Portland’s Plan to Limit McMansions in Favor of Affordability

  • Across the U.S, growing cities and urban areas are grappling with an affordability crisis caused by explosive growth in both property values and rent levels.
  • The city of Portland, best known for its unique character and “weirdness” might have had one of its biggest and best ideas: the “residential infill project.”
  • Portland’s housing market is not immune to the national trend of soaring home prices.
  • Portland for Everyone’s Michael Anderson found that property tax records show an alarming spread, over the last four years, of homes valued at $400,000 or more—enough to make them unaffordable to 59% of Portlanders, according to the latest Census estimates.
  • Take a look at the following gif to see the proliferation of expensive homes.
  • The wave of price increases isn’t just tied to construction or demolition. It’s occurring in new houses and old ones, in neighborhoods that are adding homes and in neighborhoods where adding homes isn’t allowed.
  • Why is this happening?
  • When a city gets more desirable but isn’t allowed to add more housing capacity, this is what happens: the old homes don’t stay affordable.
  • They’re either remodeled, or simple economics comes into play, and the shortage of overall housing pushes up prices, pushing out middle-income families.
At $400,000, 59% of Portland households are excluded from home ownership. Many houses in these areas are now well over $400,000. Animated map by Mike Sellinger.
At $400,000, 59% of Portland households are excluded from home ownership. Many houses in these areas are now well over $400,000. Animated map by Mike Sellinger.
  • It might seem heavy-handed from a regulatory perspective, but one of the things Portland and other similar cities need to do is to prevent that remodel and get more of the city’s capital invested in projects that prevent displacement rather than enable it.
  • Portland has an opportunity to strike an anti-McMansion compromise and shrink the maximum size of new homes (which would reduce demolitions) while also legalizing duplexes, triplexes, and backyard cottages (which would mean that the demolitions that do happen would result in more small homes instead of fewer, huge, expensive ones).
  • Anderson points out that while newly built duplexes would be a lot cheaper than newly built McMansions – 431,000 vs. 750,000 – they’re still too expensive for many.
  • He and others suggest a more radical approach is needed, including an expansion of the proposed legislation to the whole city, legalization of other types of flexible infill, and further upzoning.
  • On December 7th, the Portland City Council will vote on the legislation outlined above.
  • For further reading on ways the global housing affordability crisis can be tackled, check out what’s going on in Tokyo, Houston, and Berlin.

Feature image by the City of Portland.

Author: Nicholas Efthimiadis

Seattle grown. Avid skier and occasional ski racer. Passionate about all things urban (particularly transportation & housing). University of Washington 2016 graduate: BA in Economics and a minor in Urban Design and Planning. Extensive experience in fictitious cartography and sand-city molding.

Tagged with: