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The City of Portland, Oregon

Planning and Sustainability

Innovation. Collaboration. Practical Solutions.

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1900 SW 4th Ave, Suite 7100, Portland, OR 97201

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is “multi-dwelling” zoning?

Multi-dwelling zoning is a residential zone that allows multiple housing units in a building or on a single property. Often thought of as apartment zoning, this zoning actually also allows for a variety of housing types such as townhouses, triplexes, groups of detached houses and even individual houses on small lots.

The City designates an allowed land use for each property in the city and each of these uses get a zoning designation, such as single-family residential, multi-dwelling residential, commercial mixed-use, industrial, etc. These are all shown on a zoning map.  

How is this project related to the Comprehensive Plan?

The Better Housing by Design project will develop Zoning Code regulations and other regulatory tools to help implement the goals and policies of Portland’s new Comprehensive Plan. Comprehensive Plan policies related to development and design in the multi-dwelling residential zones include the following major directions:

  • Accommodate housing growth, especially in and around centers, corridors and transit station areas.
  • Develop a variety of housing types that meet the needs of all Portlanders, including an adequate supply of affordable housing and physically accessible housing.
  • Provide healthy and safe environments for residents with building design that supports active living.
  • Design buildings to enhance the pedestrian environment on streets.
  • Help provide a network of safe and accessible street and pedestrian connections, especially around centers and transit stations.
  • Incorporate design that responds to and enhances neighborhood context and character, including the Inner, Eastern and Western neighborhoods.
  • Integrate nature and green infrastructure into the urban environment, avoid environmental impacts, and reduce impervious surfaces and urban heat island effects.
  • Use resource-efficient design and development approaches.

What problems is this project intended to solve?

While the multi-dwelling zones provide opportunities for higher density development, the design of this development does not always meet the City’s goals for quality housing development and has generated community concerns. Some issues identified include:

  • Development does not always improve street or pedestrian connections in areas that lack them, such as East Portland. This makes it difficult for people to easily and safely get to local places, such as shopping, transit, schools and parks.
  • Zoning Code requirements for healthy living features, such as spaces for outdoor recreation or growing food, are limited and do not apply in higher density zones. 
  • The design of development is often not responsive to the surrounding context or to distinctive characteristics of different areas of Portland.
  • The street-facing side of housing, such as row houses with front garages, does not always contribute to pedestrian-friendly environments. 
  • There are no Zoning Code incentives or requirements that encourage the development of physically accessible housing for people with disabilities. (There are also no incentives for affordable housing, although this is being addressed, in part, through development bonuses being considered through the Inclusionary Housing Project).
  • Regulations do not allow for many urban green infrastructure approaches, such as ecoroofs or plantings in raised courtyards, to count toward meeting landscaping requirements.
  • Current rules don’t prevent large areas of impervious surfaces (e.g., asphalt or cement) or ensure that development is designed to minimize urban heat island effects.

Who decided these are problems?

Over the past decade, multiple City of Portland projects worked with the community to identify issues related to the design of multi-dwelling development and the topic of healthy, connected neighborhoods. These past projects include (see links in Documents and Resources):

  • The Infill Design Project
  • East Portland Review and Action Plan
  • 122nd Avenue Planning Study
  • Healthy Active Communities for Portland’s Affordable Housing Families Initiative
  • Promoting Health Through Multi-Family Housing Project
  • Powell-Division Transit and Development Project
  • Various PBOT street/bicycle/pedestrian connectivity studies
  • Comprehensive Plan Update

Building on this broad public input, the Better Housing by Design project will create implementation tools, such as Zoning Code regulations and street connectivity approaches, to address issues identified through these projects.

The BHD project scope has been informed by feedback received from communities who are frequently under-served and under-represented in the City of Portland's activities, including people of color, immigrants and low-income people. This feedback identified the need for residential open spaces, housing design supportive of healthy living, and better and safer connections to neighborhood destinations ― especially in East Portland.

The project kicked off in fall 2016 with a “check-in stage” to make sure that stakeholders’ issues were defined and prioritized in a way that made sense. Staff has been using interviews, walks and roundtables to review the problems with them. This early round of feedback incorporated the perspectives of people living and working in and around multi-dwelling zones, as well as builders of multi-dwelling housing. Some of the early discussions involved community members in the Jade District and Rosewood/Glenfair areas of East Portland, which have large areas of multi-dwelling zoning and will be the focus of street plans. Discussions and walks in these areas included representatives from Jade/APANO, the Rosewood Initiative, affordable housing developers, as well as several developers who build in East Portland. 

