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My View: New ideas solve Portland housing needs

Why are so many big, bulky new homes popping up in neighborhoods across Portland? This is a symptom of developers responding to rules put in place a generation ago.

As demographic shifts yield smaller households, and housing costs climb once again, an increasing number of Portlanders don’t need and can’t afford the typically sized home. I think it’s high time to address the mismatch between the types of homes encouraged by our codes and the needs of real people who live here.

Fortunately, there are some simple ways Portland can update its rules in single-dwelling zones to meet the needs of smaller households, make more efficient use of existing housing stock and infrastructure, create more market-based affordable housing, support shared housing models and decrease per-person carbon footprints — all without compromising the character of these neighborhoods.

Here are some ideas:

• Support accessory dwelling units (ADUs) as an affordable, flexible and discreet form of infill housing. This can be done by allowing ADUs to meet community design standards instead of matching the design of the existing house; waiving compatibility requirements entirely for ADUs under a certain size; allowing one ADU per house in planned developments; and allowing both an internal and detached ADU on a single lot (subject to total square foot limits) as done in Vancouver, British Columbia.

• Allow internal conversions of older houses to two or more units in single-dwelling zones, as long as the house retains its single-dwelling appearance and other requirements are met. This would allow existing housing stock to be adapted to changing market demand and reduce market pressure to demolish well-built older homes. Before Portland’s 1959 zoning code update, such conversions were allowed in many more close-in neighborhoods than would be legal today.

• Support small house “cottage cluster” development, as allowed in Wood Village and several Washington cities, by offering density bonuses in subdivisions or planned developments in exchange for house size and bulk limits. This would provide a financially feasible way for developers to build right-size homes for smaller households.

• Get Portland out of the “who’s married to whom” business by removing archaic household definitions from the zoning code (as Bend did). This would open up spare rooms for occupancy in large homes. Rely instead on existing noise, nuisance and building code regulations to address life safety and community impact concerns associated with larger households.

• Scale system development charges based on home size instead of the current situation in Portland, where builders pay identical SDCs for 1,000- or 5,000-square-foot homes.

• Create a legal path for the occupancy of tiny homes-on-wheels that are well-designed and built, discreetly located, and meet sanitary and life safety requirements of typical homes.

The evolution of our built environment is heavily influenced by local government regulations. For demographic, affordability and environmental reasons, the time is right to update these rules and expand our palette of housing choices. Let’s get to it.

Eli Spevak, founder/owner of Orange Splot LLC, is a developer and general contractor of community-oriented clusters of small homes.