House Demolitions and "the Art of the Possible"

Politics has been called "the Art of the Possible", and this has been in vivid display in the effort by the grass roots organization United Neighborhoods for Reform (UNR) to better regulate and slow down the pace of demolitions of single family homes - currently exceeding 300 per year.

You can watch a UNR video showing how demolitions are affecting neighborhoods:

As a member of the ICA's Land Use Committee who is volunteering as a member of the UNR steering committee, I've been a close observer of the work the group has done since its formation in the summer fo 2014.

The City Council is preparing to vote on a package of changes to city code that are backed by UNR - but not without considerable misgivings from UNR. You've likely heard or read some recent coverage of the "epidemic of demolitions" affecting many Portland neighborhoods. So what's the City Council voting on, and how does it affect Portland's neighborhoods?

The package the Council will adopt was developed by city officials with heavy lobbying by UNR that was only partially successful in countering political pressure by the home building industry. There are four key changes being adopted:

  1. A 35-day delay will be imposed on all residential demolitions. Prior to this change, a demolition involving a replacement by another single family house required no notice or delay - with the result that neighbors might come home from work and find the house next door gone and there own property covered with demolition dust and debris. 
  2. Notice will be required for all demolitions and "virtual" demolitions - the latter newly defined as "major remodel". This means that nearby neighbors and the neighborhood associations will be notified by mail of the impending demolition and will have time to prepare for the inevitable disruption it will cause.
  3. A definition of "demolition" is established which is more stringent than the informal one applied previously. Under the old rules, a house could be demolished down to a partial basement wall, a new house built with that wall included, and the result was called a "remodel". The new rules include not only a definition of "demolition" but one for "major remodel" in which most of the house is removed and the house altered beyond recognition.
  4. During the 35-day delay the neighborhood association or "any interested party" can apply to the city for a 60-day mandatory delay in the demolition to seek an alternative such as moving the house, or purchasing and rehabilitating it. The rules are strict for granting the delay, with the result that this delay provision is much more restrictive than previous rules.

While UNR is supporting these changes, the last one on demolition delay has caused a lot of debate, with many neighborhoods demanding a longer delay period and more flexibility in the rules for granting it. On the other side were the home builders who fought against any kind of delay beyond 35 days, and really didn't even want the 35-day delay. "Possible" was the best way to describe the compromise that resulted. The City Council has promised a full-scale review of the new rules in 18 months, and we hope that will give us a chance to fix any major problems that surface between now and then.

Does this solve the demolition problem? Absolutely not. The new rules simply alleviate some of the worst problems with the current system. Big issues remain: 

  • Older houses (the average age of a house demolished in Portland is 87 years) contain significant amounts of hazardous materials including lead-based paint and asbestos. With current demolition practices and the near total lack of regulation of hazardous materials at demolition sites in Oregon, studies have found these highly toxic material can be scattered as far as 300 feet from the site. UNR is working with the City Council on recommendations for new regulations to contain hazardous wastes from demo sites.
  • Portlanders object as much to what is being built after a demolition as they do to the demolition itself. Typically, the replacement houses are 2.4 times as big and cost 2.3 times as much as the house that was demolished. They tend to overwhelm the surrounding homes, blocking light, invading privacy, and disrupting the streetscape. Worse yet, they exacerbate Portland's problem with housing affordability.

    UNR proposed a city-wide task force with a mission to craft regulations for the size and massing of replacement homes in established neighborhoods. Mayor Hales says he agrees with this idea...We'll see! Agreement by a majority of the Council is not a given.
  • If a house must be removed from its site - how can at least some of the embodied energy in its material be saved for re-use? We don't mean grinding up the woodwork for garden mulch or heating fuel...we mean removing it and much of the rest of the house for salvage and re-use in remodeling or new construction. This is called "deconstruction". It costs a bit more than "smash and haul" demolition, but is vastly more environmentally responsible.

    The City Council, UNR, and advocates for deconstruction are deep in discussions to find a way to make deconstruction the norm rather than raw demolition.

Will all of these initiatives eliminate residential demolitions? Hardly. There are tremendous economic pressures including limited available suburban land, bank preference for lending in the city, and chronically low inventory of homes for sale in Portland's highly prized traditional inner city neighborhoods. No legislation or regulation under consideration will ban demolitions. Regulations on size and scale of replacement homes might slow them down - but crafting meaningful rules will be extremely controversial considering they must apply throughout a highly diverse city. What, if anything, is ultimately adopted will likely still allow builders to demolish homes in our traditional neighborhoods and build replacements that many neighbors will feel don't belong.

If the ICA has been supportive of UNR throughout its brief history and has signed on with its key principles - along with 40 other neighborhood organizations. But that has been in a spirit of neighborliness rather than in hope of protecting Irvington itself. Fortunately, the rules which protect the integrity of the Irvington Historic District effectively prohibit demolition of our contributing properties (about 89% of our houses) and apply compatibility criteria on any replacement construction that broadly include size, scale, massing, and architectural features. State law prevents cities from applying such broad rules outside of historic districts, so for the foreseeable future, only a historic district designation provides complete protection against the ill-conceived demolition and replacement afflicting so many nearby Northeast neighborhoods.

You can show your support for UNR's campaign with a UNR Stop the Demolitions lawn sign -

If you would like to see updates on UNR activities -

By Jim Heuer, February 2015