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RIPSAC, and Air BnB - two items stirring controversy at City Hall

In articles in THE BEE lately, primarily in stories about the debate over the Eastmoreland Historic District proposal, you have seen curious initials bandied about: RIPSAC. It sounds pretty violent. What does it mean? Well, the first three letters stand for "Residential Infill Project"…

The acronym is tied to the ongoing city effort to increase residential density without stirring up a hornet's nest of resident opposition. In planning for future residents, who are projected to move to Portland en masse in the next quarter century, the city has been trying to find ways of allowing more apartment houses; Sellwood-Westmoreland is suddenly inundated with them – with over 1,000 apartment units squeezed into the neighborhood in just the past twelve months, and more on the way. Larger houses have been permitted in residential areas than many residents feel are appropriate for the existing scale of many neighborhoods. Addressing this objection seems to have given the city a pretext to cram even more housing units into neighborhoods than they are zoned for! In exchange for reducing the scale of new houses in residential areas, the Residential Infill Project committee is proposing – and the city has been on a fast track to accept – a plan to permit duplexes all over the place, and triplexes on street-corner lots.

More ADUs – Accessory Dwelling Units – would also be encouraged, too, even though Multnomah County uses them as a pretext to crank up your property taxes. The city does not like that, but there is not a lot it can do about county tax assessment policy.

If you want to know more about this plan, you'll find it online: www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/71816

The fall comment period on this has passed – but among the neighborhoods submitting testimony (as reported, throughout the process, in the "SMILE newsletter", which also appears on the editorial page of this newspaper) was the Sellwood-Moreland Improvement League, which is the neighborhood association for Sellwood and Westmoreland. Here are some points made by SMILE… The City should consider the following principles when deciding how to change zoning to increase density:

1. Develop neighborhood scenarios for future housing demand. Consider the demand for housing created by population growth and the paradigm that more supply is needed to increase affordability. A simple scenario is to start with the Growth Scenarios Report estimate of 20,000 new households in Southeast Portland by 2035. Sellwood-Moreland has 8.1% of the land area of Southeast Portland. Therefore, if growth is uniformly distributed in Southeast, Sellwood-Moreland would grow by 1,620 households.

2. Estimate how much growth can be accommodated with existing zoning, property turnover, and construction rates in each neighborhood. This should be a holistic approach that considers commercial, accessory dwelling units (ADUs), and existing multifamily and single family zones. For example, there are at least about 1,233 units presently under development in our neighborhood, a 21% increase from the total number of units in 2014.

3. If additional density is needed, introduce it gradually. Establishing a minimum density for all residential zones, such as proposed for the R2.5 zone, is a way to increase density without increasing the maximum density that could be built. Phase in the additional density by allowing only one additional unit per lot and years later evaluate supply, demand, and infrastructure resilience before increasing density further.

The SMILE testimony concludes, "In summary, we oppose the housing choice proposals because there is insufficient justification to tremendously increase the density of our neighborhood. A better approach would be for the City to downscale citywide estimates of growth to the neighborhood level so we can evaluate the impact growth will have on our neighborhood and estimate how much growth the neighborhood can accommodate. If density has to be increased, do so gradually and in a neighborhood-friendly manner. We support the housing scale proposals which would help ensure that future residential development preserves the character and livability of our neighborhood and believe that a floor-area-per-unit cap is needed in R2.5 zones to prevent construction of oversized houses."

These comments were drafted by the SMILE Land Use Committee (David Schoellhamer, Chair) in public meetings, and approved by a public vote of the SMILE Board of Directors October 19, 2016. It will be interesting to see what consideration, if any, the city gives to this and other testimony from the 95 recognized neighborhood associations around Portland. You will also find a very pointed and persuasive economic critique of the city's economic rationale for all this at the head of this month's "Letters" column in THE BEE – an argument that also was submitted as testimony to the city.

Incidentally, in a related effort, the city has been considering removing all requirements for providing parking as part of building larger apartment houses, in the fear that this requirement could be constraining the size of apartment buildings. SMILE submitted testimony urging that the city update its parking and transit plans before considering removing any parking requirements for developers of apartment buildings.

Owners on notice: Short-term home rental rules to be enforced

Meantime, the city has finally shaken itself awake on a matter we discussed in two editorials over a year ago, here in THE BEE. We reported on Westmoreland homeowner Judy Yamada, who built a rental cottage on her property fronting S.E. Reedway Street. She slogged through the city permitting process, built the cottage to specifications approved by the city, hired a rental agent, passed city inspections, and offered it as a Bed-and-Breakfast rental. It cost her a great deal of money in city paperwork (and delays in the approval process at various points) to get to the point where she could rent it to short-term guests. As we reported, when she looked around and observed other homeowners signing up with "Air BnB" to rent rooms in their homes – and not having to adhere to the same rigid rules that she had to, and without having to pay the thousands of dollars she did, to gain city approval; and noting that the city was not actually enforcing the rules that did apply – she complained in writing to the city.

The city's response to this was rather nasty. It was to come out and re-inspect her cottage, which led to their prohibiting her from renting it, because they now felt the second-floor ceiling was slightly short of the minimum height (even though they had previously approved it).

Her response to that, submitted as a Letter to the Editor of this newspaper, was to announce she was selling the property and moving out of Portland, which the proceeded to do. We were sad to see her go. Now, even though the rules pertaining to Air BnB users are still far lighter and more flexible than they are for those who choose to add rental housing through the established city permitting process as Judy Yamada did, the city has at last bestirred itself to try to tighten the rules a bit, and enforce the rules that DO apply to them. The city has proposed a new rule: "Under the proposed Accessory Short Term Rental Enforcement Administrative Rule, property owners will not have [the existing] 30-day compliance period, and will be issued citations of $1,000-$5,000 per occurrence. Citations may be issued for each day of continued violation. Citations may be reviewed administratively, and then appealed to the Code Hearings Officer. The Code Hearings Officer may request additional documentation including, but not limited to, bank records, relevant tax records, and information from online platforms, as a basis for their decision.

"Any violation of PCC 33.207 would be subject to the rule, including but not limited to, operating an accessory short term rental without a required permit, renting out more bedrooms than allowed by a permit, allowing more than 5 overnight guests, or utilizing a property as an accessory short term rental without [there being] a primary long-term resident [living there]."

The previous more permissive rules were ignored by a large number of property owners in Portland. It will be interesting to see just how stricter rules, and some actual enforcement, will fare.