On Tour with 1000 Friends: Exploring Missing Middle Housing

Thu, 09/28/2017 (All day)

On Saturday, September 23rd, 1000 Friends staff and board met with partners for an introduction to our housing work in Portland. Our tour began on SE Madison and 28th Avenue and continued west along SE Madison, one block off of Hawthorne Boulevard, a lively neighborhood commercial corridor.

Tour guide and Portland for Everyone project advisor Eli Spevak began by sharing how Portland’s beloved older neighborhoods actually enjoy a wonderful variety of compact and affordable housing types. In the first half of the 20th-century, streetcar suburbs (now some of Portland’s most coveted inner neighborhoods) were built out more compactly.

Early zoning codes allowed for more small-scale “multi-family” housing types to be built in most neighborhoods. As we strolled down SE Madison, we saw small courtyard apartments, duplexes, triplexes, and 4-plexes still sprinkled throughout. On this same street, we saw beautiful older homes with multiple mailboxes. These homes were either originally built as connected units, or converted at a time when zoning codes allowed them during the shipbuilding housing crisis of WWII. These housing types are included in what we call the ‘Missing Middle’.

In 1959, Portland City Council removed many of those options by sweeping new single-family zones across most of the city. Over time, this has steered builders to construct larger and larger homes, while leaving few places for missing middle housing to be built. Currently, these types of housing are largely illegal in most neighborhoods – and not just in Portland. This trend toward stricter, inflexible zoning has contributed to housing crises in cities across Oregon, and the US.

What does that mean for communities? Well, it isolates people. It perpetuates income and racial segregation. It hurts housing affordability. It means that we don’t create the capacity for effective transit. Taking transit is a key way for the average person to cut their carbon emissions, so this means that newer “suburban” zoning isn’t great for the environment either.

What can be done about it? The next stop on 1000 Friends’ tour allowed us to peek inside one possible solution: Local contractor Das Chapin and his partner Amanda Punton shared their experience, as told in last year’s edition of Landmark, converting the basement of their own house into an Accessory Dwelling Unit or “ADU”. Das and Amanda purchased their home five years ago, with the intention of splitting it into a duplex. They were surprised to find that the city would not permit this plan, but they moved on to the next best idea – an ADU. Along with a complete renovation of the main floors of the house, Das and Amanda’s basement space became an ideal spot for an internal ADU, where their son currently resides (and pays rent!). ADU’s are a great way to expand affordable options in cities, and Portland has created more incentives to build them. However, it’s not enough. What about converting a house to a duplex? What about bringing back those early courtyard apartments? This is the thrust of Portland for Everyone’s policy goals – to bring these housing options back.   

The final stop took 1000 Friends to North Portland and the offices of Proud Ground Community Land Trust. There, 1000 Friends met with Executive Director Diane Linn, who shared how the Land Trust model creates permanent affordability for first-time homebuyers at medium- and lower-income levels. Linn described the challenge of bringing together a series of resources to purchase properties as housing prices increase. She expressed that creating naturally lower-cost housing options not only helps more middle-income families buying on the market, but also helps Proud Ground and other nonprofits secure more homes for permanent affordability: Often middle housing is more naturally affordable than large new homes, due to shared land costs and smaller sizes, among other factors. Thus, subsidies given by affordability programs can go much further, requiring less subsidy per home and allowing more families to achieve homeownership. Currently Proud Ground is also expanding into larger multi-family projects, including a development down the street from their offices. The site is currently occupied by a shuttered laundromat and a large parking lot. Linn envisions a new complex that offers a wide array of housing sizes and price points with stable, mixed-income housing for those eligible through Portland’s right to return policy.

1000 Friends of Oregon is committed to creating equitable policies to address our state’s housing needs. That means that we need abundant, diverse, and affordable housing options within our existing communities. Statewide, 1000 Friends regularly advocates for policies that allow for more flexible housing in our cities and towns. With partners like Proud Ground, and the many, many other hard working organizations and individuals advocating for solutions, Portland and Oregon may just see a housing resurgence that serves everyone.