After five years of fine-tuning, Portland City Council has voted for a dramatic overhaul of its zoning code to allow more homes to be built in nearly all of the city’s residential neighborhoods.
On Wednesday, councilors cast their final vote on the Residential Infill Project, or RIP, an initiative launched a half-decade ago under the leadership of former Mayor Charlie Hales. The proposal passed 3-1.
The city began crafting the sweeping set of zoning changes in 2015 to keep up with a changing Portland. Projections at the time had the city’s population growing by more than 250,000 residents by 2035. Meanwhile, more than 70% of the city’s residential land was reserved for single-family houses.
The final proposal approved by Council will allow for up to four homes on lots across most of the city. Duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes could be built in essentially all residential areas. Homes with five or six units can be built on a lot if half the units are affordable to low-income Portlanders.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz was the sole no vote against the plan, calling it one of the most upsetting votes she’s cast in her dozen years on the Council. While many environmental groups had rallied around the plan to increase density, Fritz said she believed the final proposal would worsen the climate crisis by allowing houses to be built far from transit routes and commercial corridors.
“This Council is voting for changes that throw out 40 years of land use planning in Portland by adding more density without regard for access to transit and services,” she said.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty and Chloe Eudaly each voted in support of the plan, which they framed as a necessary way to deal with Portland’s housing scarcity and a righting of racist and exclusionary zoning policies that have long governed growth in Portland.
“We cannot deny the impacts that exclusionary zoning has had and their racist origins,” Eudaly said before casting her yes vote. “When the Supreme Court ruled about 100 years ago that it was unconstitutional to prevent the sale of property to an individual based on race, we saw zoning codes proliferate across the country and income became a proxy for race. Because by setting the entry price so high, communities were able to exclude certain types of housing and certain people.”
In 1959, the Portland City Council voted to expand single-family zoning to almost all residential areas in the city. The move deepened segregation in the city, ensuring Portland’s leafy, suburban neighborhoods were out of reach to many who couldn’t afford the price of a single-family house.
“The disparities that we see today are not accidental. A lot of them are by design,” said Madeline Kovacs, who coordinated with Portland for Everyone, a coalition that advocates for more affordable housing options, including residential infill. “And they are still visible throughout the city.”
Kovacs points to wealthier neighborhoods like Eastmoreland, Laurelhurst and parts of the Southwest Hills, some of the areas which saw racial segregation reinforced over decades through some combination of exclusionary zoning, racially restrictive covenants, and redlining.
Before a push in the early 1900s toward more exclusive zoning, Portland was home to more varied housing styles: old garden houses, courtyard apartments and cottages. By reverting back to a more lenient code, advocates and city planners believe different kinds of housing will slowly emerge, affordable to middle-income earners and first-time homebuyers who would otherwise have to look elsewhere.
But much of the new housing the city expects in the coming decades won’t be affordable to many Portlanders. While the city anticipates the smaller units will likely be less expensive than what would be built otherwise, many of the homes will not be within reach for the lowest-income Portlanders. Supporters of the project have advocated for the city to take additional steps to ensure the new units created can benefit the most vulnerable residents.
“In order for all these new housing opportunities to be equitable and accessible for people who are getting priced out, there has to be other measures that make that happen,” said Cameron Herrington, program manager with Living Cully. “Because the market is not going to do it on it’s own.”
Herrington points to the part of the plan that will allow developers to build homes with five and six units if at least half are affordable to low-income Portlanders as one such step — but also said the city needs to do more. He suggested the city use the construction tax collected from new developments and set it aside to subsidize affordable units in the same areas.
As rents and market values continue to rise, an increasing number of Portlanders are at risk of being displaced and priced out of the city. According to an analysis conducted last February, the infill project means fewer households and businesses will be forced to leave the neighborhoods compared with what would happen if the city did nothing.
But the proposal is expected to exacerbate displacement in three neighborhoods where land is relatively cheap: Lents, Montavilla and Brentwood-Darlington — all areas with higher shares of Latino and Asian households as compared to the city as a whole.
This increased displacement risk was one of the main issues skeptics of RIP pointed to in their opposition. André Baugh, a former member of the Planning and Sustainability Commission, which reviewed the plan before passing it onto Council, voted against the proposal, saying he believed it would hurt low-income communities of color for the sake of more inexpensive housing for middle class Portlanders. On Wednesday, hours before the vote, Baugh said he believed the proposal would guarantee a population decline in some of Portland’s most vulnerable communities of color.
“These are people of color. These are low-income people. This is the working part of Portland, East Portland. These are people working every day 9-5, and we’re going to give up on them and we’re going to say you’re going to be displaced anyway, and so we’re not going to help you,” he said. “If that’s a Portland value, I missed it in the comp plan.”
The infill plan has long been one of the more contentious projects winding its way through City Hall. In addition to concerns over what it will mean for displacement, some residents have worried a proposal will fundamentally change the appearance of Portland’s beloved residential neighborhoods and lead to the demolition of old homes in favor of pricey condos.
Some zoning changes were coming to these areas regardless of the infill project. Last year, the state passed House Bill 2001, which eliminated single-family zoning in much of the state. The bill was passed in 2019, while the city’s proposal was still being hammered out.
This proposal will bring the city into compliance with state law. But it will also push the city well beyond what the Oregon Legislature required. The proposal forces developers to build smaller homes and encourages them to put more units on a lot. A newly constructed single-family home can be 2,500 square feet. A fourplex, meanwhile, could be up to 3,500 square feet. The proposal also does away with requirements that new developments offer off-street parking.
Robert Liberty, a land use expert and former director of Portland State University’s Urban Sustainability Accelerator, said he believes RIP’s passage will make Portland a pioneer nationwide when it comes to zoning reform, surpassing what’s been enacted in Minneapolis, a city considered to be at the forefront after it re-legalized duplexes and triplexes in 2018. And while the city’s more exclusive neighborhoods won’t diversify overnight, Liberty said passage of the proposal was a significant start in moving away from the “class-based zoning” policies that were long on city books.
“We’re not going to overcome Portland’s racist history with a zoning ordinance,” he said. “But it is a step in the right direction.”