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.

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 creative people can lead the way.