How not to solve a housing crisis…

(Hint:  Make the usual mistake of short-term solutions that destroy priceless long-term assets)

It’s not often that 1000 Friends of Oregon finds itself politically allied with the Homebuilders Association of Metropolitan Portland. More often 1000 Friends is opposing the homebuilders’ plans to expand the city’s Urban Growth Boundary, arguing that sprawling across the countryside is no solution for the region’s affordability crisis.

Neither is destroying the heritage and livability Oregon cities. But that’s the false choice being proposed by the new Oregon House Bill 2007, sponsored by Representatives Tina Kotek (D), North Portland, and Duane Stark (R), Grants Pass. Styled as “anti-NIMBY” legislation, it would strip local governments of most powers to regulate the design of new residential construction, except in a few cases. It would also greatly weaken the ability to provide heritage district designations, which offer sometimes crucial protection against demolitions of historic structures. Not surprisingly, Restore Oregon, the Architectural Heritage Center, neighborhood associations, and many other groups are beginning to mount fierce oppositions to the bill.

Let’s be clear about the problem. Oregon is growing – by 69,000 new residents in 2016 – and Portland is driving much of the growth (it’s in the top ten fastest growing metro areas in the nation, according to Forbes).  Clearly those folks need housing, and without new supply, competition for existing supply will grow, along with demand — and prices.

But price growth does not occur in a vacuum.  Part of the reason for Oregon’s population growth in the first place is its relative affordability in relation to California, Washington and other states.  To some extent, those prices will tend to equalize over time, regardless of local policy.  For example, a building boom might just attract even more migrants, soaking up any new supply and putting us back in the same position. (This phenomenon is called “induced demand,” and it’s the reason that facile if profitable solutions like “just build more” — houses, freeways, whatever — often don’t work.)

Nor are many of the new projects going to do much about affordable housing anyway. (Like the expensive new high rises with Mt Hood views allowed under the new Central City 2035 plan, and other inherently costly housing that will tend to draw even more high-income residents to Portland.)  The City, Metro, and the State all seem at times neurotic in their determination to address quantity without quality.  To protect existing residents, the region would be better off to enact targeted policies to help owners and renters, like tax abatements for owners, and incentive tools to help existing renters.

That still leaves an immediate and real problem of accommodating the growth that will occur in any case. The answer is not to blame the victims.

Existing residents are victims when they see historic buildings demolished on their streets, when they see disruptive, ugly new developments, and when they see the livable quality of their neighborhoods deteriorate.  The fact is, we in the planning and development industry (and I speak as a long-standing representative)  are the ones who create NIMBYs, when we trade a meadow for a strip mall, a bungalow for a McMansion — or a human-scaled boulevard for a street full of boxy, trendy-today, ugly-tomorrow “space invaders”. Residents fear that new development will degrade their quality of life — and based on the evidence of their experience, they are sadly not wrong.

A new residential building on Hawthorne Boulevard. Context-sensitive?

But new developments don’t have to be ugly, disruptive, or destructive of our livable heritage.  Neighbors don’t have to be stiff-armed by governments, invited into tokenistic “involvement” that treats them disrespectfully at best – and they know it. (I am often on the development side of that table, and I know how the game is played – although I hope I do not ever give in to that profitable temptation.)

Instead, I think we in the planning and development field — at its worst the “Architectural-Industrial Complex” if I am honest with you — need to do a more sincere job trying to convert NIMBYs to YIMBYs – “Yes In My Back Yard”. At the same time, the neighborhood residents need to do a better job specifying under what conditions that win-win approach might operate.  Right now the process is unnecessarily adversarial, and the winner is too often just plain bad development.

Even more important, we don’t need a cumbersome, capricious review process that reliably seems to get us the worst of both worlds — a slow and uncertain entitlement that adds unnecessary cost, AND a result that is increasingly bizarre, formulaic, and/or disruptive of livable character.  Too often the only winners in this system are those that can game it for all it’s worth.  Too often the system produces jammed-in buildings, reaching the very maximum FAR and other “design by numbers.”  Then architects get to sprinkle on the latest fashionable novelty eye candy — theme-packagers for toxic industrial products? — and everyone can then pretend that some great artistic addition has been made to the city.  In a few decades, when it’s far too late, we realize again that we’ve been had, with yet another generation of failed modernist buildings.

A new courtyard apartment in Northwest Portland, following time-tested patterns of livability

Portland is full of beautiful, context-sensitive precedents for higher-density housing.  A healthier process would bring in residents together with planners early on, to develop “preferred entitlement paths” for designs based on pre-accepted precedents.  The precedents would demonstrate, through the evidence of history, how they would mitigate negative impacts on livability, and add positive impacts. If developers came in with proposals that fit those criteria (and others as needed, like preserving or moving elements of historic fabric) they could get a streamlined entitlement – and other incentives too for doing good development. (There are a number of examples of how this can work, including a proposal for Metro a few years back that I helped co-author.)

This is what the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, my old shop in London, calls “Beauty in My Back Yard” — a win-win approach to development.  If we accept the fact that heritage and livability are important, but growth is natural (just as it was in the past), we can map out a win-win future that grows with our heritage and our livability, instead of against it.

Portland desperately needs more thinking like this, surely.

4 Replies to “How not to solve a housing crisis…”

  1. Michael, you say, in parentheses “(Like the expensive new high rises with Mt Hood views allowed under the new Central City 2035 plan, and other inherently costly housing that will tend to draw even more high-income residents to Portland.)” I think we’d be lucky if that’s all they draw. Has anyone looked lately to see how many of those high-rises are going to foreign investors who just want a bank account in the sky–and don’t even live here. Apparently, in Vancouver, BC most of them find it too much trouble to rent their new places out, so they sit there unoccupied.

    Keith Lay, in his City Club sponsored presentation “We Come from the Future” made numerous points about what’s wrong with that picture. (I’ll send you the notes I took via email) In any case, Keith closed down a successful 60-person high tech business in Vancouver, BC to move to Portland because we have not yet been inalterably skewed by such investment.

    Malia Spencer (who was on the City Club panel) with Keith did a followup story with Keith that reads in part:
    “Portland has already become a destination for institutional investors who are buying up real estate — and driving up prices — at a record rate. Reporter Jon Bell reported last year on how all this money is changing the Portland skyline. In 2015, institutional buyers spent $1.4 billion in Portland.”
    “In fact, it was this recognition of outside owners and property managers that got Lay thinking about the similarities between Portland and Vancouver. Lay and his partner were looking for a rental before deciding where they wanted to buy a home. He kept coming across the same owners and property managers for buildings all over town.”

    You make some good arguments in this article for form-based code (FBC). I will share it with my social media network. I’m not sure what Portland has been so reluctant to try it. It would have been good to get this into the City’s Green Loop discussion during DWP’17 which took place all last week at The Redd on SE Salmon Street.

  2. Can you cite some evidence that induced demand is a phenomenon in the housing market as well as on freeways? Seems as if there’s a key difference: new freeway lanes are free to access, while new housing construction is available only for a price.

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