Portland’s Laurelhurst Neighborhood Fights to Keep the Housing Crisis Out

The residents of a quaint Portland neighborhood plan to ward off developers who could bring teardowns, McMansions or apartment buildings for renters.

On the leafy streets of the Laurelhurst neighborhood, the natives are very, very restless.

At the end of last month, residents of Laurelhurst turned out in record numbers to vote in their neighborhood association election for one reason: to get protection from developers.

The winning candidates pledged to bypass City Hall and ask the National Park Service to declare much of the 425-acre eastside neighborhood a historic site.

Laurelhurst would be the third Portland neighborhood to request such a designation within a year. (Eastmoreland and Peacock Lane have already filed requests, which have not yet been granted.)

Getting a historic designation means that demolition permits would be much more difficult to obtain for old houses, and the neighborhood would probably get a say in designs for new houses. Conversations with a number of residents make clear they have no interest in teardowns or gaudy McMansions or new apartment buildings for renters.

"Laurelhurst is unique. Every house is unique," says John Liu, who bought his 1911 Portland foursquare in 2006. "If we can't stop redevelopment, this piece of Portland history will basically go away."

Laurelhurst is one of many central eastside Portland neighborhoods where housing values have soared since the recession, and where developers are snatching up scarce vacant lots and a few modest homes they can demolish and replace. The average home price here is now $750,000—and one house sold this month for $1.6 million.

By seeking to make the neighborhood a historic district, Laurelhurst residents are taking aim at what they see as the neighborhood's greatest enemy: a real estate developer with a backhoe, bent on tearing down 100-year-old houses to replace them with apartments, a duplex or a huge new house.

"The whole street—it will look like Beaverton by the time they're done," says John Deodato, a longtime Laurelhurst homeowner who says he gets 20 letters a month from developers seeking to buy his home. "The city won't do anything about it unless we do."

But Laurelhurst's effort may be for naught: The state Legislature is currently considering a bill that would deny neighborhoods the right to use historic designations to block housing developments.

Laurelhurst is a progressive Portland neighborhood, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 14 to 1, Bernie Sanders won 46 percent of the vote last spring, and where, in theory, residents share values that are part of the Oregon liberal DNA: smart land-use planning and dense neighborhoods.

Yet Laurelhurst's biggest opponents are those who share the same politics but think that neighbors are being selfish.

"We are facing a housing shortage with dire consequences," Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) said last month, "and frankly I am disappointed that this bill has run into some of the same old NIMBYism that helped create this crisis."

Critics charge that by trying to save Laurelhurst from the wrecking ball, its residents are in fact erecting a wall to keep out newcomers, renters and people of modest means—making Laurelhurst an oasis of money in the midst of a housing shortage.

Former Metro Councilor Robert Liberty, who once headed 1000 Friends of Oregon, perhaps the state's leading land-use advocate, says Laurelhurst's agenda is contrary to that of progressive politics.

"The consequence [of seeking a historic designation] is pretty clear: It isolates those neighborhoods from shared responsibilities to be a more welcoming community and to accommodate the housing that's needed," Liberty says.

Whoever wins the fight for Laurelhurst, this much is clear: Your neighborhood may soon be next.

“The developers are actually building like crazy,” says Laurelhurst resident John Liu. “The problem is, they’re not building anything affordable, because they don’t want to.” (Thomas Teal)

The Laurelhurst neighborhood looks as if it's in the middle of an election year. Nearly every block is littered with yard signs. Some read "Love Wins"—an anti-Trump, pro-tolerance slogan—or "Black Lives Matter." But the most common sign says, "Laurelhurst: Historic Character, Progressive Vision." These are historic designation campaign signs.

Last month, Scott Pratt won the presidency of the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association while warning of an impending dystopia.

"The Laurelhurst of the future," he said in a campaign video, "will feature towering multifamily units on every block, fewer small, more affordable historic homes, fewer mature trees, and increased congestion on streets and in schools."

Pratt, 61, is trim man with a mop of white hair, who most days still bikes to work downtown, where he has a small private law practice. For years, he volunteered as chairman of the board of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters.

He fidgets as he talks sitting on the patio of the modest, periwinkle blue home that his wife bought in 1988 for $75,000.

Pratt argues historic preservation isn't really at odds with addressing Portland's housing costs. In his view, stopping demolitions keeps small homes available for less wealthy buyers. Pratt says he could support more density if it didn't change the neighborhood's look.

"I'm not saying we can't absorb some more density," he says, "but every neighborhood should not be equally dense. You don't get diversity if you make everything look alike."

Scott Pratt wants to create a historic district in the neighborhood he’s lived in for 30 years. (Christine Dong)

Pratt warns that if Laurelhurst isn't allowed to decide what gets developed within its boundaries, the neighborhood will indeed become cheaper eventually—because it will become hideous.

"Nobody will want to live here," he says. "It could lead to a place where people who own the [houses] want to move out and turn them into rentals. They'll be more affordable. They'll have more problems at the same time."

The problem that Laurelhurst residents say they face is a relatively new one. The neighborhood hasn't changed much in a century.

Since 1909, when developers bought more than 300 acres of an old dairy farm for $2 million and divided them into lots, Laurelhurst has been a relatively wealthy eastside neighborhood—one of the few that was dedicated almost exclusively to single-family houses, and which has never allowed even modest "garden apartment" complexes.

But last June, the city Planning Bureau suggested changing the zoning code for Laurelhurst (and most of the inner eastside and parts of the westside) to promote more density through a "residential infill plan," which would allow duplexes on city lots now zoned for single-family homes. (Single-family lots account for more than 70 percent of the city's residential land.)

On Dec. 13, the City Council voted to endorse RIP, as it is called, and the Planning Commission is now writing the code and drawing a map for where it would apply. A vote for approval is expected next year.

City planners say they expect to see RIP lead to the construction of 4,500 new housing units citywide by allowing duplexes and triplexes—though few in Laurelhurst.

In that neighborhood, residents fear RIP would cause demolition numbers to rise.
Demolitions are reviled in Portland for many reasons: The noise is irritating, the environmental hazards such as lead and asbestos are alarming, and the prospect of a McMansion or two ugly modern duplexes next door is infuriating.

And residents view historic designation as a way to block them.

"We have an ace card to play that almost no other neighborhoods have," says Mike Parrott, a Laurelhurst resident, in the historic district's promotional materials. "It will add one more barrier against my street becoming filled with duplexes and my corner lots becoming triplexes."

Historic Laurelhurst campaign signs are common sights in the neighborhood. (Nino Ortiz)

Neighborhood association elections are usually sleepy affairs. This year's election in Laurelhurst on May 30 was anything but.

The association, which typically organizes neighborhood picnics and garage sales, and tends to the historic stone gates of Laurelhurst, has a dozen board members who come up for election every year. Almost without exception, incumbents have no opponents. This year, the slate of candidates running on a historic district platform ran against a nearly full slate of opponents, and it got ugly.

An ally of the pro-historic group bought up website domain names—KeepLaurelhurstFree.com and LaurelhurstForward.com—that the anti-historic group might want and used them to direct visitors to the pro-historic site, HistoricLaurelhurst.com. The other side threatened to sue.

The anti-historic district slate also accused opponents of conducting opposition research on foes—and publishing it on another website. It listed five people's names and identified their alleged professional connections to development, real estate and contracting.

"When people care a lot, there will be missteps," says Liu. "It really energized people."

More than 800 people voted in the election—a record for the neighborhood, and more than 10 times the number of voters in the previous election. The vote went overwhelmingly for the historic district candidates. Pratt, the pro-historic district candidate for president, won just under 80 percent of the vote.

The new board members say they will seek historic status, first with the state and then with the National Park Service. The process is likely to be successful—the agencies in charge rarely turn down neighborhoods that can make it through the laborious process to show their area contains buildings that are architecturally interesting or are early examples of house styles.

The designation will make it more difficult—perhaps impossible—to demolish historic homes. It is also likely to require design review for new houses built in the neighborhood, which adds to the cost. Both are all but certain to discourage outside developers.

Neighborhood associations have long played a powerful role in Portland politics. But the use of historic district status to get around the citywide planning process is a new approach.

"In the early '60s, the problem was, how do you keep the inner city vibrant?" says Chris Smith, who served on the Northwest District Association before joining the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission. "You get to today and some of the neighborhoods want to take what they've built and cast it in amber."

The most formidable opposition to their effort comes from Salem.

Mary Kyle McCurdy

One of the more interesting developments in the battle over Laurelhurst is the strange bedfellows it has created.

Jon Chandler and Mary Kyle McCurdy, for example.

Chandler is a profane Santa Claus lookalike with a sharp sense of humor and a folksy style. Oregon born and bred, Chandler, 60, drives an Audi and is executive director of the Oregon Home Builders Association.

In other words, he's the point man in Oregon's Capitol looking out for the interests of developers.

McCurdy, also 60, is Chandler's foil in most political fights. The slight, intense policy nerd is deputy director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, the storied nonprofit founded after Oregon Gov. Tom McCall shepherded passage of the 1973 land-use laws that require cities to build densely rather than sprawl into surrounding forest and farmland.

McCurdy and Chandler have battled for decades over land-use issues.

But today, Portland's housing crisis has made allies of the two. Both are supporting House Bill 2007, which would strip neighborhoods of the power to veto demolitions, and force them to accept as much density as city zoning allows.

"The reasons we are involved with this bill has nothing to do with whether the home builders are involved with it," says McCurdy. "The bill increases housing opportunities—diverse housing opportunities and affordable housing opportunities—all of those inside our towns and cities, which is part of the land-use deal that we as Oregonians have had in place for 40 years."

McCurdy believes what's happening in Laurelhurst is a "misuse of historic district designation to prevent change."

Critics of the bill call 1000 Friends' and the home builders' support an unholy alliance.

"Gov. McCall would be spinning in his grave to see his beloved 1000 Friends of Oregon organization working side-by-side with the Home Builders Association, buying into the alt-right, fake-news theory of demolition as the cure for affordability," wrote Tracy Prince, vice president of the Goose Hollow Foothills League, in a May 17 letter to legislators.

But the pair see the merit of their alliance as obvious.

Chandler says his fight is to get Oregonians to recognize the consequences of their land-use policies, and the sentiment in Laurelhurst is not uncommon. Chandler calls it the "we thought you meant density someplace else" argument.

"People are squawking about the implications of their policy choice," he says. "[Gov. John] Kitzhaber said there's two things Oregonians hate: density and sprawl."

Kotek, who sponsored HB 2007 with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, says the outcry from neighborhoods is disingenuous.

"I've heard concerns about preserving neighborhood character," she said during a recent committee hearing. "But underlying some of these arguments is a desire to make sure that certain neighborhoods—often higher-income neighborhoods—are treated differently than others. Certain neighborhoods, some argue, should be off-limits even though we're facing a housing crisis. That is not acceptable."

The bill's prospects aren't good. Salem insiders say HB 2007 is waiting in line behind other housing legislation, which is in turn bogged down in a session in which Democrats are having trouble passing their agenda. (But the mere threat of the bill has already had an effect: Historic preservationists around the state have asked for a change in state regulations that would more easily allow homes to be divided into up to four apartments.)

If the bill doesn't pass, Portland City Hall would be faced with a new threat: neighborhood associations with the power to override city policy.

Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek (Courtesy of Tina Kotek)

Mayor Charlie Hales spent four years in City Hall waffling whether to make reluctant neighborhoods swallow more housing.

He changed his mind on apartments without parking, and failed to pass a half-baked tax on home demolitions.

But for all his casting about for solutions to the housing crisis, Hales left the city with a mandate for density.

Before leaving office in January, he rushed the RIP concept to the City Council—the proposal that would double the number of homes that can be built on single-family lots in much of the city.

Making sure the plan is carried out? That's up to the new mayor, Ted Wheeler.

Wheeler ran for office on a platform of creating more housing, more easily, across the city. Fights like the one in Laurelhurst will test his commitment to that campaign pledge.

In an interview last week, Wheeler told WW he continues to support increasing density, including in the neighborhoods—Laurelhurst, Eastmoreland and Multnomah Village—most likely to want to fight it off.

"We made a decision a long time ago to protect land outside the urban growth boundary," Wheeler says. "The reality is, if we don't consider those options, our city will increasingly become more unaffordable than it is today."

But Wheeler has chosen to stay quiet on House Bill 2007, citing city protocols that require unanimous support by the City Council for legislation in Salem.

He declined to make an exception for this, and wants to keep the city, not the state, in charge of density and demolition rules.

If the Legislature doesn't pass Kotek's bill, Wheeler and his colleagues will have to grapple with neighborhood associations wielding new power and a grudge against City Hall.

(Christine Dong)

Yet the mayor says he still views the threat of historic districts as "hypothetical." His colleagues on the City Council are no more eager to head into battle with neighborhood associations.

"There is no need to confront neighborhoods on this, at least not yet," says Commissioner Nick Fish. "This issue should be framed and debated before the city takes a position on a change in state law. The bill in Salem came out of left field."

Both City Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Chloe Eudaly say historic districts and density can co-exist.

"Many Portlanders are experiencing shock at the rate of change going on in our city, and historic preservation is one of many legitimate concerns," says Eudaly. "I don't believe the goals of historic preservation, and increasing density and affordability are necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, our residential infill policy provides existing homeowners with low-impact opportunities to create more housing through internal divisions, accessory dwelling units, and adaptive reuse."

A makeshift homeless camp has taken up a block of Southeast Oak Street. (Nino Ortiz)

On a drizzly morning this month, a new resident of the Laurelhurst neighborhood was making pancakes.

Greg Black, 59, stood over a camp stove along the sidewalk on Southeast Oak Street. Black works as a cook at a New Seasons Market—and lives out of his pickup truck.

He makes a decent wage, $12 an hour, but hasn't been able to afford his own apartment for five years. "I would not be living here," he says, "if I could find an affordable place."

There's little hope of Laurelhurst becoming that place. A Craigslist ad posted last week shows a restored attic in this neighborhood renting for $1,000 a month.

Yet every neighborhood that adds new apartments is helping to ease the housing shortage, even in other places.

So Laurelhurst residents are making a decision about housing for the working poor. They're saying that other values, like the beauty of a century-old home or a tall tree, shouldn't be sacrificed to ease the housing shortage.

Pratt, the neighborhood association president, knows plenty about homelessness. A couple years ago, he served on the board of social services agency JOIN, which helps homeless people find permanent housing.

Pratt acknowledges Portland needs to build more housing. But not too much of it in Laurelhurst.

"Everybody says the solution to homelessness is housing," he says. "I don't think the solution is that every neighborhood looks the same, and every neighborhood has everything, and your neighborhood [has] no uniqueness anymore."

Correction: This article has been updated. It incorrectly stated that the agency JOIN coordinates shelter beds. In fact, it helps homeless people find permanent housing and runs day spaces for homeless people. WW regrets the error.

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