While a dwindling supply of affordable housing continues to drive workers and their families out of Portland, draconian city planning and zoning restrictions are making it needlessly difficult for developers to build the types of diverse housing that could help alleviate the problem.

That’s the central premise behind a new advocacy group called YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) Portland, a group of real estate professionals, developers and others who believe decades-old rules intended to keep the riffraff out of wealthy neighborhoods are now threatening to transform the entire city into a de facto gated community for the rich.

With home and rent prices skyrocketing and an increasing percentage of Portland’s living space being taken up by wealthy vacationers and short-term rental operators, ordinances that restrict smaller dwellings, force homes to be spaced farther apart or mandate off-street residential parking right around the corner from a bus stop will only serve to accelerate gentrification, the group says.

City officials have been slow to enact needed planning and zoning reforms because they’ve been cowed into complacency by a small but vocal minority of well-to-do residents who fear growth and change, it says. The group encouraged residents who want more affordable housing to raise their voices.

“The facts are that downtown, they don’t really have the desire to increase housing,” said developer Ron Gan, president of Munjoy Hill Homes and a panelist at YIMBY Portland’s inaugural public meeting on Oct. 29. “They’re doing everything they can to create exclusionary zoning.”

Christine Grimando, Portland’s acting director of city planning and urban development, said the city has implemented various strategies to try to increase the supply of affordable housing, such as an inclusionary zoning ordinance and an affordable-housing trust fund backed by development and short-term rental fees.

Grimando disagreed with the notion that those efforts have borne little fruit and said Portland officials are working diligently on the problem, which is more complex than a simple matter of opening the floodgates to more housing supply.

“I think there’s been a lot of fruit,” she said. “Has it been enough to solve the problem? I think we all realize there’s still a genuine gap there that deserves our attention.”

Construction is underway on a complex of luxury condominiums in Portland. A new pro-development group is asking the city to review its zoning to allow for denser development — like apartment buildings without off-street parking — to help alleviate the city’s affordable housing problem. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

THE YIMBY MOVEMENT

Formed in October, YIMBY Portland is the youngest chapter of a loosely organized pro-development movement that has sprung up around cities such as Boston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where skyrocketing housing costs have dramatically outpaced median wage increases. YIMBY adherents, who define themselves as the antithesis of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) groups, lobby against rules and regulations that restrict development and tend to draw supporters from across the political spectrum, from social justice liberals to free-market libertarians.

A guiding principle of the YIMBY movement is that municipal planning and zoning restrictions imposed in the early to mid-20th century were designed to segregate minority, immigrant and low-income residents from wealthy white neighborhoods. Therefore, by perpetuating restrictions such as not allowing apartment buildings in neighborhoods of single-family homes, cities are in effect perpetuating racial and socioeconomic discrimination.

Nationally, the movement has made headlines in recent years by pushing for zoning reforms in states such as California and Massachusetts. In October, YIMBY proponents in Minnesota successfully lobbied the Minneapolis City Council to end single-family zoning restrictions throughout the entire city, despite allegations by critics that the policy change was essentially a gift to developers.

YIMBY Portland’s organizers include group leader Markos Miller, an independent business consultant, real estate broker Tom Landry, attorney and civic activist George Rheault, developer Timothy Wells, Munjoy Hill homeowner Carle Henry, Build Maine Chairwoman Kara Willbur and Libbytown Neighborhood Association Chairman Zachary Barowitz.

Miller said the group’s members don’t necessarily agree on a specific set of solutions to Portland’s housing affordability problem, but they all recognize the urgency of the crisis and the need for broader community engagement on the issue. He said the American dream is in danger of being snuffed out for working-class residents of Portland unless the city makes fundamental changes.

The goal is not to eliminate zoning rules altogether or paint any particular group as the villain, Miller said. What he favors are reasonable reforms designed to curtail rampant gentrification and facilitate the creation of a broader mix of housing types to accommodate all residents.

Miller said the city’s affordable housing crisis is serious and has caused real suffering for working-class residents. It’s clear that neither the free market nor the local government is going to solve the problem alone, he said, and residents concerned about inclusiveness and affordability need to get more involved in the process.

Construction of Hobson’s Landing goes on at 383 Commercial St. The new advocacy group called YIMBY Portland argues that city rules for new construction threaten to transform Portland into a virtual gated community for the rich. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Miller noted that it now takes roughly double the median income in Portland to afford a home in the city, and that the problem is only getting worse.

