Bring Back the Row House | Missing Middle Housing and Diversifying our Neighborhoods

Have you noticed how many movies and tv shows are set in neighborhoods teeming with old, brownstone row houses, lively sidewalks filled with shops and people, and roads lined with street trees? Sure, our images of Brooklyn, historic Philadelphia, even pre-war Portland neighborhoods are idyllic, maybe even of a bygone era, but there’s a deeper reason these communities are so celebrated.

If you look closely at these scenes, not only are the houses connected, but the people are connected too. Those bustling sidewalks are where chance encounters take place. Stoops and porches are hubs of activity that build community. Even the tree-lined streets connect to a world of transportation and jobs.

Look even closer and you’ll notice that not everyone is alike. Not everyone is doing the same thing. Not everyone is going to the same place. Not everyone is living the same lifestyle. These dense neighborhoods bring all sorts of people together, and the housing types and built environment supports a wide range of family structures.

“The greatest asset of our city is its people, and our city is at its best when it facilitates connections among those people: cultural, economic, and social.” - Portland For Everyone

It’s no secret that modern Portland is facing a housing crisis. Whether your concern is affordable or market rate housing, we’re not building enough to keep up with future demand. And the way we’re building is throwing barriers in the way of connections.

Many cities and suburbs try to organize development in order to protect something. They create zoning codes to protect property values and sensibilities, traffic flow and commerce. Often, these codes were first implemented to keep certain types of people out or to preserve one lifestyle over another. These codes often miss the mark and do little beyond separating things and preventing change and progress. They are also one of the primary reasons we have a housing and affordability crisis on our hands. 

For instance, zoning keeps younger single people and less affluent renters away from wealthy families by preventing building apartments and narrow houses close to larger, single-family homes. On one level, it keeps traffic and noise away from areas where small children play. On another, it separates income classes and segregates lifestyles. On yet another, it can keep grandparents from living near their grandchildren or prevent multi-generational family units from living together on a single property.

We all love walkable communities, where we don't need a car to access services, restaurants, shops, cafes, entertainment, etc. Currently, our zoning laws dictate vast swaths of land exclusively for monotonous single-family homes, preventing diverse uses within our neighborhoods. The laws keep restaurants, shops and entertainment away from most of our homes. On one level, it keeps congestion and noise away from where people sleep and play. On another, it keeps baristas and servers and clerks away from their jobs, it promotes a car-based lifestyle, and limits neighborhood businesses where people come together to interact with their neighbors. These tactics remove connections.

Diversifying Portland housing by reintroducing smaller, attached, and multi-family housing into neighborhoods near our commercial centers and transportation corridors may be the key to bringing lost connections back. Allowing large footprint, single-family homes to be re-developed as apartments or condominium properties can preserve community character and provide housing opportunities. Loosening up our zoning laws to allow community retail, and removing side setbacks to allow for row houses, will be a step in the right direction to address our housing crisis, while making our neighborhoods a better place to live, with stronger community ties. 

It is possible to provide affordability and equity in small-scale developments. It’s possible to design and build value into small-scale projects. It’s possible to bring connections back and retain, even enhance the quality of our neighborhoods by allowing more diverse housing types.

These possibilities and connections are why Propel Studio is committed to working with clients who recognize the lack of housing options, and have the desire to reintroduce missing middle housing. We’re committed to working with clients who want to provide affordability and equity in smaller scale developments. We’re committed to working with clients who understand the higher financial returns possible from developing multi-unit projects, while building a better city.

How can we help you? Do you need us to be part of the development team, leveraging design services for equity in a project? To facilitate the pro-forma process? To help with due diligence and feasibility studies? To provide full design services for your development? We are passionate about diversifying the housing opportunity in Portland as well as communities around the country. If you are interested in these issues and small-scale incrimental developments, please get in touch.