What UNR does, and why

Portland grassroots group United Neighborhoods for Reform seeks to stem the demolition of viable, affordable housing. 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.

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

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.


  1. The photos at the top of this post, at 1018 North Ainsworth. isn't a "cottage cluster" and it has nothing to do with the residential infill project. It's in the R1 zone, so it's supposed to be 5x denser than R5. The R1 zone is unaffected by the residential infill project.

    1. Hi Michael, Thanks for the comment. Sure looks like it qualifies as a "cottage cluster" to me—under RIP every unit's allowed an ADU (so let's just call em duplexes), and the only required green space is 12 x 12 feet. According to the city lit, this kind of development is to be encouraged in "all single-dwelling zones" (p. 3 of October 2017 project summary). R5 especially under RIP will get more intense development than R1—seems like we should be careful about undoing decades of planning (and throwing yet more viable affordable homes in the landfill) just because a small group of players desire more luxe plexing opportunities. BTW, have you seen the current glut of apartments and condos, with more coming down the pipeline? Vacancies suck the life out of neighborhoods. We're gonna wish we had that durable, unique housing stock back and the mature trees surrounding it.

    2. I'm sorry, Margaret, but you're not correct. Even under the current residential infill project proposal, R5 would have a minimum unit count per lot of one and a maximum of three (except outside the "a" overlay, where it would remain min 1/max 2). On a comparable 5,000 sqft lot, R1 has a minimum of three and a maximum of five (citywide).

      The max floor area ratio in R5 would be 0.5, or ~0.65 you want to include half-daylight basements and low-ceilinged finished attics (which I think is fair enough). Both of those are way way below the intensity in those pictures. In R1, the max height is 45 feet. Under the current proposal, it'd be 30 feet in R5.

      I appreciate your willingness to engage in the comments here, but you're just not right on some of these facts.

      As for the recent new construction: As a tenant, I'm very glad those new high-end units are going to give rich people places to live other than my house. If the city stops building homes, I'll be able to find some other place to live, but the person I outbid for that place would displace somebody else, and so on.

    3. The minimum lot size in R5 is 3,000 sf (https://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/64609). Under RIP that R5 lot would get a house plus two ADUs plus a bonus unit (for a total of four units, altho I see that RIP notes that one or some of these units are not to be counted in "density"—probably to get around that maximum of three units that you've cited). However it's counted, it ends up being more than one unit per 1,000 sf. For standard size R5 lots, development would be about equal to what's now in R2.5 and R3. However, since we have a lot of maximum-size players out there, I bet any oversize R5 lot would be split into 3,000 sf parcels to capitalize on the development opportunities if not creating "cottage clusters" outright.

    4. I apologize, I read the table wrong on Page 19 of Volume I of the RIP proposal: For the 3,000 sf lot in R5, RIP would allow three units so that's development intensity equal to R1, not more than as I said earlier—sorry. (Should we have zones at all if no difference exists between them?) Anytime, anywhere you offer a multiunit payout on what had formerly been a single-unit property, a teardown is likely. Also true: The greenest, cheapest house is the one already standing.

    5. That’s correct about unit count, but the problem you attempt to identify with your inaccurate picture is not the number of homes, it’s the size of the buildings. I am saying that any new buildings in R5 would have to be way smaller than the ones you inaccurately claim are representative.

      If your problem with the residential infill project is the number of families who are allowed to live near you, that is one thing. If your problem with it is the size of the buildings, then the residential infill project is a major improvement on the status quo from your perspective. In any case, the photo you use here is a very large mischaracterization of the proposal.

      If your problem is teardowns, then both size and unit count are relevant because bigger homes sell for more, and the new size cap is going to mean that nobody could make money on a lot of demolitions, so they won’t happen. That’s offset somewhat by the fact that two 2500 sqft homes are worth a little more together than one 5000 sqft home; the only quantitative economic analysis of the subject I’m aware of concluded that this works out to fewer demolitions under the proposal, but there’s room to debate that.