“There needs to be room for everyone, not just those who can afford the rising cost of entry,” he told a packed audience at the group’s first public meeting. “This is not an academic exercise … this is a call to action.”

FIXING THE PROBLEM

In Portland, where construction costs are high and undeveloped land is relatively scarce, any serious effort to boost the supply of affordable housing would need to involve removing city-imposed barriers to building smaller, more densely packed living spaces such as apartments and townhouses, said Eric Kronberg, an Atlanta-based architect and urban planning expert. Kronberg was the keynote speaker at YIMBY Portland’s inaugural meeting, titled “Priced out of Portland.”

He said the application of what are essentially suburban zoning principles to urban environments denies a broader diversity of residents the opportunity to live a highly desirable lifestyle in or near a walkable urban center. Urban planning should be about creating dense clusters of interspersed commercial, residential, entertainment, education and other components, Kronberg said.

Even in areas where the development of moderately priced apartments is allowed, onerous city rules can jack up the price of construction and make such projects economically challenging for developers, Kronberg said. That’s the case in Portland, he said, where city rules requiring off-street parking for new residential development don’t take into account existing street parking or carve out exceptions for projects with easy access to public transit.

In zones that allow multifamily construction but have strict off-street parking requirements, developers are much more likely to opt for high-end condominium projects because they can more easily incorporate the cost of off-street parking into the sale price, Kronberg said. He equated parking to a dangerous drug addiction and said cities need to go into rehab if they want urban housing to be affordable in the future.

“We legally require affordable housing for cars in America and then wonder why we don’t have affordable housing for people,” Kronberg said.

Gan, the Munjoy Hill developer, said Portland should try to capitalize on available land in industrial zones by opening it up for housing development. He said the corridor along Riverside, for example, would be ideal for housing, but it is prohibited under existing zoning rules.

Other members of the group agreed that Portland should change its rules to facilitate residential development in areas currently zoned for warehouse and industrial use.

“What’s the crisis? Is the crisis that we don’t have enough warehouse (space)? I don’t think so,” said Landry, the real estate broker. “Also, those businesses can go anywhere. … People who live in Portland can’t.”

Other proposed solutions included loosening restrictions on accessory dwelling units – secondary housing units that share a residential lot with a larger home. Kronberg said Portland should allow one attached and one freestanding accessory dwelling unit on each residential lot. The city’s current rules regarding such units vary by zone but don’t allow such liberal placement of accessory dwellings.

RECODE UNDERWAY

Grimando, the city planning director, said Portland is undertaking a total rewrite of its land use code. While the current phase is focused on streamlining the document for better ease of use and internal consistency, she said some substantive changes in land use policy are under discussion.

One of the items up for consideration is the city’s policy on accessory dwelling units, Grimando said, adding that inconsistently applied city rules for off-street parking also may prompt some policy changes.

Portland officials already increased the maximum allowable density for housing in some areas when they updated the city’s comprehensive plan in 2017, she said, but the change has not resulted in a flood of permit applications from developers seeking to build apartments.

“In some areas where we allow for additional housing, we haven’t seen the interest yet,” Grimando said.

Joseph McDonnell, professor of policy, planning and management at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, said Portland and other urban centers will need to come to terms with what is essentially a worldwide mass migration of people from rural areas and suburbs into cities.

McDonnell said steps such as increasing the allowable density of housing and maximum building heights can help accommodate more people affordably inside cities, but that the problem cannot be solved by zoning changes alone.

He said the most promising approach would be to identify urban corridors where population density could be increased to the extent that it becomes economical to add mass transit pathways to those corridors, and then create incentives to encourage development there. Possible candidates for growth corridors in Portland include Forest and Washington avenues.

Urban planning within those corridors should promote mixed uses, such as having stores and restaurants on the first floor of a building with housing units on upper floors, McDonnell said. The goal is to create walkable clusters within the corridors that support local businesses and provide for residents’ daily needs and lifestyles.

McDonnell said growing cities need to strike a delicate balance between population density and access to transit, while attempting to preserve the character of existing neighborhoods and respect the rights of longtime residents.

“Where you get the most pushback is if you’re going into a neighborhood that’s already established in a certain way, and you want to change it,” he said. “Especially when people are living in suburban (style) houses and you say, ‘We’re going to build something in your backyard to increase the density.'”

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