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; in 2018 on Feb. 1; and many dates since.

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

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.