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Compact and Sustainable Development - Portland Trip Report

Updated: Oct 20, 2019

A single family home in a quiet Portland neighborhood.

Reimagining a different future is very, very hard. It's hard because we may have seen a different outcome in the past when an experiment didn't turn out the way we'd have liked. It's hard because leaving the familiar and entering uncharted territory is scary. We are fearful of the imaginary worst case scenario. We are often forced to embrace a different future only after we run out of all other options.

Green New Deal is a case in point. The vast majority would have laughed it off just a few years ago - some still do - but more and more people are embracing it because they realize that the status quo leads to nowhere and incremental changes are no longer an option.

I believe we may have reached the same point for urban planning and development.

Portland at dusk.

If we want to protect 30% of the land and ocean by 2030 for biodiversity protection and natural carbon sequestration - which is increasingly a scientific consensus, we have to learn to fit the growing population in a smaller space. At the same time, as we rapidly decarbonize the electric grid, building and transportation emissions are going to dominate urban emissions and the problem is unmanageable with uncontrolled urban sprawl.

As demonstrated in California - the pioneer state in reducing carbon emissions - if we don't slow down the sprawl and allow more in-fill developments, we will get the double whammy of hitting the ceiling of emissions reduction and making homes unaffordable in urban areas. Given the longevity of buildings and the long lead time in urban and transportation planning, it's an issue we have to tackle now. We can’t delay until our electric grid is 100% green because by that time it will be too late.

I'm a "realistic optimist" - I know that we are in a pretty bad shape with climate, but between hope and despair, I choose hope. I don't think we have reached the tipping point yet but we must do all we can to avoid getting there. Doing all we can starts with re-imagining a different future and do what's necessary as required by science and supported by data.

With that in mind, I spent a week in Portland to learn about what they were doing with housing, transportation, and climate. I visited about a dozen organizations, checked out many sites, and talked to a lot of people. It was an amazing learning experience. It gave me hope.


Green Canopy - Market Rate Compact and Sustainable Development

Affordable housing is a tough problem. 1.2 billion people in the world are currently lacking adequate shelter. The climate crisis and migration is going to exacerbate the problem. It's a complicated issue that requires multifaceted solutions. Non-profits, for-profits, governments and grassroots groups can all play a role here. Ultimately, we need the right policies to help guide and scale up these efforts and create adequate long term solutions.

Meet Green Canopy Homes. They are a Seattle- and Portland-based impact focused development group building sustainable and affordable homes in urban infills. I toured a site with a small lot of 5,000 square feet. They deconstructed a single house on the lot and built 4 efficient condos in its place. Two of them are 3-br duplexes and two are 1-br detached ADUs. The quality of construction is excellent. The condos are 100% electric (no gas) and net-zero ready. It's in a walkable neighborhood close to town. They were able to sell these condos at a reasonable price because of the small footprints. I'd consider to live in one of these lovely, light-filled condos if I live in Portland!

I had long conversations with the founders, Aaron and Susan Fairchild, and I sympathize with their mission focus on climate as a certified B-Corp. They're still experimenting with different ideas and looking for ways to reduce the costs and scale things up quickly. The company has already built and sold more than 100 homes and many more are in the pipeline.

Green Canopy works closely with the communities and seeks neighborhood input and agreements before they start on a project. I hope more and more communities will consider the option of compact and sustainable development and open the door to environmentally conscious developers like them. I also hope that more developers will not just be driven by profit, but also by the desire to protect the planet. But above all, we can't count on the good wills of developers. We need good policies to not just allow but also guide in-fill developments to ensure that we will meet our sustainability and affordability goals.


Habitat for Humanity - Subsidized Compact and Sustainable Development

Not everybody can afford market rate housing, even for the small footprint homes. Subsidized homeownership programs help some low income families buy a home in Portland so they can live close to where they work and have access to high quality public education for their children.

For example, Habitat for Humanity of Portland/Metro East runs a homeownership program through partnership with the city, donors, volunteers, and prospective buyers. The prospective buyers are screened for income qualification and housing needs. Traditionally discriminated or displaced groups will receive a higher priority and as a result, 86% of the new homeowners last year were minorities.

The homeowners will still need to pay a mortgage - the revenue stream enables the Habitat to serve 3x as many families as they would otherwise be able to. Habitat reduces the construction cost by reusing building materials through Restore - Habitat's own material reuse center, recruiting more than 1,000 volunteers, and requiring a 300hr sweat equity investment of each prospective family. Habitat owns the land which is another reason why these homes are affordable.

Habitat offers educational classes for the owners, helps them with repairs, and even helps them sell their homes at some point so they can build up some equity through home ownership.

