A defense of “skinny houses”

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[This is an op-ed that was published in my local neighborhood newspaper. I’m republishing it here, mostly for preservation, but also because I think it’s an interesting topic that folks who don’t live in my neighborhood might enjoy thinking about. As always, I welcome any feedback in the comment section. Thanks]

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As a resident, home-owner and former business owner in Concordia, I have long enjoyed reading the Concordia News. It’s a great source for community information and I appreciate reading the opinions of my neighbors. Recently, however, I’ve been disappointed to see my community newspaper evolve into an extremely negative and reactionary publication that seems dedicated to preventing urban development. It feels like the “voice of our community” has turned into a grumpy old man, grumbling about “change” and yelling at kids to keep off his lawn. This disappoints me because those views simply don’t represent my opinion, or those of many members of our community. I’ve taken the time to talk with my neighbors, and I know that there are many of us who enthusiastically embrace urban development.

I realize that our neighborhood is changing rapidly and that such change can be disconcerting to long-time residents. However, we all chose to live in a city and cities are, by design, places that constantly evolve to accommodate the needs and ideas of new residents. Infill development and “skinny houses” are simply another part of the evolution of our urban neighborhood. And, in my opinion, infill development should be embraced by our community because it provides more family-friendly housing and creates a more environmentally efficient community. Increasing housing density in our community also means more foot traffic for our business community and a bigger tax base to fund neighborhood improvement. Perhaps most importantly, encouraging housing density also reduces the need for urban sprawl, and means that we can preserve more of the farmland and forested wilderness that makes Oregon unique.

Frankly, a lot of the whining I hear about skinny houses and infill development strikes me as hypocritical. We all live in houses that were once built on empty land and I’m sure the construction of each one “changed the character” of the neighborhood and annoyed some people who preferred things the way they used to be. There is no pure, ideal Concordia of the past that we are losing or should aspire to return to. The history of our neighborhood has been one of near constant change and this evolution is exactly what defines our community—what once was a working class, immigrant neighborhood with horse-drawn trollies running down Alberta Street is now an amazing art and small business community with long lines for breakfast. I’m sure a decade from now it will be different still.

For those of us who don’t like change, Oregon is full of hundreds of quaint, bucolic towns with strict zoning laws and no skinny houses. Many of these towns are virtually unchanged from they way they looked generations ago, and generations from now they will probably be just about the same. Life in a small town is a great option for those of us who prefer a slowly changing community and believe the single-family-home-with-a-yard is the ideal model for living. Portland on the other hand is a dynamic, living city and our neighborhood is on the forefront of that evolution. Many of us love it that way—we enjoy being part of a vibrant urban community and we are excited about the changes going on to our neighborhood. I hope that the Concordia News will make an effort to represent our opinions as well.

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2 thoughts on “A defense of “skinny houses”

  1. Why did you tag “gentrification” in your article while never directly addressing it? I think you innacurately frame the conversation as change vs. stasis. The real questions, to me, are: how does that change come about? Who makes those decisions? Who is left out of the conversation? And whose interests do the changes serve?

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  2. Jane, I tagged it with “gentrification” because the issues are often discussed together in my community–I hear opponents of gentrification (or maybe ‘skeptics’ is a better word) often discuss the two issues together in terms of neighborhood development and economic displacement (which are serious concerns that I don’t mean to dismiss or downplay–but they weren’t the topic of my article.) But I agree with you that it’s not simply “change vs. stasis” although a lot of my neighbors, in our local paper, see it in those terms. There is a lot of discussion of “preserving the character of the neighborhood” and that’s what I was trying to address.

    I also agree that asking about “who makes these decisions” is critical. I grew up in the DC area, and I remember when the new Wizards arena (then MCI Center, now Verizon) was built downtown–the city government literally condemned entire neighborhoods (lower income neighborhoods) and sold several blocks to huge developers who built fancy condos and brought in a bunch of businesses that were unaffordable to the population that was present at the time.

    In my experience in Portland, it’s usually been very different–my own neighborhood has changed dramatically in the 12 years I’ve lived here, but for the most part, that change has been “bottom up” not “top down”, i.e. thousands of regular people did things like fix up old buildings, paint and landscape houses, open new businesses…and the cumulative effect of those changes is that the economics of this community have changed dramatically because it’s now much more attractive to families and “well-off” people. The effect is similar to what happened in DC (lower income folks are priced out of the neighborhood) but the cause is much more nebulous and more difficult to address with regulation or progressive urban planning. I’m not sure what the answers are to these issues, but they are important to discuss, and I enjoy the conversation. Thanks for joining in.

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