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; and in 2017 on May 17.

Next UNR sighting: The Joint Subcommittee on Natural Resources gives the devastating House Bill 2007 a much-needed public hearing (with two days' notice!) at 1 p.m. Thursday, June 22, in Salem, 900 Court St. NE, Room H-174. Have you sent your emails yet?

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

Friday, June 23, 2017

It's not too late to kill the bill

If you believe our viable affordable housing isn't disposable and could serve future generations, please write here,
with "oppose HB2007" the subject line. Read on for plenty more reasons to say no to HB2007.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Here's how to look forward, with less destruction in mind

The ill-conceived House Bill 2007 certainly has brought on the turmoil and even name-calling by Speaker Kotek, who can't seem to figure out how to gracefully back away from the toxic mess. (By the way, the controversy has managed to stave the bill off the House Ways and Means agenda for another week, which means there's still time to make your voice heard—please do! See next post.)

Take it from a schoolkid: We can reuse houses, too.

It's especially refreshing to hear forward-looking words on land use, such as this from a recent article by Michael Mehaffy, who testified (along with Peggy Moretti of Restore Oregon) at the "information session" given HB2007 earlier this month:
We in the planning and development field need to work harder and more sincerely to find win-win approaches. At the same time, the neighborhood residents need to work harder to find the basis on which that win-win approach might operate. Right now the process is unnecessarily adversarial, and the winner too often is just plain bad development. 
Visit his blog here for more fresh thinking on Portland's problems and how to solve them less destructively.

Watch our movie here to see the city's losses (always affordable housing) and gains (never affordable housing) during this building boom, which continues even as stats from the U.S. Census Bureau show the city's growth rate is slowing.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Do this now

Supporters of House Bill 2007 want it passed before the session ends in Salem (read on for the many reasons why it's a bad idea).

Here's how you can help stop it.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Let's get real about housing affordability

As HB 2007 speeds through the legislature in Salem with an "informational meeting" Thursday morning, Jim Heuer, chairman of the Portland Coalition for Historic Resources, has this to say:

The economic pain caused by soaring housing costs is affecting Oregonians well beyond the Portland metro area. In response to this, the State Legislature has introduced three bills to address the housing affordability crisis, two of which may actually help (one relating to tenant protections including rent stabilization and one encouraging tiny houses). 

The third, HB 2007, could actually do more harm than good. 

HB 2007 was originally designed to speed permitting for construction of truly affordable housing. It was quickly—and very quietly—amended under pressure from the Oregon Home Builders Association and (surprisingly) from 1000 Friends of Oregon, to include provisions that encourage construction of “needed” housing. In the bill “needed housing” is defined to include pretty much everything, but since developers are almost exclusively building highly profitable luxury housing, that’s what the bill is encouraging!

But wait a minute! Haven’t we heard that “supply and demand” will work in housing and that after a time of building high-end housing, prices will fall and mid- and low-income residents will find affordable housing as a result. Sadly, no! Housing affordability advocates have learned from decades of experience that tens of thousands of new high-priced market rate rental units don’t translate into affordable housing. San Francisco and the Canadian cities of Vancouver and Toronto are case studies.

Ever greater income inequality allows affluent residents to bid rents higher, and affordable housing is destroyed in the process. “Build-baby-build” may sound great, but the real estate economists have proven that the benefits won’t “trickle down” to help out average folks for 30 years or even more. Your 20-year-old daughter, priced out of today’s market, just might find affordable housing by the time she’s middle-aged.

Unfortunately, HB 2007 simply promises more “build-baby-build” by provisions that either do nothing for affordability or actively work against it:

· Weakening protections of affordable historic listed resources. Historic protections cover less than 3 percent of Portland’s residential land. This provision is just a wild stab to encourage demolitions on a tiny fraction on our residential land, while providing no assurance of affordable replacements. It further ignores the amount of relatively affordable single and multi-family housing already in our historic districts that would be threatened by demolitions under these provisions.
· Mandating simplified “design review” standards for housing to encourage more development. This provision ignores the fact that state law already provides for that simplified “design review” in residential areas—a case of doing nothing and calling it success.
· Forcing all Oregon cities to allow duplexes throughout single-family zones. This is simply legislative over-reach. 1000 Friends of Oregon is an advocate for this approach in Portland, but that doesn’t make it right for the entire state. Worst of all, it encourages still more demolition of affordable single-family houses in favor of less sought-after duplexes—selling for distinctly non affordable prices [see next post for the $2 million duplex, now popping up in Portland and poised to sprout like mushrooms after a storm]. 

If legislators were really focused on housing affordability, why aren’t they considering the following as elements of HB 2007?
+ Mandating demolition review for affordable housing to ensure that the replacement structure be affordable as well—by accepted HUD standards of affordability
+ Providing tax incentives for rehabilitation of existing work-force housing, with special emphasis on energy efficiency, lead paint mitigation and seismic retrofitting
+ Supporting building code changes to allow cheaper conversion of existing single-family houses to duplex or multi-family use, while ensuring protection of health and safety
+ Simplifying ADU rules and providing for “templates” for quick approval
+ Placing limits on ever-expanding conversion of rental housing to short-term rentals—with reasonable enforcement provisions which are sorely lacking in Portland and other Oregon cities
+ Identifying a permanent source of funding for affordable housing construction bonds, providing new housing where it is needed now, and allowing for new construction of truly affordable housing every year into the future
+ Providing enforcement to ensure that “affordable” units in privately owned buildings stay affordable for at least 50 to 60 years—correcting a glaring weakness in today’s low-income housing programs

Unfortunately, HB 2007 only pretends to make real strides toward needed housing affordability for Oregonians. It needs to be fixed to focus on the real needs that prompted it in the first place—focusing on ways to increase the amount of real affordable housing in the next 12 to 18 months, not 30 years from now!

For more stats on one player in Portland development—Renaissance Homes—illustrating the building problems of lost affordable housing and its replacement with far less affordable products, read here. There's a lot of money at stake here, and it's funneling straight to the "grassroots" through the former environmental group 1000 Friends of Oregon and the ironically named Portland for Everyone. Follow the funds, and understand the HB 2007 flashpoint.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Land grab writ large

The developers did not get what they wanted—or at least not fast enough—with the becoming-infamous Residential Infill Project, so they took their issues to Salem.

While neighbors were testifying at the Capitol in support of controlling hazmat during demolitions (see next post), members of the Home Builders Association were bamboozling leaders on the House side to bring on HB2007. (To be fair, a rep of the HBA did show at the hearing for the hazmat-control bill, where he doubted the connection between lead dust and its health impacts; fortunately a bevy of health officials were there to share the science and reports that prove it.)

The preamble to HB2007 sounds alluring, and we'd love if it were true: all about affordable housing, and the need to fast-track it. But listen to some of the devilish details. Who better to explain them than the leader of the drafters themselves, the Oregon HBA's CEO, Jon Chandler, as he recently did in a post on the group's Facebook page. Some of his excerpted goals of HB2007:
"Limiting the ability of cities and counties to reduce density below the zoned density" 
"Prohibiting the use of historic district designations from being used to reduce density or prevent infill and redevelopment"
"Accessory Dwelling Units and duplexes as outright uses in every single-family zone"
This aggressive site-procurement plan entails a sweeping unzoning that does away with decades of careful land-use planning and local determination. While business interests play an increasing role at the national level, this particular business group—known to manipulate the system at the local level with "engineered" testimony (full doc here) and for buying 1000 "Friends" of Oregon influence (poor Tom McCall!)—wants carte blanche to place their products anywhere, even if, and especially if, that land happens to be in an already established neighborhood full of well-sited, unique, and viable affordable housing. 

Thanks to activists (Architectural Heritage CenterLaurelhurst neighborhood, McCulloch FoundationPortland Together, and Restore Oregon) for their analysis of HB2007 and info on how to respond. If you're ready to write right now, go here.

A $2 million duplex rises in Northeast Portland. House Bill 2007
would usher in more of the same, everywhere.
For an example of the current generous allowances for new development, here's a duplex under way in Northeast Portland (above), where each unit will cost a mil. 

Affordable housing takes serious local investment and subsidy; let's do that instead of increasing the teardown blitz. 

If in Portland we had only vastly reduced demolitions when they began in earnest, we would have available thousands more units of affordable housing than we do now—real affordable housing, made of old-growth durable materials and tested by time. We also would not have dusted their sites and thousands of neighbors and other properties with lead and asbestos. 

What we need are "healthy neighborhoods," where people of all income levels can continue to live in solid well-built housing, avoiding the economic redlining that comes from too many of the projects pictured above. In these sanctuary neighborhoods, too, the air would be safer to breathe, vegetables and berries could be eaten out of the yards, and kids could freely dig in the dirt.
A local post office makes strides with hazmat; so can the rest of us.

Check the latest demolition list from the Portland Chronicle. If you find one within 400 feet of you (the distance the toxic dust travels), get in touch (submit info at top right, or find a UNR member) for fliers with measures to try and protect yourselves and your families. 

Commissioner Eudaly's chief of staff, Marshall Runkel, recently talked about the need for "responsible demolition." Although sort of an oxymoron, it shows leaders are listening and the issue is becoming too big to ignore (see that hyperlinked list). Taking heart from a proclamation recently posted on the wall of a post office off Northeast Broadway (above), it feels good to be a hazmat hero.

It's not all roses in Rose City Park

Meanwhile, Mayor Ted Wheeler enjoyed standing-room-only reception at last week's meeting of the Rose City Park Neighborhood Association at the German American Society, Northeast 57th and Sandy. 
Mayor Ted Wheeler talks about the next generations
 in Rose City Park on April 25.
Before he really touched the hot-button issue of parking, he talked about how expensive it is to build. For sure. But when not provided by developers, that "expense" falls to someone else, and impacts the public street system. 

