Cottage clusters, townhouses and duplexes are some of the forms of housing commonly referred to as “missing middle housing.” Zoning rules have previously left them out, but that’s starting to change. The Oregon Legislature passed Housing Bill 2001 in 2019 to expand building options in residential zones. Portland launched a similar initiative before the statewide bill passed and has been working on adding more options for housing to the city. Meanwhile, other places like Albany are following state mandates to diversify their housing options. Alex Johnson II is the mayor of Albany. Morgan Tracy is a project manager with the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. They join us with details.

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The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Three years ago Oregon became the first state in the country to get rid of single family zoning in all but the state’s smallest cities. Cities now have until next month to change their rules, meaning in residential neighborhoods where in the past only single family homes could have been built, a wider variety will now also be possible – duplexes and triplexes and groups of smaller homes known as cottage clusters. Advocates for the end of single family zoning say it will take years or perhaps decades for this policy to fully bear fruit. But still we wanted to get a sense for the incremental differences along the way. In a few minutes we’re going to talk about Portland, but we start in Albany with Mayor Alex Johnson II. Mayor Johnson, good to have you on the show.

Mayor Alex Johnson II: Thank you for having me today.

Miller: What’s the overall housing situation like in Albany these days?

Johnson: Right now Albany is going through a  growth spurt of, so to speak. We have different types of housing being built and permitted in the city of Albany, mostly multi-family, we’re building ADUs [Accessory Dwelling Units], we’re building duplexes, triplexes, some smaller single family residences, and so single family residences have not gone completely away in Albany. I think that’s an unrealistic expectation because people own their own land, but what it’s allowing us to do, allowing builders to do, is build on single family lots, different types of housing. So you put a duplex or triplex or quad, depending on the needs of the development.

Miller: This has only been in place in Albany since the beginning of the year. What you, there, call the Expanding Housing Options Project… have developers actually pulled permits for duplexes or triplexes or cottage clusters in neighborhoods where just last year they couldn’t have done so?

Johnson: We actually took a very aggressive stance to House Bill 2001. We started working on the Code immediately, because we wanted to be out in front of it. We do know, we did realize we do have a housing issue. One of the reasons that we did that is because the cost per square foot in Albany has gone up significantly and we’re trying to be good stewards of our tax paying dollars, system development charges, and so the different types of housing is going to allow us to retain our young people and also our seniors that are being priced out of the community. It’s really important for us, for me, initially, was to create a Housing Affordability Task Force, that’s looking at the entire apparatus of Housing in the City of Albany. So we’re in that process, you know, looking at our Housing Implementation Plans and things are going I think, to plan, people are engaging in the discussions, we have focus groups that meet periodically to discuss the different types of Housing, Permitting, Inspections, the entire in the entire spectrum of anything related to do with Housing.

Miller: Is the city actively encouraging housing styles that would mean more density in residential areas?

Johnson: Yes. We do have developments that are in place that are mixed density, so we have some smaller single family homes with skinny lots within the same area as an apartment complex with 120 apartments. So we are encouraging different types of housing in different parts of the city, and the developers have responded, builders have responded, and it’s coming together. We’re short,the entire state of Oregon is in the housing… I would say the entire country is in the housing crisis. I think our approach has been, ‘Let’s engage with the people that live in the city and also with the builders and mortgage lenders and engineers, that layout lots and sites,...’ and I I think we have a good mix of interested stakeholders that are participating in our development and growth of the city.

Miller: What’s your vision for how this could change the look and the feel and the affordability of Albany, say in 20 years?  A long time frame?

Johnson: I think for a long time Albany has been single family, single family, single family, and I think people are realizing that people just can’t afford to live here anymore. We need more apartments because not everyone wants to buy a home. We need more townhomes, because not everybody, again, wants to… they want to own something, but they don’t want a big lot. People want to rent, just only rent- this is something that people aren’t talking about. There’s a lot of people that live in the city of Albany and other cities that their houses are paid off and there’s nowhere for them to move down to a smaller home because they’re just not available or they’re unaffordable. So, I’ve lost several clients to the lack of affordable housing here in town. And so the Housing Affordability Task Force is helping address that. We’re seeing these large assisted living, independent living communities coming together all over Oregon, all over the United States, because seniors want to age in place, but their only option is these assisted living communities. And so I think that we are taking a proactive approach saying, ‘Let’s build cottage clusters, let’s build smaller homes, single level, that’s ADA Accessible and communities that are friendly with mixed density and multi-family setups.’ So I think we’re being really aggressive and taking a proactive approach to housing affordability. One of the things that we’ve recently done is we tier our system development charges. So if a person builds a smaller home, he’s gonna pay less than somebody that builds a bigger home, you know? And so we’re trying to incentivize builders to build the smaller square foot houses.

