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  • 22 Nov 2014

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Developers changing fabric of neighborhoods

My View: Real estate gold rush hurting community diversity, livability


We are heartsick this morning.

At 6:30 a.m., a lovely, healthy oak that was at least 150 years old was cut down in the backyard of yet one more house being flipped in our neighborhood, the Rose City Park/Alameda/Beaumont area.

Why? Because the original 1,000-square-foot house, recently sold to a developer, was being “remodeled” (read destroyed and rebuilt) on its 50-by-100-foot lot to create yet another monster house, which we not-so-lovingly call another McMansion.

This neighborhood, up to this point, has enjoyed a diversity of housing. Although it is in a favored location (Grant/Beaumont/Alameda schools), it has smaller, “starter” houses, medium-size houses, and larger houses, most built around 1920. Until now, a family just starting out with modest means could afford to buy in our neighborhood. That is changing rapidly.

Many of us in the area are increasingly distressed by the speed at which such development is occurring, changing the nature of the neighborhood we have lived in and loved for so many years.

A handful of developers are gobbling up the smaller houses at a heart-stopping rate. Individual homebuyers have to compete with developers to buy something they can afford, and home sellers trying to preserve the neighborhood are having to pressure their real estate agents to sell to families instead of developers.

The result is that many smaller houses (1,200 to 2,000 square feet) are being flipped and turned into huge houses — some with style, some not, ranging in size up to 5,000 square feet, with up to five bedrooms and three or four baths.

Are they being sold to families with seven children? No, they are being sold to small families; even empty-nesters. They are meeting energy-efficient standards (LEED homes), so on the face of it they use less energy than the original homes.

This represents a market trend, one that needs to be looked at carefully for its impact on diminishing resources. How energy efficient is it really for small families to live in so much space? The original homes, lived in for the past 90 years by typically larger families of the time, in fact, could have been retrofitted, kept the same footprint or slightly larger, and been three times as efficient as a 5,000-square-foot house with the same energy efficiency. Developers and the City of Portland encourage this waste; two or three people now live in a house four times the original size.

This impacts groundwater runoff, tree coverage, solar access and green spaces, all of which can impact our city in deeply long-range ways, which is something the city needs to refocus on.

But this is only one part of the problem. There is a social impact as well. Where do people live who want smaller, affordable houses?

Not here. They have to look farther and farther away from the amenities of the nearer neighborhoods. This level of flipping is a feeding frenzy that reveals both the developers and the city of Portland policies to be tone-deaf to the needs of average-income homebuyers, and the feel of the neighborhoods that are being affected. Instead, the city of Portland and developers pander to a higher-end market at the expense of “average” buyers.

We can’t dictate how much space people take up, any more than we can dictate what kind of car they buy. We can only suggest and encourage, in the spirit of sustainability, to look at the impact of the living spaces they choose.

It does make sense in terms of sustainability to preserve and encourage housing for downsizing, so we can reduce our environmental footprint. Why not create incentives to encourage developers involved in renovation to maintain the same physical footprint (or increase it to be slightly larger, instead of ballooning it to four times the original size), and retrofit the houses to be energy efficient in the same way that they are building the big megahouses? In this way we could give a larger number of people real sustainable and affordable choices, while preserving our yards as “mini-green spaces,” so we are not totally engulfed in large structures.

And this brings up another point to consider — turning small houses into large monster ones takes away what little green space and sunlight there is in a 50-by-100-foot lot, especially for those who live to the north of it. Gardens are being shaded, and the loss is both financial and emotional. Solar installations may be rendered unusable.

Years ago, solar rights were to be had; now only covenants between neighbors are possible. Shading a solar installation is like cutting a power line. The loss is in the thousands of dollars, considering initial investments and loss of ongoing savings. Since solar installations are only going to increase on rooftops, sunlight needs to be protected as a valuable resource, both for homeowners and for the city as a whole.

What to do? We are caught in a gold rush. Developers, encouraged by the city’s incentives, flip houses and line their pockets at the expense of the existing community, with its various economic levels, and at the expense of that community’s sustainability.

We suggest the city revisit solar rights; consider limits to house-size increases in flipping; encourage developers to retrofit existing homes to make them more energy efficient; and protect the availability of modestly priced housing within a community.

Annette Carter and Frank Granshaw have lived on Northeast 50th Avenue for 22 years.  They raised a son in the neighborhood and are empty nesters, enjoying being grandparents and hanging out with the neighbors.