August 12, 2020

Portland: Go for the Protests, Stay for the Rezoning

Portland’s BLM protests may capture the news, but the Sightline Institute summarizes what their city council is likely to approve today: “the most pro-housing reform to low-density zones in US history.”

Portland’s new rules will also offer a “deeper affordability” option: four to six homes on any lot if at least half are available to low-income Portlanders at regulated, affordable prices. The measure will make it viable for nonprofits to intersperse below-market housing anywhere in the city for the first time in a century.

And among other things it will remove all parking mandates from three quarters of the city’s residential land, combining with a recent reform of apartment zones to essentially make home driveways optional citywide for the first time since 1973.

Portland’s reform will build on similar actions in Vancouver and Minneapolis, whose leaders voted in 2018 to re-legalize duplexes and triplexes, respectively; in Seattle, where a 2019 reform to accessory cottages resulted in something very close to citywide triplex legalization; and in Austin, whose council passed a very similar sixplex-with-affordability proposal in 2019.

But Portland’s changes are likely to gradually result in more actual homes than any of those milestone reforms.

Full story here.

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In September, Michael Anderson, senior researcher with Sightline Institute (Cascadia’s sustainability think tank), and Kiel Johnson, founder and operator of Portland’s Go By Bike (North America’s largest bike valet) visited Vancouver as part of a two-family touring holiday.

Anderson and Johnson rented a van to get to Vancouver because, well, kids and stuff. Plus, it was much cheaper and faster than the train. Whatever to do about that?

Gord invited the duo to write about their trip, and they did — in dialogue form.

Says Anderson: “I think we could have gone on for pages about things we saw and thought about the city, but Kiel rightly suggested keeping it pretty narrow.”

First impressions about Vancouver? How is Portland doing for cycling? What were the disappointments?

(Canadian spellings added for clarity.)

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This is a good chance to introduce Mike Andersen – the Sightline Institute’s new writer on municipal policy, with a focus on housing and transportation.  Mike comes by way of Portland (“news editor of; writer for the pro-housing coalition Portland for Everyone; and infrastructure staff writer for PeopleForBike”) and will ideally be doing a lot more coverage of Vancouver (BC if not WA).

Here’s an intro – an insightful Sightline overview of our civic elections here in Metro:

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Alan Durning of the Sightline Institute maintains that more housing supply is the solution to housing affordability. Lots of housing.  
From News1130:

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – While Vancouver City Council looks at ways to put a roof over the head of more locals, a recent report out of Seattle shines a spotlight on how other major centres have been able to build their way to affordability.
“While housing prices in Vancouver, as in my home city of Seattle, have been going through the roof, cities around the world have been keeping housing prices flat or rising very slowly by building lots and lots of housing,” says Alan Durning, executive director of Sightline Institute.
“In the United States, Houston has housing that is no more expensive than it was in the 1980s, even though the population has been growing extraordinarily quickly and incomes have been rising,” he tells NEWS 1130. “In Canada, Montreal housing prices are less than half as much as in Greater Vancouver, largely because they have been building plenty of housing. And Tokyo, a very dense city like Vancouver, has kept housing prices flat even as the population and incomes have been rising in the city.”
Durning says that goes counter to the conventional wisdom that you can’t build your way out of a housing affordability problem.
“I hear it all the time: Prosperous, growing, tech-rich cities from Seattle to the Bay Area and from Austin to Boston are all gripped by soaring rents and home prices,” he recently posted in a Sightline blog.
“But what if you can build your way to affordable housing? What if, in fact, building is the only path to affordable housing? What if cities around the world have been building their way to affordability for decades? You can. It is. And they have.”
Sprawling Houston and dense Tokyo have done it by keeping red tape for construction at a minimum; Montreal’s zoning is largely for efficient and affordable low- and mid-rises.
“Vienna is a really interesting case where most of the housing is public or non-profit. It still has housing prices less than half as high as in Seattle or Vancouver,” he adds.
Durning says while regional or governmental differences may prevent every model from being successful in the Pacific Northwest, all have lessons for Vancouver.
“To have affordable housing, you have to build homes in great abundance, and without that, other affordability strategies … can be fruitless or counterproductive,” he concludes in his blog.
“Building plenty of housing is not just one way to affordability, it is the only way—the foundation on which other affordability solutions, measures against displacement, and programs for inclusion rest.”