Miller: Alex Johnson. Thanks for your time today.

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Johnson: You’re welcome. It’s been a pleasure.

Miller: Alex Johnson II is the Mayor of Albany. If you’re just tuning in, we’re getting an update right now on the end of single family zoning and all but the smallest cities in Oregon. I’m joined now by Morgan Tracy, a Project Manager in Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Welcome.

Tracy: Hello, Dave!

Miller: So the City of Portland started work on what is now known as the Residential Infill Project before the Legislature came along and got rid of single family zoning, statewide. What was the context in Portland?

Tracy: That’s been a long journey. So this project actually started in 2015, in response to a number of things, and I think Mayor Johnson brought some of this up. We had increasing population. That’s going to continue in Portland. Our housing needs have been changing over time. The households themselves have been changing; our household size average has been declining. We have greater racial and cultural diversity of our households, people are living longer and we have more older adults moving to Portland. So that’s a little bit of the background from the demographic standpoint, but the cost of housing, as many people have experienced, continues to rise in Portland and throughout the country. For example, the Portland median home values in 2022 were about $575,000, which is about an increase of 13% over the past year. And this is really putting a lot of homes out of the price range of most average income families. As a result of the shift in the market, what we were starting to see from the land use side was more homes that were being demolished in neighborhoods that had not seen a lot of growth or changed in the past. And the new homes that were coming along, were being built much larger and were much more expensive.

Miller: So it’s now been about nine months since a broader diversity of housing styles is allowed, basically all over Portland. How many permits have been pulled for newly allowed kinds of homes?

Tracy: This has been rather remarkable. We passed the residential info project in 2020 and it went into effect just nine months ago. We were looking at some permit data for the first six months and we’ve seen ten, ten duplex units, nine triplex units and 72 fourplex units. So, a total of 91 units permitted. When you contrast that to the same amount of homes that were permitted in the same period, there were 50 homes, so about twice as many units in the plexes as there were new single family homes. But another sort of striking comparison is rather than 50 home sites for those 50 homes, those 91 units were accommodated on about half as many lots, so we’re getting a lot more efficient land use, plus the homes that are being created are, you know, smaller and going to be comparatively less expensive than the new single family homes by themselves.

Miller: Do you have any data about where these homes are being built and of the level of affordability?

Tracy: We don’t have affordability levels because these are all still under permit, so they haven’t been completed or sold yet. So that’s still something we’re keeping our eye on and there’s a lot of interest, I think, both from our leadership, but across the state from our housing advocates and others, what is the actual performance on, on the affordable standpoint? I think, intuitively, it’s not going to be a surprise to see smaller townhouse units selling for less than a large detached single family house. I think that’s intuitive sense, but it will be nice to have the data to reflect that. In terms of where we’re seeing, I think the other surprising finding is it’s not concentrated in one area, we’re seeing these homes sort of dispersed throughout the city, in all of our various quadrants. They’re happening in inner neighborhoods, they’re happening in East Portland, they’re happening in the Southwest. So I think what that really reflects is builders and developers are recognizing that they can achieve more, and putting more units on a lot helps them diversify or divide that cost of the land acquisition across more buyers and that helps bring down the price to something that, that more people are, are able to afford.

Miller: I just want to make sure that I understand this correctly. Are you saying that even as a planner, you and others have been surprised by how quickly the market has responded to, not what it has to do, but what it can do? And I should tell you we have about a minute left.

Tracy: I think one of the interesting things when we authorized accessory dwelling units, it took about 10 to 15 years for that market type to mature and start to see some uptick in its utilization…

Miller:  And Airbnb also arrived on the scene, which is probably not unrelated.

Tracy: Yeah, that’s right. But I think what this reflects is the pent up demand for housing. So there’s just an outstanding demand for homes that middle class families and our teachers and firefighters and new households can enter these neighborhoods and find some place to call their home.

Miller: Morgan Tracy, thanks very much for joining us today.

Tracy:  Thanks, Dave.

Miller:  Morgan Tracy is a Project Manager in Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, and joined us to talk about the changes in…not just in Portland, but in basically every city over 10,000 people all across the state. This is three years after the Oregon Legislature made Oregon the first state in the entire country to essentially ban Single Family Zoning.

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