Who needs trees when you can have junk apartments?

The real estate developers have always been the bane of Oregon's existence. Before I got here, they were ready to pave over the farmlands and timberlands with one ticky-tacky housing subdivision after another. But Tom McCall and his powerful friends threw up some big road blocks to preserve the character of the place they loved. For example, what is now Tryon Creek State Park had been all mapped out for houses, but the Dunthorpe crowd saved it so they could keep going horseback riding there. The well-heeled "1,000 Friends" saved the Gorge. More importantly, McCall and crew came up with an unusually strict set of statewide land use rules that held off the onslaught of the developers for several decades.

It just stalled the inevitable, of course. Tigard, Tualatin, Sherwood, and Wilsonville today are exactly what the McCall folks didn't want in 1970.

In the '90s, frustrated builders decided to try their hand at the apartment business, with Portland as Ground Zero. And in the '00s, they really got it going. Soulless "mixed use" bunkers, all pretty much alike, invaded every neighborhood on the east side of town. A lot of nice older buildings, and some that weren't pretty but still plenty serviceable, were torn down. Nobody cared about neighborhood character or livability. It was "stack 'em up" for maximum profit. These boxes are still going up here and there around the inner city today.

The weasels who build these monstrosities, and the "urban planning" cheerleaders who infest local government, always have a fantastic sales pitch. Whatever the problem du jour is in the news, letting them slap up yet another cr-apartment complex with no parking is always the ideal solution. First it was to save the farms: "We must build up, not out." Then for a while it was to attract the "creative class" to town, because they were the future of the world economy: "The creatives want a 15-minute, walkable city, where they don't need a car and can bike everywhere." Lately, it's been climate change: "People need to live close to where they work, to reduce emissions." But the loudest one of all these days, and the one that the politicians are going for hook, line, and sinker, is that more cheesy apartments are going to solve the humanitarian crisis of public camping which has destroyed inner Portland as a desirable place to live or work. "Housing first! It's a problem of not enough housing supply."

As I say, they're making big inroads with the politicians on this. Suddenly we're prepared to abandon the land use rules of the McCall era, and toss environmental laws into the waste basket, to let them slap up hundreds, if thousands, more of their "mixed use" human warehouses. The state has already outlawed single-family zoning, and that's just the start. Governor Kohoutek has decided that the weasels are right, and she's ready, willing, and able to let them rip away.

Of course, like all of these people's sales spiels, their homeless argument doesn't hold water. First of all, the street campers' main problem is drug addiction. They are not ready for housing. If you give them a free apartment, they will tear out the plumbing, sell it for fetty or meth money, and burn the place down whle they're on the nod.

And second, even if junk housing has to be built, there is no need to trash existing zoning rules to get it built. There are plenty of "shovel-ready" sites all around the Portland area available for the bunkers, if build them they must. (Or maybe I should say, build them we must, since a lot of the builder birds get a public handout as part of their projects. You don't just get to watch them wreck Portland, you also get to pay for it.)

A fellow from the Irvington neighborhood, in northeast Portland, wrote about some of this in a column in the neighborhood newspaper this month. His name is Tony Greiner, and he's the neighbors' new go-to guy on land use issues. His is a constant battle with City Hall, where the childish bureaucrats hate Irvington's nice historic homes and would like nothing better than to tear them all down for you-know-what. Greiner writes:

As everyone knows, housing is in short supply in Portland, especially housing that the average working person can reasonably pay for. There have been several laws and rules passed in order to loosen building rules to allow for denser housing. Others, such as the Governor's plan to end protections for trees, are in the works. The argument for these changes is that much of the existing "built environment" (buildings that already exist, in particular single-family houses) needs to be demolished to make room for denser housing that – maybe, possibly, occasionally – will be affordable. 

However, a recent report from the city shows that this argument doesn't stand up. On August 17 the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability released its updated draft on the housing needs for Portland for 2045. These plans are released as part of Oregon's Urban Growth Boundary laws, which allow cities to expand their boundaries- if needed- in order to have housing available for the future, but avoid suburban sprawl. 

This report makes it clear that there is no need to change existing zoning codes. It states clearly "Portland has more than enough zoned development capacity to accommodate the projected household growth" to meet the housing needs of the city in 2045. Under current zoning Portland has "the capacity of 236,977 housing units" which is almost twice forecasted need of about 121,000 additional units. 

