Actually, Let’s Not Set Aside Land Next to Rail Lines for Mansionization


Today, we are featuring a guest post from our friends at the Sightline Institute. It was originally published on their site and is reproduced here with permission. Sightline Institute is an independent, nonprofit think tank providing leading original analysis of energy, economic, and environmental policy in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Its mission is to make the Northwest a global model of sustainability.

In this post, Michael Andersen discusses how restrictive land-use rules near Portland, Oregon’s rail stations basically ensure that most of the homes built within walking distance of those stations will be expensive single-family houses.

This not only limits Portland-area residents’ access to high quality transit, but, we at Strong Towns would add, also prevents local government entities from realizing the fullest possible return on a large investment in transit infrastructure—the kind of return that might make it possible to afford more rail lines like this in the future. This article is part of the series Legalizing Inexpensive Housing.


Two years from next month, Portland’s regional government plans to ask voters for about a billion dollars to help build the first modern light rail line through the region’s most exclusive quadrant.

The “Southwest Corridor” project through Portland’s mostly well-off (but poorly connected) southwest neighborhoods could become a new model for the Pacific Northwest in how to improve housing and transportation at the same time.

Alternatively, it could become a model of how to utterly fail at doing so.

A house built in 2015 on Southwest Capitol Hill Road, a five-minute walk from a proposed rail station. When this is the only sort of home that's legal, it's the only sort of home we'll get. Photo by Google Maps.

On Thursday, Portland’s city council seems certain to approve a toothless document packed with good ideas for mitigating one of the risks of that rail line: that it’d help trigger price increases that force 12,000 low-income households out of Southwest Portland’s “naturally occurring affordable housing”—that is, the old, intact and relatively cheap market-rate apartment buildings scattered around the Barbur Boulevard area.

Notably, the plan recommends buying a bunch of those buildings and converting them to public, rent-regulated housing at their current prices. It’s a great idea that nobody objects to, at least until someone asks them to help pay for it. (Hint: we should pay for it.)

But one of the reasons Portland’s Southwest Corridor housing strategy is so uncontroversial is its toothlessness. Specifically, it fails to sink any teeth into anything that might change this:

Median price of a detached home here: about $450,000.

That’s what the housing options look like today two blocks north of one of the most important stations of this proposed $2.8 billion rail line, Barbur Transit Center.

Or, here’s the housing selection immediately north of the station at Barbur and 19th:

Median price of a detached home here: about $475,000.

I just showed you pictures of about 200 houses on 60 acres, all of them within a future five-minute walk of a massively expensive new rail line to downtown and almost all of them requiring mortgage payments of $2,400 or more—which makes very few of them affordable to a family of four making the Portland area’s median income of $81,400.

And these are the prices before a rail line has even been built.

The strangest part of the images above is that these home prices are essentially mandatory. On most of these lots, dividing the land into so much as a duplex would be illegal.

If that’s not a recipe for luxury housing, I don’t know what is.

In defense of Portland’s housing strategy document, it does identify this issue. All told, apartment buildings are illegal on 48 percent of the land near Portland’s potential stations, it notes. Upzoning this currently exclusive land to allow four-to-six story buildings would eventually make the rail line useful to many thousands more people while also triggering the affordability requirements that kick in for buildings with more than 20 homes.

Here are the document’s proposed remedies: “a corridor-wide station area planning process, beginning in select station areas using a fair housing and health equity lens” and followed by “additional affordability goals and incentives” to get below-market housing built.

In other words, Portland should legalize apartment buildings near its future rail stations, then find offsets that ensure a meaningful number of those new homes are affordable to people who truly need to ride the train.

This isn’t rocket science. And, unlike purchasing the corridor’s old apartment buildings (which, to recap, we the public should also do) it might not even require new dedicated tax revenue.

But it would require big changes to the neighborhoods in the pictures above. And Portland, for all its good intentions, currently has no timeline for making them.

Shawn Fleek, a spokesman for OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, told me Tuesday that the city recommendation to upzone these station areas into mixed-income apartment buildings with community benefit agreements could easily be forgotten, just like “any of those clauses that is going to benefit low-income communities and communities of color.”

“We’re looking for definitive material gains and not just empty promises,” Fleek said.

Every city in Cascadia needs better transit, and any proposed rail line has promise. But unless we make it legal for lots of people to actually live near rail stations if they want to, that promise will indeed be empty—for most of us.



About the Author

Michael Andersen, senior fellow at the Sightline Institute, has been writing about ways better municipal policy can help break poverty cycles, with a focus on housing and transportation, for over a decade. His work before joining Sightline in 2018 included reporting and editing for print and web in Longview and Vancouver, Wash., and Portland, Ore., where he worked as news editor of BikePortland.org; writer for the pro-housing coalition Portland for Everyone; and infrastructure staff writer for PeopleForBikes, the largest national biking advocacy organization. He has an English degree from Grinnell College and a journalism degree from Northwestern. He told his wife on their first date that he was "not really a bike guy" and he's sticking with his story. They live in Portland with their kid and cat, and park their car in the street. Email him at michael [at] sightline [dot] org, and follow him on Twitter at @andersem.