Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is following the White House’s advice by proposing to increase the densities of nearly two-thirds of the city’s single-family neighborhoods. Under the proposal, duplexes, triplexes, and accessory dwelling units would be allowed in single-family areas.
The plan also proposes to limit the size of a home to about half the square footage of the lot it is on, while at the same time allowing buildings to cover a larger area of the lot. That’s supposedly to prevent McMansions, but it also just happens to encourage people to build two separate homes on one lot (one of which would be called an “accessory” unit).
Portland’s current mayor, Charlie Hales, is a strong advocate of densification–so long as it isn’t in his backyard. When the city proposed to increase densities in Eastmoreland, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods on the city’s east side, residents strongly protested. Hales, who just happens to live there, backed them up. Judging from the map on page 14 of the proposal, neither Eastmoreland nor the wealthy Tualatin Hills neighborhoods are among those that would be rezoned.
Despite the sustainability claim, what’s really going on is a scheme for Portland to increase its tax collections. Under a law approved by voters in 1997, cities cannot increase the assessed value of properties by more than 3 percent per year. This means most homes in Portland are assessed at far less than their true market value.
If someone builds a 600-square-foot “tiny house” as an accessory unit on their property, however, it will be assessed at its current fair market value. Thus, construction of an accessory unit can double the taxes paid by the owners of a property. Naturally, Portland would rather see more new apartments, triplexes, duplexes, and accessory units built in the city than single-family homes in the suburbs.
Portland’s previous mayor, Sam Adams, had proposed that only areas within a quarter-mile of light-rail and streetcar stops be densified, thus leaving most existing single-family neighborhoods alone. This new plan overturns that idea. Portland’s current mayor elect, Ted Wheeler, said during his campaign that he supported legalizing duplexes and garden apartments in single-family neighborhoods, which is even more radical than the proposed plan. I wonder if he supports them in his own neighborhood.
Nothing about this plan is going to make housing more affordable. In fact, it will increase the scarcity of single-family detached homes, the kind most homebuyers prefer. The fact that it is being imposed mainly on working-class and moderate-income neighborhoods just makes it that much less equitable.