Portland City Council must choose: affordable fourplexes or McMansions

In a little under a week, the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commissions is expected to endorse an ambitious, blazingly progressive Missing Middle housing plan, sending it to the City Council for final approval. Under the new rules, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and ADUs – the sorts of smaller homes affordable to the working and middle class – will be legal to build just about anywhere you can erect a single-family detached house.

Five city commissioners will then face a choice: end a century of racist exclusionary zoning and legalize smaller homes working people can afford, or continue Portland’s long saga of exclusion and continue the city’s descent into McMansion Hell.

Since 1924, the most amenity-rich parts of Portland have been walled off to anybody who cannot afford a single-family detached house. Because detached buildings are the most expensive way to house a family, white supremacists connivingly used single-family-only zoning across the country as an ostensibly colorblind way to exclude people of color from their imagined white utopias. Given Portland’s sordid racist history – which arguably peaked right at that time – it’s sadly no surprise that we retain that legacy in our building code today (indeed, Portland leaders liked exclusionary zoning enough in 1959 to expand it to nearly the entire city).

Portland should have tossed exclusionary zoning in the trash heap generations ago, but unfortunately it took a Great Recession followed immediately by a real estate boom, and a sudden surge of white people becoming housing insecure for the political moment to arrive.

When Herbert Hoover’s band of white supremacists dreamed up exclusionary zoning, no way did they envision the policy crippling middle-class white people’s ability to purchase or even rent homes to shelter their families. Yet that moment steamrolled in over the past decade, with a land rush and subsequent bidding war between affluent people nearly doubling the cost of land since 2012.

That bidding war and the landlord greed it engendered led to a wave of massive rent hikes and no-cause evictions throughout the city, reaching every demographic. Leading newspapers ran photos of white children protesting the crisis. Finally, the housing crisis had Portland politicians’ attention.

Better late than never, I suppose. Leaders should have acted long ago but the solution at hand will help working Portlanders across communities, and City Council needs to enact it.

We are talking about legalizing fourplexes today because back during the Hales Administration, a rash of one-to-one demolitions and McMansion constructions caused a collective feeling of whiplash across the city. While the Planning and Sustainability Commission has been crafting this response plan, wildly expensive McMansions have continued to regularly replace older homes.

The choice facing the Portland City Council is between the status quo – a steady spread of luxury McMansions across the city – and a city where newly legalized fourplexes make it possible for middle-and-working-class families to pool their resources to afford coveted land.

The cost of land plays an enormous role in the cost of housing. Take my house. The assessed value of the building itself is less than half of the Zillow estimate for my house’s market value. The value has increased by $150,000 in the roughly four years since I bought it, despite my making no major changes to the property. The dirt has just gotten really expensive. I couldn’t afford my house if I were trying to buy it today.

Legalizing fourplexes empowers Portlanders to split the cost of an expensive parcel four ways. With each taking on ¼ of the cost of the property, the price of a buying or renting a home is smaller for everybody.

Across the country, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes are the least expensive type of rental home, with 20% cheaper median monthly rent than single-family detached houses.

According to Portland city planners, monthly rent for a new home in missing middle housing would be well under half the cost of renting a new single-family house ($1,823 vs. $4,159). The cost of buying a unit in a fourplex would be $270,375. Compare that to the median Portland home cost of $425,000 today.

Legalizing fourplexes would also give a powerful boost to nonprofit builders like Habitat for Humanity and the Portland Housing Center, which use community land trusts and other innovations to deliver housing justice to Portlanders in frontline communities. The policy going before City Council would allow new nonprofit, below-market duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes to be about one bedroom larger than those built for the private market, thus more able to accommodate larger families and deliver housing stability to the next generation.

Further still, legalizing fourplexes would also lead to a 28% drop in the risk of displacement for low-income renters in the vast majority of Portland – including in nearly every “displacement risk” neighborhood.

By effectively every social and economic justice measure, legalizing fourplexes will help the people of our city. You cannot approach this issue honestly, center the lives of working-class and middle-class people, and oppose legalizing fourplexes. The evidence and history are simply too clear.

The policy will not be magic. While, overall, legalizing fourplexes will decrease the displacement of low-income renters – the current plan may increase it in 3% of Portland census tracts. Any displacement is tough to swallow, even if it would be a marked improvement over the status quo.

Despite its myriad benefits for middle-class and working-class Portlanders, the policy will also not do nearly enough to house the poorest people in our city. It isn’t primarily a low-income housing reform, in the same way protecting Social Security isn’t primarily a way to make childcare affordable for working families. Working-and-middle class families and extremely poor families both need help affording a home in this city. The same policy won’t work for both of them. Which is why Portland should aggressively pursue a cascade of policies to fully fix this crisis.

There is no One Weird Trick to solve the rental housing crisis. Every level of government should use every tool at their disposal. It would be a colossal mistake for Portland City Council to keep fourplexes illegal because they are not a panacea. It would also be a colossal mistake to consider the job done after enacting this plan.

Portland should continue to expand public and other affordable housing at the fastest possible pace. For example, we could follow Austin’s example and legalize up to six units on all lots with no cap on the square footage, if at least half are affordable for owners making under 80% of median family income or renters making under 60%. The City of Portland should also lobby the Oregon Legislature in future years to ratchet down the 7% statewide cap on rent increases to 5%, and to exempt fewer buildings. It should work with other cities to lobby the federal government for a sweeping expansion of funding for new affordable public and nonprofit social housing.

The City should do all of those things, with vigor. But none of those policies is an excuse to perpetuate the rotten status quo of runaway home costs and McMansion infestation.

Legalizing fourplexes will offer middle-class and working-class people real options to for stable, affordable homes and abolish one major vestige of Portland’s white supremacist history. It will not solve the housing crisis on its own. But it will be impossible to solve the housing crisis without it.

[Featured image from http://missingmiddlehousing.com%5D

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