Portland is changing. By 2035, city planners estimate that Portland’s population will grow by nearly 40 percent—to 880,000—with more than 100,000 new households. Without a serious increase in housing, the population boom is almost certain to cement the city’s ugly legacy of displacement and homelessness.
In anticipation of Portland’s looming population surge, planners have spent the past four years tinkering with a policy that would overhaul the city’s residential zoning rules to allow more housing within city limits. The Residential Infill Plan (RIP) would lift Portland’s ban on building so-called “middle housing”—duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes—in the vast majority of the city’s neighborhoods, where current city rules only allow the construction of single-family homes. If all goes to plan, the project could add anywhere from 4,000 to 24,000 new housing options to Portland by 2035.
But despite its seemingly apolitical premise, RIP has become Portland’s most divisive city project in decades.
“This is the most appalling idea that’s been brought to city council since I’ve been here,” says Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who’s staunchly opposed to RIP’s across-the-board approach to city planning.
City planners and housing advocates say the infill proposal would allow developers to add thousands of needed homes—and, in the process, eliminate outdated, racist zoning policies. Skeptics fear that lifting the ban on middle housing will only open the door to more high-end condo projects and mar the architectural character of classic Portland neighborhoods.
The divide has resulted in an incredibly tense and emotional debate, with accusations of overt racism and developer pandering scuttling any attempts to find compromise. Yet there’s one overarching belief that most Portlanders seem to agree on: The city isn’t doing enough to stop the displacement of low-income residents and communities of color.
“What we all know is that the status quo is not acceptable,” says Sam Diaz, the head of the land use advocacy nonprofit Portland for Everyone, and a longtime advocate of RIP. “But how we address that reflects our community’s different values.”
In March, RIP won final approval from the city’s Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC), paving the way for a final vote by city council. Before city commissioners decide on its fate, however, both supporters and skeptics of infill housing need to know what the city is doing to keep Portland’s most vulnerable residents in their communities—regardless of whether or not the council chooses to squeeze more homes into the growing city.
After years of debate, the argument over RIP comes down to two imperfect options: displacement now or displacement later.
Based on the city’s 2035 growth estimates, planners predict that new development will displace at least 950 renters who are currently living in single-family homes.
Under RIP, which would allow developers to replace one large house with up to four smaller homes (in a fourplex or cluster of smaller, standalone houses), planners estimate only 680 of those renters will be displaced. That’s a 28 percent reduction, but there’s a catch: While advocates argue that RIP would lead to less displacement overall, planners also predict the residents in three specific Portland neighborhoods may be at significantly higher risk of displacement under the proposal.
That’s because the land in the Lents, Montavilla, and Brentwood-Darlington neighborhoods remains relatively cheap compared to the rest of the city, despite steadily-rising rents in these neighborhoods. The city believes RIP’s passage will incentivize developers to seek out cheap, single-family homes in those neighborhoods—homes that are currently occupied by lower-income renters—and replace them with pricey duplexes or triplexes. Planners say this likely won’t be the case where land is more expensive, like inner Portland neighborhoods that are already crowded with high-end condos.
“Optimally, we’d like to see a plan that reduced the displacement burden for everyone,” says Morgan Tracy, the city planner who’s managing RIP’s development for Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. “But that’s really, really hard to achieve.”
Infill skeptics don’t think RIP’s overall displacement protections are worth the immediate threat of displacement in these neighborhoods, where many current renters are people of color.
“I really worry that we’re being asked to displace certain populations faster than others for the benefit of this greater good,” André Baugh, a member of the Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC), said during a February meeting.
The PSC is tasked with reviewing city planning proposals before they’re punted to city council, and Baugh’s argument is why the PSC’s final vote to approve RIP was so narrow. The four out of nine members who voted against RIP’s passage in March said they believed the project didn’t do enough to prevent displacement of at-risk renters.
But many who are actively involved in curbing displacement question the sudden concern over gentrification from skeptics on the PSC and neighborhood groups.
“I believe they’re political opportunists,” says Pam Phan, an organizer with the housing advocacy group Anti-Displacement PDX. “I’ve not seen any of those folks use their work with their neighborhoods or take action on their own to eliminate segregation and displacement, until now.”
Phan sees RIP as an antidote to Portland’s long history of discriminatory zoning practices, when private landlords and city planners collaborated to keep both homeowners of color and low-income renters out of certain neighborhoods.
In 1959, Portland City Council passed sweeping restrictions against multi-unit homes in most residential neighborhoods. That vote came amid a national movement to use racist housing restrictions to retain some measure of racial segregation after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision to desegregate schools.
