A tech-boom, soaring real estate prices, and a very tight vacancy rate are causing the city climate of Portland to seem very similar to its neighbor to the north, Seattle. In an attempt to avoid the housing crisis playing out in the West Coast’s premier tech hub, San Francisco, Portland’s city planners are looking to Seattle, and specifically to Ballard, for innovative ways to preserve affordability. Yet, Seattle’s response to its booming population growth has not been universally applauded, especially in Ballard.
The city of Portland is particularly interested in Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA). The two major components of the agenda are an Affordable Housing Impact Mitigation Program, which requires developers to pay a fee on all new commercial development that directly funds the construction of affordable housing, and a Mandatory Housing Affordability Program, which requires builders to designate five to eight percent of units in new multifamily residential developments as affordable.
While most, if not all, of Seattle residents, can agree that affordable housing is a critical issue, backlash against HALA developed when an unfinished draft of recommendations was leaked to the press in July of 2015. Among the recommendations was a proposal to increase density in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. Neighborhood density is a hotly contended issue, especially in the wake of Seattle’s 2010 land use code change for low-rise multifamily zoned areas. Many urbanists, as well as developers and builders, argue that increasing density is the only way to provide sufficient housing units for the growing city. Neighborhood activists and preservationists argue that new out-of-scale development is irreparable changing the unique character of the city’s residential neighborhoods.
Density is a particularly sensitive issue in Ballard. Livable Ballard, a neighborhood advocacy organization argues that “under the code changes, modest and affordable houses and duplexes are being torn down and replaced with tall, expensive groups of three or four townhouses, which tower over the existing houses and sidewalks and are not at all compatible with the neighborhood.” Furthermore, the group argues that the type of new development being seen in Ballard is particularly worrisome as the neighborhood is already poorly served by mass transit. Neighbors are also concerned by the aesthetic implications of new development. Chris Bodan, who moved to Ballard in 2004, described the new apartment buildings being constructed in the neighborhood to the Oregonian as “aesthetically and architecturally horrendous.”
Despite opposition from neighborhood groups, Seattle’s City Council passed the Affordable Housing Impact Mitigation Program component of HALA last fall and will be soliciting public feedback on the rest of plan this year. Meanwhile, Portland is in the midst of rewriting its own plans for growth and infill and while a HALA-like collation has not formed, city officials have said much about the need for affordable housing. Portland’s mayor, Charlie Hayes, however, has garnered much criticism from affordable-housing advocates for his support to preserve the low density of the city’s residential neighborhoods.
Hayes’ desire to preserve residential neighborhoods, best seen in his recommendation to reduce the allowable density in the affluent residential neighborhood Eastmoreland, is felt throughout the city. One merely has to scan the comment section of the Willamette Week to find an overwhelming number of diatribes against the city’s new apartment buildings. Yet, there is also consistent public outcry over increasing rents and real estate prices.
The current affordable housing conflict occurring across west coast cities has many wondering if historic low-density neighborhoods have the ability to accommodate the type of growth the region is seeing? Looking at Ballard, one might presume no.