A big-city trend of very small apartments has arrived in Portland, and it may reignite the city’s debate over when apartment developers should be required to provide parking.
A Snohomish, Wash., developer has started construction on one micro-apartment building in Northwest Portland, and it has proposed a second in the Hollywood neighborhood of Northeast Portland. The apartments start below 200 square feet — a living area and a bathroom, with a shared kitchen down the hall.
Footprint Investments, which has built several micro-housing projects in the Seattle area, says it’s addressing a need for low-cost housing in some of the country’s most expensive rental markets.
According to Multifamily NW, a rental industry association, rents in the Portland area have climbed 6-7 percent a year since 2010. This year, they reached $827 a month for studio apartments — more than $1,000 a month in Northwest Portland.
Footprint’s apartments rent for about 60 percent of the prevailing rent for new apartments in the area, founder Jim Potter said.
“We’re at a price point that no one else is delivering,” Potter said. “It’s not for everyone, but it’s a choice, and we like offering choices.”
Footprint’s first Portland development, Footprint Thurman, is already under construction at 2250 N.W. Thurman St. The 56-apartment building is largely identical to one proposed at1525 N.E. 41st Ave. Both would be four stories tall — with another below ground — built on lots last occupied by a single-family house.Portland has flirted with micro-housing before. WDC Properties’ ekoHaus portfolio includes properties heavy on studios that average 300 square feet or smaller. It built and has listed for sale the Freedom Center apartments, a development in the Pearl District with 150 studio apartments.
The micro-housing trend is booming in Seattle, where tiny apartments started popping up in 2008, as well as New York City and San Francisco, cities that are intimately familiar with the challenges of urban density – including sky-high rents.
But it’s more complicated in Portland. The city, in a fit of growing pains over the last year, has seen property and business owners in established neighborhoods square off with developers of new apartment buildings built without on-site parking. The developers, along with housing and transportation advocates, argued that parking requirements force monthly rents higher and hurt urban density goals.
Neighbors largely won that fight, with the Portland City Council introducing a parking requirement for apartment buildings 30 units and larger.
The concern from neighbors and businesses is that all those residents will park their cars on the streets, and lead to bigger crowding problems than exist already in dense neighborhoods.
Footprint’s buildings will have 56 bedrooms. But because of the shared kitchens, Portland zoning code treats the buildings as a group-living situation, like a dormitory, commune or monastery. That means the minimum-parking requirement doesn’t apply, said Portland Bureau of Development Services planner Rebecca Esau.
“You’re not talking about discrete dwelling units where each unit has its own kitchen and restroom,” Esau said. “I know that’s not something that neighborhoods are going to want to hear, and I know parking is a huge issue, but that’s currently how the code differentiates it.”
Parking and auto congestion are already major issues in the area near the proposed building on Northeast 41st, said Jeanine Holly, the office manager at the Hollywood Community Acupuncture Clinic, next door to the site. It’s near a Trader Joe’s and other retail centers, and it’s recently seen a spate of new apartment buildings.
“It’s already a nightmare,” she said. “It’s a safety issue. I look out toward Trader Joe’s and I fear for people’s lives just crossing the street.”The clinic is also concerned noise construction could drive away customers, she said.
Potter said 10 to 20 percent of Seattle-area Footprint residents own cars, and that the company has chosen sites in Portland with easy access to public transportation. They’ll also include bicycle parking rooms.
The Northwest Thurman project already has a building permit, and if the project on Northeast 41st meets the requirements for a permit, it would be approved without a public hearing. Neighbors can appeal to a state land-use board and are evaluating that option, Holley said.
Footprint is no stranger to backlash from neighbors. But, Potter said, neighbors’ complaints early on tend to die down after construction.
“It’s their fear more than it is the reality,” Potter said, noting that the company holds and manages its buildings rather than selling them off. “We’re going to be good neighbors to the community.”
“I challenge you, or anybody else, to come up with a place where it’s turned out badly.”
— Elliot Njus