Ever since, the only way to live in the majority of Portland neighborhoods has been to purchase a single-family home, rent a portion of one, or be fortunate enough to own or lease one of the duplexes, triplexes, or fourplexes built before the 1959 ban. Many of these older homes can be found in Southeast Portland’s Sunnyside and Buckman neighborhoods.
Over time, these restrictions have dramatically contributed to Portland’s dearth of affordable housing. Locally, the current median household income for a family of four is $81,400. According to the National Association of Realtors, that income is not enough to make monthly payments—to say nothing of a down payment—on the average Portland home, which costs around $420,000. Meanwhile, a 2017 study by the Portland Housing Bureau found that 52 percent of the city’s tenants pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent—which, under federal guidelines, officially qualifies them as “cost-burdened” renters.
Phan says the opposition to RIP that’s come from certain neighborhoods—like Beaumont-Wilshire, Laurelhurst, and Multnomah Village, where neighborhood groups argue the broad policy will change the “character” of their neighborhoods by adding smaller, modern homes next to large, historic, single-family residences—is merely a less overt form of segregation.
“It’s hard to see that it’s not racialized,” says Phan. “Rarely do we get to talk about maintaining the community character with neighborhoods of color.”
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has also pushed back on the fears of those neighborhood groups.
“People are deathly afraid that their community will change, and I have news for them: It will!” say Hardesty, who cautiously supports infill. “We know thousands of more people are moving to Portland. Your neighborhood is going to change no matter what. The question is, how does it change? And will you play a part?”
Those questions are echoed by Commissioner Nick Fish, who says the debate over RIP comes down to one question: Who gets to benefit from a great neighborhood?
“Who is allowed to access strong schools, thriving businesses, and good infrastructure?” says Fish, who has yet to take an official position on RIP. “In a city that cares about equity, what can we do to open doors to neighborhoods only allowed to people with more means?”
“People are deathly afraid that their community will change, and I have news for them: It will!” —Jo Ann Hardesty, Portland City Commissioner
Unlike many of the city’s housing programs, RIP was never meant to create affordable housing—it simply allows for more homes to be built in a city with a dwindling housing supply.
“We are talking about general housing affordability, not affordable housing,” says Morgan, the RIP project manager.
The infill plan was born in 2015 alongside the city’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan, which calculated that Portland would grow by 260,000 people in the next two decades. City planners came up with RIP as a response to a call to increase the housing supply to match this swelling population—while simultaneously not demolishing any more homes to make way for new condos. Along with lifting the infill ban, RIP caps the size of new development on traditional single-family properties, in order to make sure the new rules don’t usher in towering condos or so-called “McMansions.”
Still, developers do expect some low-priced housing to come out of RIP. Lifting the zoning ban means affordable-housing providers—including organizations that use federal grants to help low-income Portlanders secure mortgages—can begin building affordable middle housing in new neighborhoods.
“We often get approached by people offering us pieces of land that are in zones where we can’t build anything but a single-family home,” says Diane Linn, director of affordable housing provider Proud Ground. “That won’t allow us to build something that’s actually affordable.” The more units that can be built on a piece of land increases the amount of government subsidies that Proud Ground can use to lower mortgages.
“Every single new unit built changes lives,” says Linn. “Why limit that opportunity?”
But with Portland’s sky-high property costs, it’s expected the majority of developments built under new infill rules will remain out of reach for the average Portlander, let alone someone living paycheck to paycheck. RIP does allow developers to add more square feet to their multi-unit homes if they promise that one of their units will be affordable for someone making less than 80 percent of Portland’s median income. (For a one-person household, that means bringing in no more than $45,600 a year.) It’s unknown, however, how many profit-driven developers will actually take advantage of that deal.
“If RIP doesn’t mandate affordability, there’s not going to be any affordability,” says Meg Hanson, a data analyst and co-founder of the Coalition to Prioritize Protect and Preserve Affordable Housing. “There’s a big difference between an incentive and a mandate. And incentives aren’t enough to drive affordable development.”
Hanson thinks the city could calm Portlanders’ valid reservations around RIP by requiring that developers prove a demolition won’t destroy properties that already offer affordable housing.
“If it’s an abandoned, falling-apart house, then, sure, they can demolish it,” Hanson says. “But if it’s a habitable, affordable home, developers will have to show that their planned duplex or fourplex will also be affordable.”
Until then, Hanson predicts RIP will only perpetuate the trend of predatory development companies—the folks behind the “WE BUY UGLY HOUSES” signs—that convince low-income homeowners to sell their house at or below market price, and then go on to replace that house with an expensive duplex, triplex, or fourplex, displacing the owners or renters.
This is what Adam Brunelle is most worried about. Brunelle is the director of Green Lents, a community advocacy nonprofit with an anti-displacement program. While Brunelle says he was concerned to hear that Lents was one of the few neighborhoods at risk of greater displacement under RIP, he wasn’t surprised: Lents residents are already threatened by extreme displacement, regardless of RIP, Brunelle says.
“People will continue to get kicked out of Lents because of rent hikes—it’s already happening,” says Brunelle. “What I want to see is commitment from the city to stop it.”
Brunelle says Lents residents—a community made up of more people of color, immigrants, and refugees than most Portland neighborhoods—are disappointed by the relative inaction by the city to pump the brakes on gentrification already taking place in the neighborhood. He believes Lents could see the kind of untamed gentrification that nearly erased the Black community from North and Northeast Portland. He compares the recent explosion of pricey condos along North Williams to the city’s pending plan to turn a massive lot at 92nd and Harold into market-rate housing. “We’re well on our way from following North and Northeast Portland’s displacement trend,” says Brunelle. “This is an opportunity to get ahead of it.”
But, like other anti-displacement advocates, Brunelle knows RIP is not a silver bullet to solving Portland’s housing crisis.
“To me, displacement is caused by not having strong programming and protections for renters and low-income homeowners,” says Marisa Zapata, a land use planning professor at Portland State University. “Regardless of what happens to property values or zoning, the most important thing is to just have programs in place.”
Zapata says some of those anti-displacement programs are already in effect, thanks to the city’s tenant advocacy organizations and its burgeoning home-repair loan program. “But the city is still figuring out how to operate its equity lens,” she adds, “and what protecting people from displacement is.”
In an email to the Mercury, Mayor Ted Wheeler wrote that he wants to see more anti-displacement strategies woven into RIP before it progresses.
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s office says it is up to the challenge.
Eudaly, who was elected on a platform of housing equity, has worked hard to break down the bureaucratic and financial barriers that have kept Portland property owners from building accessory dwelling units (ADUs, commonly called “mother-in-law” units) to lease out on their properties. Eudaly considers ADUs a win-win for Portlanders, as the extra income incentivizes homeowners to create more rental housing.
In most of Portland’s residential zones, property owners are currently allowed to build one ADU on their property. Under RIP, that number would grow to two, allowing for both a detached backyard apartment and an ADU built into the main home’s basement, attic, or garage.
Currently, the cost of building an ADU is still out of reach for many low-income homeowners. Lower-income homeowners have a trickier time securing construction loans, often due to a low credit score or scant savings to cover up-front costs. But Marshall Runkel, Eudaly’s chief of staff, has been working with local experts in the construction loan field to see how the city could help finance homeowners who want to lease out an ADU. Runkel believes that if the city can secure the right funding tools, those homeowners will be able to build ADUs, keep their properties, and help alleviate the city’s lack of affordable housing.
“We want to present an alternative to people feeling pressured by developers: Reinvest,” Runkel says.
According to Susan Brown, a home lending manager with Umpqua Bank, most large banks can’t offer construction loans to people solely based on the promise that their construction project will yield future income. But she believes the city and county could offer down-payment grants—similar to what the city currently offers first-time homebuyers—to people wanting to build an ADU.
“If a low-to-middle-income family could add an ADU to their portfolio,” says Brown, “it could make a difference for generations to come.”
“If we continue to do what we’re doing right now, we will only see more displacement.” —Bandana Shrestha, spokseperson for AARP Oregon
Before he cast his vote against the infill plan, the Planning and Sustainability Commission’s André Baugh said he’d be more open to the proposal if the city was given more time to embed anti-displacement programs before RIP went into place. But for those who have already waited four years for this plan to see daylight, that’s not an option.
“Demolition is already happening. Huge homes are being replaced by more huge homes. Not doing anything is not really a choice,” says Bandana Shrestha, spokesperson for Oregon branch of the AARP.
By 2035, Shrestha says, the population of people over age 65 in the US will surpass those under 18. She can already see that trend playing out in Portland’s neighborhoods, where downsizing baby boomers are struggling to find small, accessible, and affordable homes.
“The main mission should be working with neighborhoods to get ahead of the displacement curve, while we open the door to more housing.” she says. “If we continue to do what we’re doing right now, we will only see more displacement.”
Ultimately the decision to approve or deny RIP—and whatever anti-displacement tools it includes—will come down to how city commissioners envision Portland’s future.
“We want Portland to be inclusive and welcoming for people of all ages, races, and income levels,” says Shrestha. “I hope city council keeps that in forefront as they make this decision. It’s time we lead with our values.”