Mayor Wheeler did not seem to consider the fairness of offloading a landlord's responsibility for satisfying tenants' needs (such as storing their belongings, including cars) onto the street, a public amenity that serves businesses and in particular many residents who rely on delivered services, such as seniors and the disabled. Until we garnish rent checks to build the tenants parking garages, the irresponsibility of no-parking apartments will rub everyone the wrong way, except those fattening their bottom line by not building it.

Also on the subject of development, Mayor Wheeler explained how the younger generation likes to live in smaller units with shared amenities and spaces. Which makes sense, for starting out in one's life and career, and being able to save money by eschewing the many expensive apartments that have opened all around town. 

But what happens when they might later want to gain a toehold in the market as an equity holder, put down roots as a household? 

We're going to wish we still had those thousands of (mostly) modest size starter homes just dumped in the landfill. The "greenest" and more affordable house is the one allowed to remain standing, never the one taking its place.

This could be good news

At a recent meeting of the Central Northeast Neighbors land use committee, Bureau of Planning staffer Nan Stark talked about a plan to focus on ADUs for Cully, a neighborhood known for large lots and low infrastructure. 

Maybe city leaders heard from the farmers of Cully (there are many), who didn't want to lose crops and health protections to the uncontrolled hazardous materials from demolitions. In any case, there are less destructive ways to grow, and hopefully creative people can lead the way.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

State leaders look at hazmat during demolition—let's cheer them on

Congrats, everyone! Our noisemaking about the clouds of toxic dust during demolitions has at last reached our elected leaders at the Legislature. They want to address the problem, but they need to hear about how they can make their effort even more meaningful.

If you've always wanted to show up for the anti-demolition cause, here's a golden opportunity.

A federal study reports hazardous materials such as lead travel as far as 400 feet from a demolition.
Illustration by Scott Nasburg.


Hazmat released during mechanical demolitions of homes—now occurring at a rate of more than one per day in Portland—steps to the fore Monday in Salem as the Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources takes up SB871.

Don't breathe: When the trackhoe arrives, it's a bad deal for
neighbors and neighborhoods. Let's join other environmentally
minded places that have busted the practice of toxic dustings.
Get up to speed on it (in particular, read the concerns by UNR's John Sandie, below, who has followed the bill but unfortunately can't attend Monday), then either submit comment asking for absolute control of hazardous materials during demolition (or no permit), and penalties and enforcement that make it happen.

Normally, it is illegal to so freely pollute, still worse to cause irreparable harm to kids, for whom there is no safe level of lead ingestion according to the Centers for Disease Control. For more on the issue, read here.

Please take some time to add your voice to others clamoring for more responsible stewardship of our old-growth affordable housing and measures to protect public health and safety.

What: Hearing on SB871 in Salem
Who: Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources
When: 3 p.m. Monday, April 10
Where: Oregon Capitol, 900 Court St. NE, Hearing Room C
Why: You care about keeping your city a safe and healthy place to live, play, and eat the food we grow.

You can also submit written testimony by email to senr.exhibits@oregonlegislature.gov.

If you submit written testimony, you need to include the bill number (SB871), the committee (Environment and Natural Resources) and your name in the email subject line. In the body of the email include your name, bill number, committee and date (April 10, 2017).

For starters, bill needs less "may require" and more "must"

As UNR's point person on the hazmat issue, John Sandie has followed and participated in city and state policy efforts to clean up demolitions and their associated hazards. The current bill follows on the 2015 passage of SB705, which calls for asbestos surveys. Here's his take on SB871:
"For the last three years, United Neighborhoods for Reform (UNR) has lobbied city and state agencies for effective oversight in requiring responsible demolition methods while removing a structure within an urban residential zone. The potential for exposure of hazardous materials is well defined in many recent studies conducted by government agencies, as well as academic institutions.   
"SB871, as amended, and the earlier implemented SB705 are steps toward UNR’s goal of protecting public health during demolitions. However, without clear requirements on verifying that the spirit and intent of the legislation is being carried out on a routine basis, the ambiguous nature of diluted accountability will fill the void and real reduction in the health risks will be an illusion. Recent investigative articles on severe gaps in asbestos abatement during Portland housing demolitions highlights this all too well. 
 "I am encouraged that SB871 has specifically addressed the lead-based paint issue where SB705 was mute. As part of implementation of SB871, the legislature must demand that the Oregon Health Authority, in concert with municipal agencies, immediately require “best practices” as defined within the studies mentioned above, as well as by EPA in its evolving applications of lead-paint Renovation, Repair and Painting Rules – recommending these be applied to home demolitions. The increasing level of demolition activity requires urgent attention to this point. 
 "In addition, there needs to be a clear understanding of what constitutes demolition of a structure. In this case the state definition must govern requirements and actions of local government bodies; liberal allowances under virtual demolitions classified as 'major renovations' cannot be an excuse for not properly protecting the public."

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 housing 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.