August 30, 2016

Portland Zoning Code Limits Affordability, Diversity and Design freedom

Conventional zoning is downright sinister in the ways that it forms a barrier against good urbanism. 
-Anthony Flint 

 Despite the best intentions and goals of zoning codes for cities in general and Portland in particular, it is clear that our current code is grossly complex, beneficial only for a few at the expense of the many, bogging down the permitting process, and vastly increasing the cost of new construction (making it impossible to build affordable homes without government subsidies, in a time of an affordable housing crisis). The purpose of codes should be to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Our current zoning code goes so far beyond those simple straightforward goals that it is a burdensome rule book without much benefit to the city or it’s residents. It often has racist roots, implemented to prevent certain people from living in certain neighborhoods, or creating land values that keeps the wealthy and low-income residents separated. Our zoning code is broken and not enough people are talking about ways to fix it.

 To address some of these issues, I believe we need to review our existing zoning code and streamline it significantly. It has to be easy to read and easy to understand for everyone - not just trained architects and the code reviewers in the Bureau of Development services. Even these “experts” are often wrong when interpreting the code or have different interpretations, further muddying the permitting process and giving people wrong or misleading information. When multiple people in the city permitting office interpret the rules differently something is terribly wrong.

Our zoning needs to be simple, clear, concise and be based on common sense, not layers of rules that have changed over time, adding more and more restrictions on what people can build. The majority of our existing building stock wouldn’t even meet our current zoning requirements. Most importantly, it needs to be universally applied in all neighborhoods and districts across the city. We don’t need any special neighborhoods and confusing overlays, rather we need one rule book for the entire city.

An example of the absurdity of our current rules is the small part of the zoning code that guides the design and construction of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). These code requirements don’t focus on health and safety of the building, but rather dictates what the building should look like - forcing designers to match the style of the existing house (regardless of the design quality of that house). This has absolutely nothing to do with protecting the health, safety or welfare of the public, and it actively prohibits property owners from designing and building a project that meets their stylistic preferences. It puts the desire of NIMBYism and the status quo over that of individual choice and innovation. This not only stifles creativity but also lengthens the review process and thus cost of projects for no beneficial reason. There is absolutely no legitimate reason that the zoning code should dictate the size or shape of a window, the siding material, the slope of a roof, trim size, etc. I could somewhat understand limitations on size, height and building within a property setback, but dictating style is just plane wrong.

Even property setbacks have questionable value. Yes, you could argue that they might prevent the spread of fire, or solar access for each property, or views. However, they also waste the usability of a vast area of land within our city. And by dictating minimum and maximum front setbacks the city limits the ability to create innovative new property layouts. Why does the house have to be in the middle of the property with both front and back yards? What if a property owner wanted to build a house against the rear setback (perhaps along an alley) and have a larger front yard for gardening or creating a green break in the street front? Would this be bad for their neighbors? Or conversely, why can’t we build right up to the front property line, where the spread of fire isn’t an issue? This would allow for larger contiguous backyards. It would also limit the distance we need to run plumbing pipes, electrical wires, driveways and other infrastructure. Even a savings of 10 feet, when multiplied by the thousands of houses built in the city would be a huge savings of cost and resources. This would also create a more European street feel where the sidewalks and building edges create an urban street that tends to be focused on pedestrians, rather than setback houses with driveways and garage doors more typically reminiscent of suburban developments. I would argue that Portland has too much of the latter and not enough of the former within the Urban Growth Boundary.

Further complicating the zoning code impact on our city is the ability for each neighborhood or some developments to impose further regulations as an overlay above and beyond regulations imposed by the city. Again, this limits an individual's right to use their property as they like. I had a client who wanted to build an ADU only to find out that the neighborhood where her parent’s property was and where the ADU was going to be built, had a rule against detached ADUs. This unnecessary regulation prevented her from building an affordable home for herself near her aging parents. Who does this benefit? Why does the city allow or support these sorts of cumbersome rules? It is clearly a case of wealthy individuals trying to prevent change and limit who and what can be built in their neighborhood. It is a restrictive rule that limits affordability, equity and freedom.