How can public input influence this project?

This project will update the development regulations for the multi-dwelling zones and street connectivity requirements to improve the form and design of new development. Project staff will be seeking public input to help inform the development of regulations through a range of public involvement activities, such as workshops, working group meetings and open house events. Please check the website for updates on project events.

The public can inform what kind of improvements are proposed by sharing their experience about living in and around buildings built under the current code, suggesting solutions to the specific problems addressed by this project, and/or providing information about possible unintended outcomes of proposed changes. This input will mostly be used to develop and improve the proposed solutions and can also potentially affect the content and prioritization of the list of issues. However, the development of proposed solutions will require consideration of the full range of community input (often contradictory) as well as city policy objectives. (See also “How does this relate to the Comprehensive Plan”.)

How does this project relate to the Residential Infill Project?

While the Better Housing by Design project is focusing on Portland’s multi-dwelling zones, the Residential Infill Project is addressing the scale of new houses and remodels in Portland’s single-dwelling zones. It is also proposing new rules that would increase housing options in the same areas. For instance, the recommendations would allow more than one accessory dwelling unit (ADU) on a property (one internal, one external) and allow triplexes on corners. And the project is proposing to increase the potential for duplexes in single-dwelling zones.

Duplexes, triplexes and ADUs help to fill the housing gap in Portland between single-family homes and high-density apartments or condos. Thus, they are called the “missing middle.” These smaller, more compact housing types function like houses, but in a higher density form. They can offer residents a more affordable housing choice than a larger home. The Better Housing by Design project will also be looking at regulations for missing middle housing types, but only within the multi-dwelling zones.

Why are you focusing on East Portland?

Nearly 35 percent of all multi-dwelling zoning, or nearly 3,000 acres, is located in East Portland. The Better Housing by Design project is a citywide review, but it focuses on two areas in East Portland ― Jade District and Rosewood. These neighborhoods have high concentrations of multi-dwelling zoning with very long blocks and limited street or pedestrian connectivity.  

This area is also home to a large percentage of Portland’s youth, communities of color, immigrant and low-income populations. The project will work on improving multi-dwelling zone regulations to support the development of neighborhoods that increase livability, safety and access to opportunity for the East Portland community. Through its collaboration with the PBOT’s Connected Centers Street Plan, BHD will develop new approaches to achieving street and pedestrian connections in East Portland, where the lack of street connectivity prevents safe and convenient connections to local destinations and transit for the area’s population.

How does this project relate to other planning and housing-related projects?

This project is reviewing the Zoning Code for multi-dwelling zones ― areas where buildings include multiple households. It overlaps to some extent with the Residential Infill Project, which is reviewing single-dwelling zoning. Other related projects include:

  • Inclusionary Housing Zoning Code Project: The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and Portland Housing Bureau are working together to develop regulatory and programmatic measures to implement the Inclusionary Housing Program, which will require some affordable housing units for new projects with more than 20 units.
  • Mass Shelter and Housing Zoning Code Update: This project amends zoning regulations for certain shelters and housing projects and is a result of the City Council’s resolution in March to “simplify regulations, remove regulatory obstacles and expedite processes for land use reviews and permits for affordable housing projects, mass shelters and short-term housing." It proposes to expand the situations that allow shelters by right, and reduces the level of land use review for certain shelters, short-term and affordable housing. The code update is part of a larger citywide attempt to address housing affordability and homelessness.
  • Design Overlay Assessment Project: This project will evaluate and improve the City’s design review process, which applies in areas with the Design Review Overlay (including some areas with multi-dwelling zoning, such as the Interstate and East Corridor light rail station areas). Phase 1 of this project is complete, and a research report is now available. 

How will this project address the major problems of housing affordability and displacement in Portland communities?

By itself, BHD will not directly address housing affordability or displacement, except for the possibility of incentives for projects that include affordable housing. This project is intended to complement other City projects and initiatives that more directly address these issues, such as the Inclusionary Housing Project; efforts that bring additional funding for affordable housing, such as the Affordable Housing Bond and the Construction Excise Tax; the North/Northeast Neighborhood Housing Strategy; and a range of other housing programs administered by the Portland Housing Bureau.

This project could help address housing affordability in less direct ways by:

  • Reducing regulatory barriers to the production of housing. This should help address the housing shortage, which has contributed to the increasing rents and home prices.
  • Changing regulations to broaden the range of housing types being built in the multi-dwelling zones, including those that are less expensive than the townhouses and detached houses common in some zones.