Opinion: Allowing homes on smaller lots will help ease housing crisis
By Justin Wood and Ezra Hammer | Wood is vice president of construction and owner of Fish Construction NW. Hammer is director of policy and government relations at Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland
The Portland region is currently staggering through another year of an unprecedented housing crisis. With prices creeping ever skyward, our families, friends, and neighbors find themselves living in the precarious world of housing unaffordability. These rising costs are having significant ripple effects across our city, leading to increased homelessness, declining home ownership and depressed activity in other parts of the economy.
In response to the crisis, House Speaker Tina Kotek and the Oregon Legislature recently passed a robust package of pro-housing measures, including Senate Bill 534. The bill reaffirms the right to build homes on legal lots – even if they are smaller than the 5,000-square foot lots that became standard. The bill has the effect of opening up thousands of platted lots for new homes in Portland neighborhoods, and was a direct response to the 2016 call from City Hall to ban housing on lots under 3,000 square feet or 36 feet wide.Share your opinionSubmit your essay of 500-700 words on a highly topical issue or a theme of particular relevance to the Pacific Northwest, Oregon and the Portland area to [email protected] Please include your email and phone number for verification.
In short, when Portland looked to restrict housing due to concerns over yard sizes, Salem called an audible and moved to support homes for our lower income residents, new families and aging Oregonians.
Thankfully, the city’s Planning and Sustainability Commission and the City Council, with new leadership, have also come to recognize the importance of permitting smaller houses on smaller lots. Affectionately known as “skinny houses,” they represent the new Portland starter home and are accessible to both first-time homebuyers and working-class families.
Home prices reflect a number of independent variables that are difficult for local leaders to control. The Great Recession led to a deficit in skilled construction workers in the Northwest, the president’s tariffs are increasing the costs of building materials and an influx of new residents causes land prices to soar. One factor that they can control however, is the amount of land required to accommodate a home. Indeed, the easiest way to reduce the cost of housing is to allow for more of it – and reducing lot size requirements does just that.
An extremely promising feature of the Residential Infill Project, Portland’s plan for updating residential zoning policies, is its embrace of SB 534. The city plans to rezone half of the “skinny” parcels to allow development of detached homes with restrictions and requirements appropriate to these smaller lot sizes. The remaining parcels will allow attached townhouses. Complying with SB 534 will create the opportunity to build new, smaller scale housing.
Coupled with waivers of system development charges and tax abatement, smaller lots allow builders to sell homes to those making less than the area’s median income. With these tools, City Hall is able to produce an incredible return on investment. By forgoing a limited amount of tax dollars, the city gains high-quality, naturally occurring affordable housing. Because these homes do not require additional public subsidies, even these modest investments lead to housing for our most vulnerable neighbors!
Home ownership leads to positive knock-on effects, including building intergenerational wealth, opening up lines of credit
, and helping families remain in their communities. As we consider the Residential Infill Project – which will be before the City Council this fall – recognize how these effects will benefit younger Portlanders and those with less means. A home is a home, regardless of its size, and with “skinny” lots we can help ensure that more people have access to the wonderful benefits of home ownership in Portland.