Portland gets serious about housing by slashing red tape

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Every mandate and regulation comes at a cost. On January 31, after a year of study and debate, the Portland City Council approved a sweeping regulatory relief package relaxing over a dozen requirements for housing developments.

“The proposals, brought by Commissioner Carmen Rubio, would reduce bike parking requirements, allow residential units on the ground floor, relax rules for architectural reviews and temporarily suspend some requirements to hold neighborhood meetings in the areas where they want to build,” reported the Oregonian.

As noted by Commissioner Rene Gonzalez during the council’s Jan. 17 meeting, “The fundamental point here is not the incremental costs of any one of these requirements, it’s really the death by a thousand cuts.” The changes have since gone into effect, starting March 1.

Perhaps the highest profile of the changes is the reduction in bike parking requirements. In 2019, the Portland City Council approved changes to the city’s zoning code requiring large developments to include a dedicated bicycle parking room as well as spaces for larger cargo bikes.

In 2023, the city surveyed home builders to identify their top five list of city zoning regulations in need of suspension or modification in order to boost housing production. The bicycle parking mandate topped the list.

“[When] over prescribed, bicycle parking can lead to the creation of expensive unused space in new apartments, which decreases the floor area available for dwelling units and thus leads to higher rental prices,” explained the Revitalize Portland Coalition in October 2023 in written testimony to the city’s planning commission. “As with vehicle parking, the development community, and the market generally, are best suited to determine the appropriate amount of bicycle parking per dwelling unit.”

In one example, city officials explained that the bicycle parking mandates could add upwards of $8,000 in additional costs per housing unit. The changes adopted by the city include a temporary reduction in the per-unit bicycle parking mandate from 1.5 to 1.0 and also temporarily provides a reprieve from larger cargo bike storage requirements. According to BAE Urban Economics, these changes could lower overall project costs by about 1%.

Groups like the Home Building Association of Greater Portland also testified that having to make space for often underutilized bike parking rooms means developers have to forgo additional housing units.

To Gonzalez’s point, these might be comparatively small impacts, but every mandate piles up over time. Among the other changes included in the regulatory relief package are changes freeing developers of larger projects from mandates banning ground floor residential units and requiring higher ceilings and large windows.

“This prohibition led to the recent loss of 12 ground floor market rate and Inclusionary Housing units in a project in Portland’s inner east side,” the home builder groups told the city. “These units would have faced a private plaza instead of the street, but were prohibited by current code requirements.”

Reflective of how unruly Portland’s protests can be, notes the Revitalize Portland Coalition, “windows are extremely costly and large windows serve as a frequent target for vandalism, particularly in downtown.” Estimated savings from the temporary waiving of these rules are expected to be as much as 3.5% per project. And, of course, it’s expected to permit builders to plan for more units.

While these and other changes are likely to yield incremental benefits over time, the city did punt on some other ideas that came up over the last year for regulatory relief. Gonzalez proposed temporarily lifting current mandates requiring eco-roofs on projects that are over 20,000 square feet and mandates in part of the city requiring bird-safe glazing on the windows of housing developments.

Both can be quite costly. According to Oregon Smart Growth, windows with bird-safe glazing are twice the cost of normal windows. With these costs passed down to renters, that mandate could cost as much as $700 per year in higher rents.

“The requirement for bird-safe glazing in particular is one that puts Portland at a competitive disadvantage when seeking to attract capital; simply put, investors will look to markets with fewer novel and costly regulations,” Oregon Smart Growth argued.

While the city did slightly tweak its eco-roof requirement, that change isn’t expected to yield much in the way of savings. The city is now allowing developers to opt for solar panels instead of eco-roofs. But that option is probably more expensive than eco-roofs, so while it gives some flexibility, it isn’t much.

Opined Commissioner Gonzalez after his proposed temporary suspensions of those mandates were rejected, “At some level in the city of Portland we’re going to have to have the tough conversation: Are we truly, honestly committed to creating the supply in the region? And time and time again whether at the city or the state level we haven’t gone far enough.”

Indeed, while Portland’s regulatory relief package will probably help encourage development, especially when taken together with the upcoming streamlining of the city’s permitting processes, there is still work to be done.

Portland, like many cities across the country, needs to repeal as many barriers to housing construction as possible. That’s the only way to really tackle the housing crisis in a sustainable and effective fashion.

Sal Rodriguez is opinion editor for the Southern California News Group and a senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of Dynamism or Decay? Getting City Hall Out of the Way, published by the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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