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Commissioner Steve Novick

Official Website for Commissioner Steve Novick

Phone: 503-823-4682

fax: 503-823-4019

1221 SW 4th Ave. Suite 210, Portland, OR 97204

Bringing affordability back to Portland’s neighborhoods

Over the next 20 years, Portland is projected to add 260,000 new people to the roughly 620,000 people who already live here. As we develop the City’s Comprehensive Plan for the next twenty years, we’re figuring out how our city will grow to accommodate these new Portlanders. The plan currently before Council envisions growth along corridors and in neighborhood centers. There is logic behind this plan, but I want to be sure Portlanders have choices beyond super unaffordable million dollar single-family homes and tiny studios in tall apartment buildings. 

I recently learned about a concept called “middle housing” that would help accommodate projected population growth, while keeping our city sustainable and affordable for all kinds of families. Daniel Parolek, an architect and urban planner from Berkeley, California, coined the phrase “middle housing” in 2000. 

Middle housing is defined as “in-between” housing – in-between single family houses and larger multi-family buildings.  Middle housing includes “Rowhouses, duplexes [and] apartment courts,” and, in general, is built at the same scale (size, height, setbacks) as single-family homes. The difference is middle housing offers a more affordable option for residential housing within existing neighborhoods.

This type of housing is often “attached,” meaning that homes share a wall, floor, or ceiling with at least one other household—think brownstones (rowhouses) in New York City or flats (stacked duplexes) in London. Throughout the U.S., including in Portland, single family zoning codes prohibit building the attached housing that typifies middle housing around the world.

Although it may not be readily apparent, middle housing is not entirely new to Portland. In fact, this type of housing already exists in several of Portland’s historic neighborhoods, such as the Buckman Neighborhood. However, the current zoning code wouldn’t, in most cases, allow Buckman’s middle housing to be built there today.

Middle housing is just as much about housing affordability and equity as accommodating growth and diversity of housing types. Part of housing affordability is, without a doubt, subsidizing the production of new affordable housing for people who earn below the median family income, and we must maintain our commitment to building subsidized housing. But another part of affordability is getting our zoning code out of the way of smaller, attached housing. We should provide as many housing types at as many price points as possible, and prioritize stable affordable rents.

If a vacant lot is used to build housing for multiple families in smaller, more affordable, attached homes– buildings that match the scale of neighborhoods– rather than one family in a larger home, more people will be able to live in Portland’s most desirable neighborhoods.

I’m interested in considering changes to the Comprehensive Plan to expand the existing zones (primarily R1, R2 and R2.5) that allow middle housing to be built. I’m also interested in taking a close look at the housing types we allow in all of our single family zones; perhaps we can allow more middle housing in a wider range of residential zones. Finally, we won’t get new middle housing unless the market supports it and developers build it. So, the City should explore changes and incentives to encourage smaller, more affordable middle housing.

I want a Portland that is diverse in all kinds of ways. We need housing that works for young single people, families with kids and older couples who have downsized. People should have choices other than a 400 square foot apartment and a $1 million house.  We need a range of housing types that are affordable for people all along the income spectrum. I think we can provide that and still preserve the unique character of our neighborhoods, renowned for both their livability and weirdness, and prevent Portland from devolving into a city like San Francisco: a fiefdom of the rich.

I know some Portlanders are concerned about any new development near their home, and, undoubtedly, the ideas here will also raise concerns. I understand this, and I want to hear from lots of people. I hope you’ll engage in our ongoing dialogue. Here are some ways you can get involved now: