The “Greatest Generation” Got it Right – Why Can’t We?
Updated: Oct 30, 2021
During World War II, Portland faced its greatest housing shortage in its history. Tens of thousands of workers came to fill industrial jobs, not the least being those in the enormous Kaiser Shipyards in Vanport, along the Columbia River. While the Housing Authority of Portland built “temporary” housing for some 40,000 Kaiser workers, thousands more units were needed beyond that.
Enter the ‘War Code”, changes to zoning and some building codes to allow single family housing and other existing buildings to be broken up into duplexes, triplexes, and other multi-family housing. A recent study by U. of O. researcher Kerrie Franey reveals that an estimated 6000 additional housing units were provided by the program in just 4 short years, providing significant relief to the housing crisis… at a cost per unit competitive with that of the public housing erected by the City under orders from the Federal Government.
During the first months of the War as industry was ramping up, Portland City Government opposed any changes and even hoped that the newly arrived workers would leave soon after the war. But by July, 1942, The Federal National Housing Agency forced the issue and Portland adopted the proposed War Codes, which would “meet the present situation with facilities which are now available” [my emphasis]. By the end of the war, at least 6000 housing units were provided to workers under the War Code based on Franey's detailed database and analysis of War Code building permits. Notably this housing was produced by small property owners who took on what they were assured was their "patriotic duty" to create more housing -- without any financial incentives from the City or Federal Government.
As Franey describes it, the War Codes have been poorly reported in Portland housing histories, and this is too bad. The success of the program suggests ways for Portland to leverage the existing housing stock by facing the fact the demolition and replacement cannot keep up with the demand for new housing by itself – neither economically nor environmentally sustainably. If we are really in a “housing emergency”, and we are, then it’s time for the City of Portland to act like it and take a stand for adapting existing housing resources for greater density.
With RIP and the changes proposed by HRCP, it is no longer zoning that stands in the way of more internal conversions to build housing capacity. The problems today are, first, related to Building Codes and their potentially excessive requirements, and, second, the steadily rising prices of single family homes compared to those of the plexes they might be turned into. Some efforts have already been made by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability staff to convince the State or Oregon Building Codes Division back in 2017 to make internal conversions easier, with little response. In 2019, another effort was initiated by historic preservation advocates, which resulted in a few more concessions. And not only building code fixes are required, but it likely will take financial incentives to move Portland in the right direction.
What was being requested for building code fixes? The State was requested to allow 2, 3, and 4-unit conversions of single-family houses to be covered by the same Building Code standards as 1 and 2-unit structures, if the house was built prior to 2017. Under current Code, 3 and 4-unit buildings must meet commercial standards including extra sound isolation in walls and floors, a high level of fire separation, and application of a full seismic upgrade. While these factors may be desirable, it is notable that many of the historic examples of middle housing would not meet these higher standards today, but have served their occupants safely and comfortably for many decades. Unfortunately, the Building Codes Division has declined to discuss fact-based risk assessments to determine how the codes for 3 and 4-unit buildings could be modified either with mitigation techniques or alternative technologies.
This is not just a matter of historic preservation but of allowing common sense changes in current rules to help Portland and other fast-growing Oregon cities to better meet their housing needs. The onerous codes applicable to conversions of single-family residences to 3 or 4-unit plexes also apply to new construction, making the housing intended to relieve the affordability crisis even more expensive.
What can be done? Solutions are not only in fixing the Building Code problem but also in incentivizing internal conversions to accelerate the production of more housing units. Our recommendations:
The Mayor and City Council must make this a top priority, and taking the case personally to Salem and our State legislators to assemble the experts to find solutions – now.
The City of Portland and Multnomah County must collaborate on a package of financial incentives including:
Delayed increases in property taxes after an internal conversion for 5 years
Deferred or eliminated system development charges for additional units resulting from internal conversions if the units are not used as short-term rentals (much as is current policy for ADU construction)
Enlisting local financial institutions to allow property owners to obtain “home loans” for internal conversions at rates no higher than conventional “home equity loans” for single family residences.
A successful package of Building Code refinements and financial incentives could have a big impact on Portland’s housing stock. Assuming that internal conversions are most effective when close to transit and services, we calculated the number of additional housing units that might be produced under the following conditions:
Within 4 miles of the Burnside Bridge
Only single family houses in the R2.5, R5 and R7 zones would be affected
No more than 10% of eligible houses would be converted
Houses from 1000 to 1500 square feet would become duplexes, from 1501 to 2000 square feet would become triplexes, and 2001 and up, 4-plexes
The possibility of raising the building for more useful space in a basement is not considered here
With these parameters, up to 10,000 new housing units could be produced with NO DEMOLITIONS.
Given this potential, its long past time for the sustainability advocates and the housing affordability advocates to join the historic preservation advocates in pressing the City for immediate action to facilitate internal conversions anywhere that RIP applies, including all Historic Districts!
NOTE: The Code Amendment Proposal Application document prepared by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability in 2017, and largely rejected by State authorities is available for download from the Resources page of this website.