rental home and building bigger houses or multiple market-rate units.

  Under RIP, demolitions will shift disproportionally to neighborhoods of smaller, less expensive homes, resulting in even greater displacement pressure on their residents, especially renters.
Message #4:  The RIP does not meaningfully reduce the allowable size of infill houses; hence, it will not reduce the profit motive to demolish houses.
  RIP purports to “limit the size of houses while maintaining flexibility.” However “low ceiling attics” and basements (which need only be 4 feet below grade), including finished basements with above-grade windows, would not be included when measuring the square footage of a new house. Additional square footage would be allowed for accessory dwelling units (ADUs), garages, and sheds. Because of these additional allowances, the “2,500 square foot” house described in RIP could actually be 3,250 square feet plus the basement. New single-family houses would be allowed to have two ADUs—in other words, a triplex development.  

  The table below shows the median house size of existing single-family residences in zip codes affected by RIP. The proposed size for new houses exceeds the median size house existing in every zip code impacted by RIP.

Zip Code
Median Size House (square feet)
  The city needs to adjust the calculation of floor area ratio (FAR) allowed in code to include all habitable space. If an effective limit is placed on house size, the profit motive to build big houses is reduced, and there will be fewer demolitions.
  Large houses are more expensive to heat and cool and have a more negative ecological impact than smaller houses. Large homes do not leave much room for maintaining or growing large trees; 12 by 12 feet is the required green space.
Message #5:  The most affordable and “greenest” house is the one already standing; RIP does little to encourage retention of existing houses.
  Bonus units should only be allowed if the existing house is retained.

  The exterior of the existing house should remain reasonably intact.
Message #6:  The RIP violates the purpose of the zoning code, which is to provide stability and predictability to neighborhoods and the development process.
  With the "housing opportunity overlay zone" the R5 zone becomes more dense than the existing R2 zone. The R2.5 zone becomes more dense than the R1 zone.

These two pictures come from Ballard, in Seattle,
and show the result of RIP-style policy adopted there.
Watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jex02iV52pM
(google: "False Promise of Up-Zoning Reform").
Photos courtesy Laureen Dunning
  A potential triplex on every lot is a multi-family zone by definition and erases the purpose and intent of single-family zoning. The credibility of the code (along with civic leadership) is lost as is the expectation for stability when every home sale becomes a potential teardown.

And now for the nittier-grittier:

Scale of Houses
     General Proposals UNR Supports:
     1) Using FAR as a measure of house size.
     2) Decreasing allowable FAR of main structure to 0.5 in all single-family residential zones.
     3) Increasing front setbacks.
     4) Limiting number of stairs to front entrance.
     5) Requiring new buildings to be more accessible.
     6) Measuring height from the lowest grade near the house.
7) Internal conversions for long-term rentals or sale.
8) Articulation of large street-facing facades.
9) New dormer requirements.

     General Proposals UNR Does Not Support:
      1) Not including basements in the FAR limits.
2) Relying on ADUs to add density of long-term renters/buyers without doing analysis to support this reasoning.
3) Allowing reduced front setback to 10 feet to match adjacent house but not allowing increased setback to match adjacent house.
4) Higher FAR on small lots.

     UNR’s Suggestions to Improve the RIP draft:
      1) Include basements in total FAR for the house, unless first floor is no higher than 2 feet above grade.
2) A mechanism to ensure that ADUs and internal conversions are used for long-term rentals or sales.
3) Lot coverage should be tied to lot size: FAR should be 0.5 for all lot sizes.
4) Reduce house height limit on lots 5000 sf or less to 25 feet.
5) Allow houses to be up to 30 feet high if at least 50% of houses within 300 feet are larger and taller than above limits.
6) For gable roof house, measure height to roof ridge if gables are more than 50% of roof area.
7) Main entry can be no higher than 2 feet above lowest grade 5 feet from the house.
8) Match the front setback to adjacent houses.
9) Require the retention of the original primary structure including front setback and entry fa├žade during the creation of an internal ADU or internal conversion.
10) Do not allow artificially raising the low point of the street facing property front with a retaining wall.
11) Grade cannot be artificially built up to alter the reference point for measuring height.

Housing Opportunity
     General Proposals UNR Supports:
1) Required visitability features for one unit: a low-or no-step entry, wider halls and doors, and living space and bathroom on ground floor.
2) If a bonus unit is given all units must be affordable.

     General Proposals UNR Does Not Support:
1) The use of a “higher opportunity housing area” over a wide area of the east side including the David Douglas school district.
2) A “housing opportunity area” this large without adequate analysis to predict effects on the city.
3) Allowing duplexes and triplexes with added ADUs anywhere in R5 housing opportunity zone.
     UNR’s Suggestions to Improve the RIP draft:
1) Before proceeding with the RIP, analysis must be done of potential impacts on the city: housing prices, rental costs, infrastructure, number and distribution of demolitions, displacement, percentage of current viable houses, and more.
2) A pilot study of a smaller area must be done to test the impacts of code.
3) More alternative map options must be developed as directed by the City Council in December 2016.
4) Use walking distance from frequent bus service to determine overlay area, not a widespread one-size-fits-all area.
5) For lots 7,000 sf to 10,000 sf, allow a bonus ADU, but only if lots are within 500 ft of existing public transit stops with 15-minute frequency seven days a week.
6) If an existing house is preserved on a 7,000-10,000 sf lot there should be no limits to the numbers of units if the total FAR is limited and all setbacks are met.
7) Viable houses cannot be demolished. Code must define viability clearly and BDS must enforce this.
8) Develop more clear and realistic definitions of “demolition” and “major remodel.”
9) Strategies for building more complete neighborhoods in outer East Portland.

Narrow Lots
     General Proposals UNR Supports:    
1) Require at least 2 units when new development is proposed on a 5000 sf lot or larger in a current R2.5 zone.
2) On a lot adjacent to an improved and maintained alley, require access from the alley when parking is proposed.
3) Require attached houses on lots of 25 ft wide or less.
4) Allow property lines to be adjusted to create small flag lots when a house is retained.
5) Houses on flag lots restricted to 1000 sf, and height to 20 ft.

     General Proposals UNR Does Not Support:
1) Changing current areas of R5 with underlying historic lot lines to R2.5. This appears to be contravening the intent of City Council's vote in December 2016 to prohibit lot divisions in R5 with underlying historic lot lines.
2) Height of 35 ft allowed on attached houses in R2.5.

     UNR’s Suggestions to Improve the RIP draft:
     1) Do not upzone R5 areas to R2.5 against City Council’s recommendation.
     2) Lower the height limit in R2.5 to 25 feet for single and attached houses.

Cluster Housing
     General Proposals UNR Supports:
     1) The idea of cluster housing should be explored.

     General Proposals UNR Does Not Support:
     1) It appears that there will be no guidelines in code regarding FAR, number of units, and lot size.
     2) Cluster housing is subject only to a Planned Development Review.

     UNR’s Suggestions to Improve the RIP draft:
1) Code regarding FAR, height, number of units, building orientation to street and neighbors, open space, and lot size must be included for cluster housing projects.

2) Cluster housing projects must be considered in relationship to the neighborhood to avoid an apartment complex being placed in the midst of a single-family zone.