Local Developer Eli Spevak Promotes Small Spaces with Character

Karli Petrovic

When it comes to building a compact, affordable city, the sticking point often tends to center on aesthetics. Sure, “density” is somewhat of a dirty word, but the dirtiest phrase is often “high-rise apartment building.” Many a neighborhood group has organized around banning this development option in their communities.

So how do we accommodate families of all income levels without lamenting the loss of a charming neighborhood? Enter Eli Spevak of Orange Splot, LLC, who has been working to make small houses and shared spaces sexy since ’94.

“I’ve never aspired to be a big developer,” says Spevak, who has lived in group houses and co-housing spaces for many years. “For environmental reasons, small homes are the way to go, but I’ve also found there are a lot of folks looking for some community in their housing situation. They want shared indoor and outdoor spaces that make it easier to spend time together.”

Orange Splot, which is named after Spevak’s favorite children’s book, “The Big Orange Splot,” was created to bring greener, more affordable housing developments to Portland neighborhoods. These shareable, high-density spaces can fit aesthetically in a neighborhood. Spevak’s goal is to find ways to respect the character of the community and support code changes to expand the pallet of housing choices in Portland’s neighborhoods. He does this through his hybrid career mix: half-time developer, half-time housing advocate.

“The advocacy component is to figure out the ways we can adjust the rules of the game,” Spevak says. “If we can do that, more developers will be able to make a living building smaller homes instead of larger ones. Making it easier to build accessory dwelling units is one example of a neighborhood zoning code change that can help.”

In partnership with other advocates, Spevak has met with city councilors and won some successful changes: one to the neighborhood zoning codes and another that waives the system development charges for developers who want to build ADUs. Outside the legislature, Spevak gets people thinking about smaller spaces by hosting tiny homes bike tours. “Seeing how these homes look and fit into the neighborhood makes it easier for people to imagine having one of their own,” he says.

Another thing that seems to have impacted people’s view of small and shared spaces is Spevak’s “Plank of Progressive Planning Ideas for Portland that Won’t Piss Off the Neighbors” blog post. Originally on the Orange Splot blog, this post was picked up by Bike Portland and eventually made its way onto the 1000 Friends Facebook page. Some of the suggestions in the post include allowing old homes to be renovated to multi-family units, supporting “pocket neighborhoods” that have clusters of houses close together, and passing inclusionary zoning. While a few critics weren’t crazy about these ideas, Spevak says he received mostly positive feedback.

“What I came to find in Portland is that there’s such strong interest and power in neighborhood associations, and they tend to be pretty organized against density,” Spevak says. “There’s a lot of concern out there about rising housing costs, loss of affordable older homes through demolitions, and the shear bulk of new homes.  The post came about by talking through these issues with neighborhood leaders and brainstorming some “common ground” ideas that they, in-fill developers, and progressive planners might all be able to say “Yes” to. Despite the list of things most people can agree on, it’s hard to accommodate all the things people want from the city. Spevak sees an opportunity for planners to lead the charge and build a better city.

“Density is a loaded word, and some people have an instinctive negative reaction to it. They think of larger buildings and more noise,” he says. “Higher-density housing can look really nice and support vibrant urban neighborhoods. Yet in our region, there’s also a long history and strong precedent of detached, single family housing—which people dearly love. I’ve been experimenting with housing types that increase the population density in our neighborhoods while also preserving their character.”

“The fact is that we’re attracting a lot of new people here. More expensive cities than Portland typically have serious constraints on their housing supply. From an affordability perspective, we need to allow housing supply to grow in order to keep rents from rising even higher than they’ve already gone. Fortunately, planners have some excellent tools at their disposal to boost the supply of housing while also respecting the character of our wonderful neighborhoods."