Friday, September 19, 2014

City could walk its talk on affordable housing—and it won't cost $20 million

The Portland Tribune continues to follow the demolition issue closely. Clearly people care about the state of their neighborhoods, as evidenced by this letter that also ran in the Tribune, so succinct I'm pasting it in here in its entirety.

City refuses to heed public input 
I received the city of Portland’s flier wanting input on how to spend $20 million on affordable housing. There seems to be a complete disconnect between this bureaucratic effort and long-standing appeals by Northeast Portland communities to preserve existing affordable housing. 
I am referring to our many petitions to stop the destruction of affordable housing by developers. 
Affordable 800- to 1,400-square-foot homes that are very livable and architecturally harmonious to our communities are being replaced by ponderous 3,500- to 4,000-square-foot McMansions that cost two to three times the original home. 
In addition, these new structures are completely out of step with our communities, have no garden space, and block sun for those of us gardening and/or employing solar energy for power. 
Our mayor and City Council are aware of this and have received verbal and written complaints, but continue to dither away while developers destroy our pleasant, comfortable and affordable housing communities. 
Seems like the city might well listen to our long-standing input and save some of these $20 million taxpayer dollars for schools, street repair and other pressing issues. 
Tom Lichatowich 
Northeast Portland

Monday, September 15, 2014

Broken system needs fixes that work for all

Al Ellis (right) convenes the summit that drew people from 21 neighborhoods.
At the Summit II last week, we packed the sanctuary at Grant Park Church and heard from 21 neighborhoods across the city on how to stem the loss of unique affordable housing and the wave of low-quality development taking its place. As the flip chart filled with suggestions, we made plans to move the most promising ideas forward in meetings ahead.

Meanwhile, the city is doing an excellent job of helping developers fine-tune their recommendations to assuage neighbors as part of its Developer Review Advisory Committee, or DRAC. At last week's meeting of a subcommittee meant to address demolition issues, developers' representatives complained that neighbors, in asking for demolition extensions, had no "skin in the game." No one has more skin in this game than neighbors, who are rapidly losing the gains they've made in making their neighborhoods great places to live, work, and raise families. Through the years of delivering newsletters, planting trees, and fixing up properties, neighborhoods have thrived, only to see developers scoop up original, unique, and well-built homes and slam them into Dumpsters. Higher-priced homes in their place, by comparison, are quickly and cheaply built and are out of reach of first-time would-be home buyers, reducing the economic diversity among neighbors.

Lest folks think that new construction is always better than old, housing isn't like the latest iPhone or an updated operating system. Many homes of the 1920s and '30s (the average age of houses being demolished is 87 years) were crafted with care, using quality materials, and sometimes even framed by the architect himself. Thought was given to how the house sat on the lot, and the views therefrom. The houses going up now are framed in days, according to generic plans, and built to maximum coverage and height. As one who has lived in both old and new construction, I can say the maintenance obligations are the same. If buyers are unsure about the merits of old versus new construction, go to as many open houses as possible. Are the new homes solidly built? Can you gauge the thickness and quantity of wood? Or is it "wood"? Check out some of these homes a few years after they're built. Take a friend who works in construction—look hard, and listen.

If by "skin in the game" developers only refer to financial considerations, then consider this: Neighbors to these new "loomers" likely lose value on their properties. That's one reason why intact neighborhoods such as Irvington, which has preservation rules in place, continue to be desirable places to live.

If land in Portland is the precious resource we say it is, then let's treat it as such. DRAC's recommendations should be merged with those coming from the stakeholder (i.e., neighbor) level for a solution that works for everyone. A moratorium on demolition would help incentivize the process.

For a Stop the Demolition sign, visit here.
According to the recent list of the 25 top home builders in the Portland Business Journal, just two of the 25 are from Portland. Right now the playing field is skewed toward out-of-towners who've learned how to play the game. One developer, Wally Remmers, actually got the city to quietly, handily change code away from more stringent state recommendations so he could continue to drop his unimaginative design for a "greedy" building all over Portland. Even with brakes put on the demolitions, let's also figure out how to increase the quality and diversity of developers plying one of our city's finest, finite resources.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

We want our city back

As long as folks continue to check this blog, I will continue to post useful info. Neighbors and community leaders concerned about the demolition wave will gather at a summit from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 9, at Grant Park Church, 2728 NE 34th Ave.

This week it became clear that no one at City Hall will stand up for Portland, including the city's own mayor, in facing the Bureau of Development Services, whose special treatment for certain developers--and a style of development--is rapidly erasing architectural history and reducing neighborhoods' stock of unique, affordable housing.

This isn't Portland. Is it sustainable to throw away 98 percent of the demolished homes, usually made of materials far superior to what is now available? Are the replacement homes an improvement? Isn't it a waste, too, tossing into Dumpsters homes that are, on average, 87 years old? Shouldn't a "green" city care about the irreplaceable loss of mature urban canopy decades in the making? How are density goals met if the majority of demos result in a single-family home, only one that is way bigger, with a postage-stamp yard?

Very few home buyers looking for a toehold in the market are able to scoop up modest properties for all cash, as the mostly out-of-town and exploitive developers do, nor can they afford the $700k result.

Neighbors and community leaders also are seeing past the stall tactics of the city-blessed and developer-led Development Review Advisory Committee, which had been charged with making necessary changes to code in response to neighbor outcry. After months of meetings it managed to come up with a voluntary notification process for demos. In late July the leader of the committee confessed the committee probably couldn't arrive at a definition of "demolition" that would work (for developers), so better perhaps to leave it unclear. Here's a hint: If it takes a bulldozer and the house disappears, it's probably not a "remodel."

One thing is clear: The city is on track to set a record for demolitions this year (and that doesn't account for the aforementioned "bulldozer remodels," not tracked under the demo column). So long as the playing field rewards greedy, often thuggish developers, Portlanders and their neighborhoods continue to lose.

The summit next week promises to be a proactive, productive response generated by a groundswell of alarm over the city's devolving standards. If the mayor can't make the changes that he promised, it's up to us to demand them--and to wonder who owns our leadership.