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From Sightline: The Portland Plan – Down with McMansions, Up with Abundant Housing 

This article combines and adapts three articles by the Portland for Everyone coalition’s Michael Andersen. See the originals on this blog, and learn more about the group here. Portland’s approach shares similarities with the Seattle Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda recommendation to allow small duplexes and triplexes in single-family zones without letting property owners erect buildings larger than currently zoned.
Growing cities across the US and Canada are grappling with the challenges of displacement and affordability in their housing markets, and many of them are looking to Cascadia’s innovative cities for answers. Portland, the smallest of Cascadia’s three major metropolitan areas, has perhaps one of its biggest and best ideas: the “residential infill project.” …
When a city gets more desirable but isn’t allowed to add more places for people to sleep, this is what happens: the old homes don’t stay affordable. They just get priced up and up and up. …
The residential infill project that went before Portland City Council November 9 and will again November 16 is an opportunity to make this happen. It’s a chance for the city to strike an anti-McMansion compromise and shrink the maximum size of new homes (which would reduce demolitions) while also legalizing duplexes, triplexes, and backyard cottages (which would mean that the demolitions that do happen would result in more small homes instead of fewer, huge, expensive ones).
Instead of allowing new single-dwelling homes to look like this:

To be clear, nobody is talking about requiring new homes to look like this. The overwhelming majority of residential homes would still have lots of space and yards of their own. But by making it once again legal to build these small homes in residential areas, Portland would make this an option for people who want something in between an apartment building and a freestanding house, which means fewer people would be competing for apartments and for freestanding homes.
There’s another possibility here: the city might decide to shrink the size of new homes but not make small multiplexes legal.
If that were to happen, it wouldn’t stop developers and landlords from finding ways to make a profit. It would mean that the only way they could make a profit is by replacing poor folks with middle-income folks and middle-income folks with rich folks.
Lots more here.

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From Sightline: Returning Seattle to Its Roots in Diverse Housing Types 

This is the story of a single city block in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood … bordered by North 36th and 37th Streets and Burke and Meridian Avenues.



The city has zoned the block single-family, allowing only one detached home per lot (plus accessory dwelling units, should residents choose to build them). Under this zoning, this little block should only be able to host 24 households–one per parcel. Yet in reality, the block provides shelter for 37 households, more than one-and-a-half times its zoned capacity. …
To what do these 13 households owe their housing in this coveted neighborhood?
To Seattle’s zoning history. The block includes 5 duplexes, a quadplex, and a 6-unit apartment building, which together host these 13 additional households.
Here’s the catch, though: none of these structures could be built today. They are remnants of the neighborhood’s more flexible zoning history, which permitted a greater diversity of housing types, making room for more people to enjoy and bring life to this corner of Seattle. …
Why does this all matter? Because Seattle now has the chance to once again open its single-family zones to a broader mix of housing, including duplexes and triplexes. Returning the city to its more flexible zoning past could provide housing for thousands of additional families.
Full article here.

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From the Sightline Institute.  This will sound familiar in Vancouver too, where Elizabeth Murphy in The Sun argues that there is plenty of zoned capacity in this city.


[Residents] might also ask why the city insists on ever-taller buildings and doubling or tripling density in single-family zones with accessory dwelling units, even though planners say current zoning has plenty of capacity.

So declared the Seattle Times editorial board, parroting one of the most persistent and ubiquitous arguments made during zoning debates far and wide, a rallying cry in neighborhood preservation circles not only in Seattle but in cities across Cascadia and beyond. “We have plenty of zoned capacity” is repeated credulously and earnestly by citizen activists and homeowners at city council meetings and community forums and in online debates (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here).
The zoned capacity argument is also false. It’s a myth. That’s what anyone who carefully looks into the numbers on zoned capacity and the methodology for estimating them can’t help but conclude.
What makes the myth plausible, though, is that zoned capacity—how many new homes could theoretically be built under zoning rules—is a real data point that Seattle and other cities estimate and publish. (You can find it here for Seattle and here for Portland, for example.) And these estimates invariably indicate that there is plenty of zoned capacity to accommodate projected population growth, leading people to wrongly assume that their city is making enough room for newcomers. Reaching that conclusion may be an understandable layperson mistake. For knowledgeable advocates, however, it’s more like malpractice. …
But first, a more important point—in fact, the most important thing to know about zoned capacity: in every city, zoned capacity is a side show to the main event. The main event is housing prices.
Housing prices are the crux of the matter. They reveal if people have enough housing choices. If vacancy rates are low and rents and housing prices are rising, then a city needs more homes. Period. The city needs to remove zoning-code barriers to more housing, so that builders can construct more homes. …
… here’s a summary of the key reasons Seattle’s zoned capacity estimate is misleading and does not justify halting upzones:

  • The assessment overestimates zoned capacity. It ignores many real-world obstacles to housing development.
  • Most of Seattle’s zoned capacity is in dense commercial areas, which are less family-friendly and more likely to expose residents to air pollution and automobile hazards.
  • Seattle’s zoned capacity is shrinking as construction booms. The best building sites are already gone, and others are going fast. The faster a city grows, the sooner it makes sense to upzone and keep plenty of buildable sites available.
  • Delaying upzones has the paradoxical effect of reducing future zoned capacity. Every building erected to four stories rather than eight, because zoning is too restrictive, represents four floors of potential homes denied to the city for as much as a century.
  • Seattle’s population is growing much faster than projected. …

The numbers are wrong: Why Seattle’s zoned capacity estimate is too high 1. It ignores how buildings actually get built 2. It ignores that Seattle is using up its “lowest hanging fruit” zoned capacity and neglecting future capacity needs. 3. It relies on a too-low population projection. The values are wrong: Seattle’s zoned capacity does not promote equity 1. The capacity is not zoned as a shared responsibility across neighborhoods. 2. The capacity is not zoned as family-friendly or environmentally just.

