Readers nix upzoning as an affordable housing solution

Upzoning may be the solution to Oregon’s housing crisis, but many residents don’t want to see multifamily buildings in their neighborhood.

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The Oregon Legislature recently implemented protections for tenants facing rent increases. And under the state’s new inclusionary zoning law, Oregon cities now have the power to force developers to build affordable housing.

Smaller communities — outside the most populous counties, Clackamas, Marion, Multnomah, Polk and Washintgon — will also have the opportunity to expand their urban growth boundary — as long as construction includes an affordable housing project. 

But these efforts alone won’t solve the affordable housing shortage.  And for now, rental rates continue to skyrocket. A recent study found a Portland renter would need to earn $3 more an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment, totaling at least $19.38 per hour, more than minimum wage. 

As activists and policy makers continue to search for solutions, Oregon Business asked readers for input on one possible approach — allowing multifamily housing in all single-family neighborhoods, a practice known as upzoning. The majority of readers favored a NIMBY approach. Fifty-seven percent nixed the idea of densifying single family home neighborhoods with a mix of duplexes and apartment buildings.

Post poll, Oregon Business asked Deborah Imse, executive director for Multifamily NW, which represents numerous multifamily buildings in the state, and Kurt Creager, Portland Housing Bureau director, to weigh in on upzoning.

Imse said zoning decisions are best left up to each municipality but agreed more housing options are needed to address increasing demand for housing, and rising costs.

“In neighborhoods that have good access to schools, parks, jobs, and transit lines, it makes sense to have a variety of housing options that are accessible to people of all income levels,” she said.

Creager said his experience in Virginia, where multifamily housing is more integrated with single-family residences, indicates coexistence can work well, even in established neighborhoods.

“However, some care must be taken regarding the issues of off street parking needs so as not to negatively affect adjoining properties,” he said.

In Virginia, for example, many multiplex structures resemble four-story townhomes, providing the appearance of a single-family home, but with the capacity to house multiple families.

“Design quality and character makes a great difference and handled well, these can fit into otherwise historic or legacy neighborhoods with grace and charm,” Creager said.

Imse said historic preservation concerns explain why many people oppose building multifamily structures in single family neighborhoods. But historic preservaiton is not incompatible with density, she said.

“It can sound scary to talk about zoning changes, but there are plenty of housing types like ADUs, duplexes, and interior conversions of older homes that can create more affordable housing options while retaining a residential neighborhood’s physical character,” said Imse. “At the same time, multifamily housing is not necessarily appropriate in every neighborhood.”

Creager said PHB doesn’t have an official position on increasing multi-family housing in single-family neighborhoods, but the organization believes residents at all-income levels deserve choice in the housing market. “And anything to increase choice is generally seen as beneficial.”

Imse said the housing crisis has reached crisis proportions. People continue to move to the region, but there is not enough housing to accommodate them.

“We absolutely need to increase the supply of housing by removing barriers to development. Unless we continue to build new units, costs will continue to rise,” she said. “But increasing the supply isn’t the only solution. We also need to establish dedicated funding sources to support subsidized affordable housing options for low-income families.”

An upzoning plan for Portland may be in sight, Creager said. The Portland City Council is considering final approval of its 2035 Comprehensive Plan, which will outline how “middle housing” — attached and semi-attached housing units; row houses, duplexes, triplexes, etc. — should be accommodated in single-family neighborhoods.