I visited one of their work sites in a low income neighborhood with a large latino population called Cully. 15 condos are being built as duplexes and triplexes. Each condo has a family photo of prospective buyers prominently displayed outside. These will all be Earth Advantage certified energy efficient homes. For low income families, energy efficiency is another key for affordability.

It was raining but the dozen or so volunteers and employees outside pushed on. It was great to see a community in action to help address affordability and gentrification issues.


Living Cully - Community Focused Affordable Housing Solutions

For those who can not afford to buy subsidized condos, there are other housing options available. The Cully Neighborhood offers two additional examples: mobile homes and subsidized rental condos managed by a Community Development Corporation.

The neighborhood has an interesting history of public-private partnership and community engagement. The heart and center of the neighborhood is a 25-acre community park that used to be a landfill. Ten years ago, Verde and Cully Association of Neighbors came together and worked with the City of Portland to turn the landfill into a beautiful community park. Verde's Jess Faunt took me on a tour of the park. The park has a very unique Native Gathering Garden to show respect for the original owners of the land and also to host events for native nations. There are playgrounds, sports fields, community gardens and habitat restoration areas in the park.

The groups also bought a lot nearby from a strip club (Sugar Shack) and shut it down. They renamed the site Las Adelitas, in honor of women freedom fighters during the Mexican Revolution. With support from the city, they are planning to build 141 units of affordable housing and community events space in Las Adelitas. These units will be managed by Hacienda CDC and remain affordable to qualified Cully residents.

In 2016, the neighborhood almost lost 30 affordable homes in a mobile home park. The community organized and rallied and won a city wide ordinance that protects more than 3,000 mobile homes from redevelopment, including those in Cully.

Cully Neighborhood now shares their community gardens, installs solar PVs with battery storage, hosts cultural events, promotes minority owned businesses, and trains residents with employable skills like habitat restoration and landscaping. In the time of climate crisis, in addition to mitigation efforts to prevent the worst from happening, we also need to develop neighborhood self-sufficiency and resiliency. The Cully neighborhood sets an inspiring example.


Cully Grove - Multigenerational Mixed Income Sustainable Co-housing

When I was in Portland, a few people referred me to a housing advocate and co-housing developer, Eli Spevak. Eli has developed a few intentional co-housing communities in Portland and is working on a few more. I met up with him in Cully Grove and was really glad that I did.

Cully Grove consists of 16 homes on 1.84 acres of land in the Cully Neighborhood. There are 9 buildings in total: 3 single family houses, 2 duplexes, 3 triplexes, and a common house with a guest room. It's designed to be a market rate, multi-generational and mixed income community. They have young families as well as retired couples. Homes are well insulated with in-floor heating, solar panels, solar hot water, etc. Homes and individual lots are not big, however, they share large common space in the center and on the side. In the shared space, they have beautiful community gardens, two chicken coops, playgrounds, a picnic area and an outdoor pizza oven. They host community events including breakfast club, potlucks, etc in the common house and outdoors. Parking spaces are located at the entrance of the community.

Communities like this are my dreams of the future. It's perhaps not for everybody, but I appreciate the simplified lifestyle, sense of community, and sharing of space. We are sharing more and more of our resources: Uber, AirBnB, co-working, car/bike/scooter sharing, etc, so why not share the common living space (and chicken coops, too)? If we learn to share the earth's limited resources more, perhaps one million species won't have to go extinct in the next few decades - possibly including our own. It’s easy to feel a sense of isolation when every family lives in a large house behind fences far away from each other and the isolation can be especially detrimental to kids. It takes a village to raise a kid and every kid needs a village. Kids in Cully Grove live in an urban village their parents worked hard to create.


Rebuilding Center - Deconstruction Not Demolition

Green Canopy Homes pointed me to the Rebuilding Center where they donated reusable materials to after deconstruction. People can buy these materials as well as used furniture at a discounted price from their 50,000 sf warehouse.

Portland was the first city in the country with a deconstruction requirement for homes. In 2016, it passed a city ordinance that required homes older than 1916 and all historical homes to be deconstructed instead of demolished - 1/3 of the homes applying for demo permit fell into that category. After the success of the program, the city is now planning to move the cutoff date up to 1940, which will cover another 1/3 of the homes applying for demo permit.

RC used to offer a deconstruction service - 20 years prior to the introduction of the city ordinance. However, it stopped the service in July as the for-profit sector has taken over after the city ordinance created a profitable market for deconstruction. Alexandra Ferrara of RC told me that they were very happy that a service they pioneered led to a policy change and the eventual adoption by the for-profit sector.