Interesting as well is where that available space exists. The Central City accounts for 29% of capacity for growth, the "Centers and Corridors outside the Central city" 64%, while Portland's neighborhoods account for 10%. (These numbers add up to more than 100%, but that's what the document says.) It is clear – we need more housing, but it is also clear that existing neighborhoods are not the best place to put it – we can put it in underdeveloped areas and do no harm to the fabric of our city. 

So, when you hear people saying we need to make changes in our zoning code so that there is room for housing for everyone – there's no need. The room is already there. Is it possible that building developers looking to maximize profits have unwitting allies in the "Yes in My Back Yard" movement? That's up to you to decide.

You can just see it now, someone at City Hall getting in trouble over that report, because it tells a most inconvenient truth. Look for a counter-report to be issued any day now, so that the land use and environmental protections can be scrapped. It's sad to see.

Meanwhile, across Broadway from Irvington, the owners of the Lloyd Center shopping mall just revealed their plans for their facility: Tear it down and build... guess what. It actually makes some sense – there are already a couple of apartment towers over that way – but honestly, who would want to live there? If I were willing to live in a giant apartment complex, in a sketchy 'hood, with no car, and reliant on a two-wheeler and a dangerous transit system to get around, I can't imagine I would pick Portland as the place to do it. You can make a much better life for yourself doing that in many other places. 


  1. As we have learned from both political extremes-ideological beliefs trump facts and sound reasoning every time.

  2. I also completely agree that the intention of the UGB was in fact a pretty good compromise, and has rules and zoning doesn't really need to change. Just expand the UGB when we've hit our 20 year buildable supply threshold. Just a little bit, just occasionally.

    The whole idea of preserving critical farm land is such hot nonsense, as the great majority of property within 1 mile of the UGB tend to be single family homes, they're just on 3 to 5 acres. Over in North Bethany, well funny story that land used to belong to my friend's family and a whole bunch of rotten Enron executives. There used to be a shooting range for .22s right there. Wasn't ever farm land for generations, but McMansions and 90 acres of family land that grand-dad got when he left the Sicilian mafia back in the 1950's. And when you start looking around, we're not protecting farm lands anymore, we're mostly protecting McMansions.

    But this whole charade of "density" wouldn't work too well with an artificial restriction on buildable land that jacked up housing prices and making the developers super rich. So we gotta keep it up.

    Ironically though, all the available data makes it clear that this insistence on density and preventing sprawl for the good of the environment has undermined it's own goals. If we would have built out more homes in Oregon City, people would live there, but instead we built out Woodburn. If we would have built more homes in Damascus there'd be less people commuting from Hood River. For nearly a decade the fastest growing communities were rural towns that exploded in popularity, but the workers were commuting to Portland. Like 15% of Benton county commutes to Portland, many would happily relocate to a suburb closer to Portland, but we gotta prevent sprawl.

    And most laughable about this whole thing is that new construction would be "affordable." Like, we're going to make new construction a place for poor folks to experience prosperity: no car, expensive groceries, limited job options, high crime, and an unreliable transit system! We spend more constructing some of these apartments in the city core than it costs to build a new home in West Linn, Happy Valley, South Hillsboro, or Bethany.

  3. Nice little house across the street with a big tree in the backyard was dismantled and the tree cut down to make room for a 17-unit, no parking, minimum security jail cells (err I mean apartments). No building yet, just sitting there, but many others going up with the same M/O.

  4. Less than 2% of Oregon is developed for housing and under the current rules we won't surpass it this century. Sprawl is a boogey-man.

    If we decided that it would be laudable to reach 2.5% by 2050 and 3% 2100 all this forced density could be abandoned. Let cities loosen their UGB's and build neighboroods full of affordable homes with yards and garages.

    1. The ugb was said to force a more efficient use of land, back in the 1990s. That meant driving up densities and land, housing values. That meant also gentrifying cheaper housing, especially the single room occupancy hotels many homeless used to be able to afford. So we build expensive subsidized units instead of using a big supply to satisfy demand and push down costs. Can’t repeal the laws of supply and demand by regulation.

    2. You exaggerate. Only about 1/2 percent of Oregon land is developed for housing. All urban areas in Oregon cover less than 1.5 percent of the state, and residential areas are only about a third of urban areas.


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