In Sellwood, the key to Portland’s new affordable housing program turns out to be … no parking

A proposed 89-unit building at SE 17th Avenue and Tenino, one block off Tacoma in Sellwood. Rendering: Myhre Group Architects via Portland Bureau of Development Services.

This is a guest post from the blog of Portland for Everyone, which covers housing abundance, diversity and affordability in Portland.

Which is more important to the future of Portland:

  1. homes that are affordable to lower-income people, or
  2. storage for upper-income people’s cars?

The question doesn’t get much starker than with two new buildings proposed last week in Sellwood and nearby Moreland, close to the Willamette River in southeast Portland.

If they move forward as proposed, the two apartment buildings — one with 89 homes, the other with 54 — seem to be the first fruits of the inclusionary housing ordinance approved by the city council in December.

Depending on how the design works, the buildings could add as many as 29 new apartments that would rent for as little as older apartments east of 136th Avenue do today.

The new homes would be in the walkable, relatively transit-rich Sellwood-Moreland area, less than half a mile from the new Orange MAX Line and the Springwater Corridor bike path into downtown. Their affordability would be guaranteed for 99 years.

Here’s the tradeoff: in order to afford the lower-rent units, the buildings would have to be built with no on-site parking.

Every underground parking space costs $550 per month in additional rent

Parking garages are expensive, especially underground garages like the ones UDG had previously proposed for the Sellwood area. As of 2013, each underground parking space added $55,000 to the cost of a building, which translates to about $550 per month that comes ultimately from rent payments in the new building.

The city council’s decision last November to waive parking requirements for apartment buildings that participate in the inclusionary housing program was one of the crucial offsets intended to prevent the program from halting new development.

If the two new “early assistance” requests filed last Tuesday by Urban Development Group is any indication, that plan is working.

UDG already owns the land on both sites. The building at 17th and Tenino would go onto the site of a drive-in restaurant:

A new building here would have 89 apartments if it sets aside some homes for lower-income Portlanders, or 79 apartments if it includes on-site parking instead.

The building at Milwaukie and Yukon would be on the site of this house:

A new building here would have 54 apartments if it sets aside some homes for lower-income Portlanders, or 47 apartments if it includes on-site parking instead.

Here’s are the notes from city staff summarizing the request from the would-be developer, spotted Monday by Iain MacKenzie of NextPortland.com:

In other words, the developer doesn’t have to include units affordable to lower-income people in his buildings, because both projects were green-lighted before the city’s new inclusionary housing rule took effect. But if including low-rent units means he doesn’t have to include on-site parking, then including the low-rent units could actually make the building more valuable.

Which is to say: because of the city’s new rules, a developer is now asking to build homes for lower-income people instead of storage for higher-income people’s cars.

A good tradeoff for tenants and the environment, housing advocates say

Vivian Satterfield, standing at right, at a 2016 workshop in support of inclusionary housing.

Vivian Satterfield, deputy director of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregonand a leading advocate for the city’s inclusionary housing requirement, welcomed the proposals in an interview Monday.

“Having access to public transportation, being in walkable communities, actually benefits us all, including those of us who have multiple vehicles,” said in an interview Monday. “These are things that should be afforded to lower-income folks.”

If that means that parking a car in central Sellwood gets a little more annoying, she suggested, so be it.

“There are tradeoffs,” Satterfield said, adding that as she spoke she was looking across a “sea of parking lots” along 82nd Avenue.

Tony Jordan of Portlanders for Parking Reform agreed.

“This request is a win-win for affordability and our environment,” Jordan said in a text message. “We hope that other developers will choose the same route.”

David Mullens, a project manager for Urban Development Group who is managing the proposals, declined a request to discuss the projects.

This is only a request for advice from the city’s permitting staff; it’s entirely possible that UDG will decide to pursue its other plan instead. Whatever happens, we’ll be watching this example closely. It could be the first sign of big things for Portland.

Portland for Everyone blogs about how to get abundant, diverse, affordable housing. You can follow it on Twitter and Facebook or get new posts by email a few times each month.

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