The Long Road to Portland's Historic Residential Infill Project

How the journey of one zoning reform campaign can inform future efforts.

August 16, 2021, 8:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


When Portland requested public comment on its residential infill project in early 2020, "the in-person public commentary came to 106 in favor of pro-housing reform and 30 opposed," signaling overwhelming support for a frequently controversial form of rezoning, writes Michael Andersen. Thanks to the work of a vast network of community activists, planners, developers, and city staff, the proposal gained the support needed to make Portland one of the nation's first big cities to begin reversing the status quo of single-family zoning

"The result was an unprecedented reform, legalizing up to four homes by right on almost any residential lot," permitting three-story buildings, and eliminating residential parking requirements in an effort to create more affordable housing in the city. "Portland’s most optimistic projection of the short-term impact comes out to 1,200 net additional homes per year, enough to increase the city’s annual housing production by roughly 20 percent," which could amount to a 12 percent reduction in the median rent.

Andersen's article details the eight situations when the reform could have died. These include NIMBY resistance, a lack of representation in initial community input, displacement disputes, and other scenarios that typically doom such initiatives to failure. "Whatever may or may not get built, there is no question that this reform’s unlikely five-year journey to passage offers political lessons for similar cities pursuing zoning and policy changes."

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