Why Townhouses may be the most adaptive tool to Solve Portland's Housing Crisis

Housing affordability and missing middle housing are important issues to us at Propel Studio. The reason is simple: We love Portland and all its beautiful and diverse neighborhoods. Our perfect picture of Portland includes a city where everyone can afford to live, work and play in their own way. This means giving people the ability to chose where and how to live, regardless of their income level, background, or lifestyle.

We’ve talked before about our population explosion - as many as 400,000 new residents in the Portland Metro Area by 2035. As a community we need to start making important decisions on how we can accommodate our new neighbors while maintaining the vibrancy of our city, and maintain the sustainable development we have been known for.  

We watch housing trends and zoning changes with great interest because it is the roadmap for how we will address the issues brought on by our growing population. It directly affects both our work as well as where we live.

If you’re interested in these topics, we’ve written about strategies for accommodating increased housing demand:

We love the feeling and character of Portland’s walkable neighborhoods. We think those things are important to preserve, so in this installment of our housing dialogue, we’d like to talk about another type of “shared housing”: Townhomes.

From a community planning and design standpoint townhouses - basically attached single family homes - may be one of the most adaptive tools Portlanders have at our disposal.

The beauty of this version of multi-family housing is that they’re a smaller, transitional scale building designed to fit within the context of a neighborhood. Because they can fit within the footprint of a single family home, townhouses add options, diversity and density to walkable, urban neighborhoods near transportation corridors. Portland building and zoning codes make it possible for townhome projects to blend into the historic fabric of our neighborhoods as residential infill projects. They help fill the missing middle housing gap.

However, we do think the zoning code has a lot of opportunity for improvement in regards to this project type. We believe that townhouse and attached dwellings have an opportunity to increase density, while maintaining beautiful streets for people. The attached nature of the buildings means you can squeeze more houses on each block, and yet the design of each unit could still have character and style that is unique to the owner. Currently, our zoning code mandates side setbacks on almost every single family zoned property, thus preventing town houses from being an option in the vast majority of our city. It is a shame that our code is so restrictive and something our city council and staff at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability should consider changing.

From an economic point of view, townhouses create a profitable niche for developers and an affordable option for residents.


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Townhome developers in Portland can enjoy profits from renting or selling two, three or even four units for a small cost increase over constructing a large single family home. Because there are multiple units but not a multiple of the construction costs, these projects can often be rented or sold for less than the large McMansion style single family homes we see so often pop up in our neighborhoods. These types of projects provide our new neighbors the opportunity to be part of a community with options. Compared to apartment buildings, they allow residents to have indoor and outdoor spaces of their own; spaces that allow them to connect with neighbors and a neighborhood similar to a single-family homeowner on a smaller, more affordable scale.

For environmental concerns, townhouses can be efficient and low-impact.

The benefits of “shared housing” stretch beyond several neighbors ‘sharing’ the same structure. During construction, the multiple units share costs, energy and resources. A four unit townhouse project could use the same amount of land, lumber, time and workers as a large single family home. The shared walls also reduce heat loss, making them much more energy efficient against extreme outdoor air temperatures. After construction, all those shared resources can equate to half the energy use of four single units. Those are serious sustainability benefits.

If you’d like to know more about the environmental, social and economic benefits of working with an architect to develop townhouses in Portland, let us know.

If you want to know if an infill townhouse project will work on your lot, let us help you with an analysis and a feasibility study.

If this article has you wondering if a house and ADU or a triplex is better for your bottom line, give us a call. We’d love to help you be a profitable part of the solution to Portland’s housing demands.