In a city with an urban growth boundary and a growing population it is ethically questionable to enforce single family residential zones, particularly R7, R10 and even R5 within the UGB. You can’t have a sustainable and affordable city without vastly increasing the density of our city. Density also creates a more vibrant and diverse place to live and helps small businesses and commercial streets thrive. At the very least, allowing for multiple units within existing houses, multiple ADUs (attached or detached) within a property, or tiny houses on wheels on residential lots should be allowed and even incentivized within Portland. We can’t give in to the loud voices of NIMBYism and wealthy people trying to protect their property values at the expense of everyone else. We need to think progressively and open up our zoning to allow for a wide range of buildings in all neighborhoods.
If we don’t just get rid of the zoning code altogether, I think we could simplify our city’s zoning code to have 2 zones: Industrial - meant for uses that are hazardous to human health, and mixed use - for everything else. At the same time this new zoning should be performance based rather than use based. Within the mixed use zone for instance there could be simple overlays that dictate performance aspects of a project that would impact the safety of the public. For instance, height limits for safety within the airport approach lanes, limits to how far shadows are allowed to encroach on adjacent properties, limits on the decibel level of noise at a given property line, or limit the measure of light overreaching the property line at night. By moving to a performance metrics, rather than a restrictive use metric, we can allow for more variety of uses within our city without drastically impacting the quality of life.

Even a form-based zoning, which is more concerned with building size and how they relate to each other to form a streetscape, rather than the use within the buildings, would be a huge improvement over the mess we currently have. For more information on Performance based Zoning check out this fantastic article: http://www.citylab.com/housing/2014/08/braving-the-new-world-of-performance-based-zoning/375926/. It is also worth becoming familiar with the Form-Based Code Institute: http://formbasedcodes.org/

Further, many people have to understand and accept that just because a single family residential neighborhood gets rezoned to allow for more uses doesn’t mean that all of the existing building stock will all of a sudden transform. Our single family residential neighborhoods will stay intact for generations. However, over time these neighborhoods will evolve into higher density neighborhoods, giving more people choice in where to live and making our city more affordable and equitable in the process. A city, like any organism, transforms over time and adapts to new needs, stresses, and influences. Residents have to accept and help guide change rather than fight it to preserve what is theirs at the expense of future generations.

These sorts of dense mixed-use neighborhoods are often the most desirable places to live in cities around the world. The alphabet district in NW Portland is a perfect example. There are small apartment buildings and condos interspersed with single family houses. There are small restaurants and cafes dotting the urban fabric. There are primary commercial streets and corner stores. This makes the streets vibrant, safe and the neighborhood more diverse. This same ambiance is seen in cities across America and around the world, and it usually representative of the neighborhoods that people want to visit and live in. However, our current laws prevent this sort of neighborhood from developing in any other part of the city. Why do we accept that as the best solution to our city? I know that I would much rather have my neighborhood in NE Portland off Alberta become a more more dense and diverse place to live.

I haven’t even gotten into the issues regarding parking requirements which further stifles affordability and forces people to spend money on building parking whether they want it or not. Again, this has nothing to do with the safety and health of the pubic and a rule that needs to be struck from books despite the complaints of our car centric neighbors. Parking should never be a requirement as it is a luxury, not a need. It can be suggested but if someone wants to build a house or development  without a garage or driveway why should the city say that it isn’t allowed? Not everyone owns a car or needs a parking space and we are forcing people to pay for them. (more arguments against parking requirements: http://usa.streetsblog.org/2016/06/06/americans-cant-afford-the-high-cost-of-parking-requirements/, and this one about how “poor people pay for parking even when they can’t afford a car”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/06/15/why-free-parking-is-a-big-problem/

Currently our zoning codes prohibit developments of neighborhoods that offer a range of housing types. They also increase the cost and time needed to build new developments. This does everyone a disservice and is indicative of over regulation to the detriment of urban quality. I think the Bureau of Development Services and our city council is failing our city by enforcing an overly complex zoning code that doesn’t benefit the majority of people. We need performance based regulations and a much simpler streamlined code that gives people choice and allows for creative developments and innovation within the city.

Here is an interesting white paper on issues caused by zoning: http://www-pam.usc.edu/volume1/v1i1a4s1.html#ottensmann_intro


Here is an article on “How Zoning Laws Exacerbate Inequality”:


Here is a great article focusing on the “Problems with Parking Requirements in Zoning Ordinances”: http://shoup.bol.ucla.edu/ProblemsWithParkingRequirementsInZoningOrdinances.pdf

“After about 1970, though, zoning’s negative economic effects began to grow. Before then, housing prices were more or less the same across the country. Since then, prices in the metropolitan areas of the Northeast and West Coast have risen much faster than in most of the rest of the nation -- in the process increasing inequality, thwarting residential mobility and slowing economic growth. Ever-tougher zoning rules and restrictions on growth appear to be a major cause. Fischel has a long list of explanations for this intensification of zoning that I won’t go into here, other than to mention the one that drives me the craziest -- the dressing-up of self-interested economic arguments in the language of environmentalism and morality.” 
 -https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-07-27/zoning-has-had-a-good-100-years-and-that-s-plenty

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