… estimating zoned capacity is a theoretical exercise that ignores many of the factors that determine whether or not housing gets built: timeline, fluctuating costs and prices, unwilling sellers and the challenges of parcel assemblage, mismatches between zoning and demand, neighborhood opposition that delays or shrinks or scares away new housing, concentration of zoned capacity in dense districts with worse air and traffic and that are outside of the most desirable neighborhoods.

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The latest research from the Sightline Institute:

How Seattle Killed Micro-Housing
Micro-housing—dorm-room-sized apartments in desirable, walkable neighborhoods—isn’t for everyone, but it most definitely is for Anna Rogers. Anna is a recent college graduate who grew up in the suburbs of Seattle and now works a retail job while looking to start a career that harnesses her passion for politics. …
Unfortunately for the many other Annas out there, eager to live close to good city jobs or to participate in city life, Seattle has now effectively outlawed micro-housing through the minutiae of policy and zoning rules. Seattle was the modern birthplace of micro-housing in North America. It went strong from 2009 to 2013, but building micro-housing projects has since become an uphill battle. In fact, the local war about micro-housing is over… and micro-housing lost.
Article here.

In fast-growing cities across Cascadia and beyond, bitter stories of people priced out of their homes and of affordable buildings torn down for new construction are all too familiar. Dan Bertolet’s latest article lays out evidence on displacement in Seattle—the different types, rates, and causes—and assesses strategies for protecting our communities from it.
P.S. Check out this companion photo essay that shows how just 21 homes were demolished to make way for 1,764 new homes in Seattle this year.


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Us, of course.  And now according to the Sightline Institute:

Altogether, Sightline tabulates 4,920 car-sharing vehicles in Cascadia. That’s just 0.4 percent of these cities’ estimated 1.4 million motor vehicles, but at any moment on city streets, more than 1 percent of moving vehicles are typically car-shares, because shared vehicles are driven much more of the time than private cars, which on average sit parked more than 23 hours a day. In the cities’ dense, close-in neighborhoods, car-shares account for an even larger share of moving autos, sometimes as much as 5 percent—an impressive change in just a decade or two.

Portland Seattle Vancouver, BC Two-way           Modo 450    Zipcar 225 312 225 One-way                         Car2Go 500 750 1,275    Evo 600    ReachNow 370 Person-to-person         Getaround 90    Turo 43 80 Total 858 1,512 2,550 Read more »

New planning numbers from Washington State, reflecting a new reality that has, apparently, yet to dawn here in BC.  It offers a rationale for shifting money away from a shrinking transportation mode and into growing ones. It also discusses the rather unpleasant ramifications of business as usual.


Clark Williams-Derry in Sightline Daily:

Washington State Traffic Forecast Finally Recognizes Reality Does Washington’s new road forecast spell the end of “build now, pay later”? . This is far and away the most responsible official traffic forecast I’ve seen from any government agency, ever.  


First, it reflects the growing empirical evidence for a long-term slowdown in the growth vehicle travel, which has been evident on major roads in Washington, for Washington State roads as a whole, for the US, and for much of the industrialized world.
Second, even if the forecast is wrong, assuming that traffic won’t grow much is the most fiscally prudent way to plan a transportation budget.
For far too long, “build now, pay later” has been the transportation budgeter’s mantra. In the 2000s, for example, Washington committed itself to massive road projects that it didn’t have the money to build. So the state floated bonds, assuming that revenue from gas taxes would show up to pay them off.

That hasn’t worked out so well. Traffic didn’t grow as expected, and gasoline and tolling revenue has gone AWOL as a result. Gradually, planners have come to realize that debt service will swallow up most of the state’s gas tax receipts, crowding out everything else. As the chart below shows, WSDOT predicts that with a few years three-quarters of the state’s gas tax receipts will pay for old projects. .


And because so much of the state’s gas revenue is going to pay off old debts, state and local governments simply don’t have the money to keep existing streets and roads good repair—let alone complete projects, such as the SR-520 bridge, that we’ve already started. And there’s even less money left for the transportation priorities where demand is actually growing, such as walking, transit, and biking.
When you find yourself in a hole, the first step is to stop digging. And that’s exactly what this new forecast does: it helps transportation policymakers stop digging all of us deeper into highway-fueled debt. By undermining both the rationale for new roads and the belief that we’ll be able to pay for them, a forecast of flat traffic should help inject a needed dose of reality into the state’s transportation debates.
Of course, there’s no telling whether this forecast wil be right. As Yogi Berra allegedly said, predictions are hard, especially about the future. But if it turns out that this forecast underestimates traffic growth, budgeters won’t find it such an unpleasant surprise, since more traffic will bring more revenue from drivers. And at this point, finding a bit of extra revenue to deal with emerging problems beats what we’ve got now: not having enough money to pay for expensive solutions to problems that never really showed up.

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