RC diverts over 1,800 tons of materials from landfill each year. It has gone a long way since it was started in 1997 by a group of neighbors who were concerned about waste. Now they employ more than 30 staff including a pickup crew of 5. They also use the help of more than 2,000 local volunteers. In addition to operating the warehouse, they also donate materials to other nonprofits, offer skills development workshops and educational programs for home repairs, etc.

One thing worth mentioning is that the median US single family residence size was under 1,000 sf before 1940. The older homes are not energy efficient or comfortable, and many of them will be replaced in the next few decades. Unfortunately, the median size of new single family residence has been growing consistently over the decades and it's now at over 2,500 sf. The new house will be at least 1.5x bigger overall unless we see the trend of new home size growth reverse. Allowing more compact development will help the median home size move toward the right direction.


Biking in Portland - Policy Matters

Portland is a friendly city for bikers. I used BikeTown when I was there - picked one up when I needed a bike and dropped it off when I was done or switched to a different mode of transit, e.g. to take the light rail.

In 1971, Oregon enacted a bicycle law that required the state to accommodate bicycling and walking on all new road projects. It also required the transportation agencies to spend at least 1% of the state highway fund to accomplish that goal. As a result, bikers and pedestrians are no longer afterthoughts for road projects - and thus less likely to become road casualties.

The bike bill was introduced by Republican Representative, Don Stathos, who was concerned that people were forced to use cars to go everywhere because biking was unsafe. It turned out to be foresightful to focus on bike safety. According to the Mayor of Copenhagen, Frank Jensen, in 2018: "If you want to create a biking city then you have to make it safe to go by bike, children learn to bike when they start going to school, they bike together with their parents, and when they grow up they continue biking."

Perhaps Portland isn't yet a "biking city" like Copenhagen but I felt very safe on a bike. Also, based on my observation, drizzles and even rain showers didn't seem to deter an army of Portlanders from going to work every day by bike.

To accommodate more urban density without sacrificing our comfort level and lifestyle, we will need to upgrade our infrastructure at the same time. Making the city more bike friendly is one of the things we can do because it will reduce vehicle traffic. We should also make the city more pedestrian friendly, improve public transit, transition to electric vehicles, provide e-bike credits, promote car sharing and reduce the amount of parking spaces, introduce congestion pricing, create more flexible zoning so retail shops and cafes can be located close to where people live, etc. The beauty of it is that increased density will make many of these changes viable, for example, there will be enough foot traffic to sustain a neighborhood cafe.


Housing in Portland - Moving Forward

The future of housing is a contentious topic in Portland as in many other urban areas in the US. Oregon Environmental Council's Sara Wright took me on a tour of a historical neighborhood close to downtown. The neighborhood is zoned single family residential even though it has many multifamily structures built before the zoning code took effect. Change is expected to come to the neighborhood soon.

Oregon's Governor has recently signed a bill (HB-2001) into law that effectively eliminated single family zoning in the state. The law is created to address the "missing middle" housing crisis (the lack of mid-range housing options) and will take effect in 2020. The bill was supported by environmental organizations including Climate Solutions (clean energy non-profit), Sightline Institute (sustainability think tank), 1000 Friends of Oregon (land conservation non-profit), as well as affordable housing organizations including Habitat for Humanity Portland/Metro East and Portland Housing Authority. It’s also supported by social justice organizations advocating for immigrants, refugees, and the homeless population.

A statewide housing alliance, Oregon Housing Alliance, advocated heavily for the bill. I had conversations with a number of organizations in the Alliance to understand their motivations. The environmental organizations advocated for the bill for sustainability and climate. They argue that smaller homes, shared walls and density-enabled public transit lead to smaller carbon footprint and less resource consumption per family. The affordable housing organizations advocated for the bill to address, well, the affordable housing issue. The social justice organizations advocated for the bill because they consider adequate shelter a human right and compact development will make more shelters available.

In a joint letter to the legislators, the Alliance stated: "Historically, single family zoning has been used to discriminate against people of color and people with lower incomes who may need to rent a home. Zoning laws were historically used as a tool to create communities for higher income people, which neither renters nor people of color could afford."

They made a compelling point from the social justice angle.

Portland has done a great job in the Cully Neighborhood to keep it affordable for low income families. It also provides affordable housing through nonprofits like Proud Ground, Habitat for Humanity, and many others. However, in order to really address affordable housing issue, it takes transformative changes that are made possible by bills like HB-2001. Oregon is the first state to move boldly forward with that. Perhaps it provides a blueprint for others to follow or at least an impetus to start the necessary discussions.


Union Station at dusk. Oregon is leading the way to address the interconnected issues of affordable housing, transportation, and climate.

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