Portland’s Residential Infill Project

You may have heard that the City of Portland is considering making changes to zoning regulations to allow for more homes to be built on lots in nearly all Portland neighborhoods. Here we take a look at what is being proposed and why:

Bureau of Planning and Sustainability's Report on the History of Racist Planning in Portland

Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s Report on the History of Racist Planning in Portland

As with many zoning practices nationwide, the current zoning plan for the City of Portland is rooted in racist land use policies that contributed to racially segregated neighborhoods and systemic inequity for people of color. Portland was originally a city with a single “residential” zone where many types of housing were permitted. Beginning in 1924 and continuing throughout the century, single-family home neighborhoods were carved out and preserved in predominantly white neighborhoods. This practice, along with redlining, racially restrictive covenants and urban renewal further segregated the city and contributed to racial inequalities. Read more about the History of Racist Planning in Portland here.

For the last three years the City of Portland has been working to overhaul the city’s zoning regulations in order to increase density and lower housing costs while considering the effects of previous zoning decisions on communities of color in Portland. In 2019 the State of Oregon passed House Bill 2001 which prohibited single-family zoning throughout most cities in Oregon. The state law goes into effect in June 2022, so Portland has just over two years to update current zoning regulations to comply with the new law.

Portland’s plan – called the Residential Infill Project (RIP) – is the result of three years of work by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability that included public input via online surveys, open houses, public hearings, public comments, a Stakeholder Advisory Committee, and input from the Planning and Sustainability Commision. All this led to two public hearings that City Council held last week. The proposal being discussed was designed to address rising housing costs throughout the city by:

  • Requiring smaller houses that better fit existing neighborhoods:
    • RIP sets a total maximum building size, measured by floor-to-area ratio (FAR), that is less than what is achievable today. For example, on an R5 zoned lot (a typical single family home size lot), the maximum house size will decrease from 6,750 sq ft to 2,500 sq ft for a single home. This will prevent developers from demolishing smaller, existing homes and replacing them with huge (and therefore expensive) single family homes.
    • This ratio will be scaled up as the number of units increases on a lot. So if more units are built on a lot, the maximum building size can increase to up to 4,000 sq ft, thus encouraging higher density projects.
    • Attics and basements will be excluded from FAR
    • A larger FAR will be allowed if at least one of the units is affordable (80% median family income), or units are added to a site with an existing house and the street-facing facade of the house remains substantially unchanged.
    • Existing houses will be allowed to add up to 250 sq ft every 5 years, regardless of building size limit.
  • Creating more housing choices:
    • RIP will re-legalize duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in single family zones.
    • This includes allowing a house to have two Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) or a duplex to have one ADU. Though lots with the following constraints will be allowed only 2 units (house +ADU, or duplex)
      • 100-year floodplain
      • Areas identified in the natural resource inventory (NRI)
      • Landslide hazard areas
      • Unpaved streets
    • It will also set a minimum lot size for lots with 1 or 2 units and a larger lot size for lots with 3 or 4 units.
The Residential Infill Project allows for more housing types.

The Residential Infill Project allows for more housing types.

  • Establishing clear and fair rules for narrow lot development: The rules for the design and size of new construction change:
    • Revise how height is measured (all zones) so the lowest point near the home is measured, not the highest.
    • Address building features and articulation: limits how high the front door can be from the ground, adjusts eave projections, and allows corner duplexes to have both front doors facing the same street.
    • Provide greater flexibility for Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) design: basement ADUs can be larger current rules allow and and internal ADU’s front door can face the street.
    • Modify parking rules: Eliminates minimum parking requirements for residential uses in single-dwelling zones; requires that lots on alleys use those alleys for parking access; limits the width of street-facing garages to 50% or less of the building façade; prohibits parking between the front of the building and the street.
    • Improve building design on lots less than 32 feet wide: limits the height of a detached house to 1-½ times its width and requires houses to be attached on lots that are 25 feet wide and narrower.
The Residential Infill Project improves building design on narrow lots

The Residential Infill Project improves building design on narrow lots

According to BikePortland.org “40% of Portland’s land area is currently zoned for single family housing and is expected to absorb twenty percent of Portland’s population growth.” The current proposal’s attempt to increase density will not only help address housing affordability but also makes for a greener city by making public transit easier and more appealing for larger numbers of Porltanders. Read more about the proposal here. To download a summary of the recommended draft proposal, click here.

Sources: City of Portland: Residential Infill ProjectBikePortland.orgCity of Portland: History of Racist Planning in Portland

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