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Breakthroughs: Successful Local Strategies for Affordable Housing

September 2007
Volume 6, Issue 5

Portland, Oregon's Living Smart Program: Big Ideas for Small Lots

Two narrow houses.
Within the past decade, Portland, Oregon has experienced a significant surge in population, resulting in skyrocketing housing prices and a shortage of land for new housing development. To increase the housing supply and meet the rising demand for "starter" homes, the city adopted the Living Smart Program in 2003. The program promotes quality infill development on narrow pockets of undeveloped land. Let's take a look at how Portland's program is increasing housing affordability and opportunities through an innovative combination of higher densities, a streamlined permit process, lower development service charges, and reduced development fees.

Regulation Changes

In the early 1900s, the Portland area was platted to allow narrow lots measuring 25 by 100 feet. However, many residents combined the lots to build their homes on parcels that were 50 feet wide, creating scattered pockets of 25-foot-wide lots. Residents within neighborhoods dominated by 50-foot lots began to express concerns about altering the neighborhood's character if the narrow lots were ever to be developed. To alleviate the public's concern, in 1981 the city adopted a building moratorium prohibiting new houses on the narrow lots.

A decade later, Portland's increasing population created a land shortage within the urban core and surrounding areas. The city's many 25-foot lots seemed an ideal solution to infill development, so in 1991, the city lifted the building moratorium. Once again, "skinny" homes on narrow lots became a topic of controversy. Sound homes were being demolished to make way for dense narrow housing, and the public grew more concerned about neighborhood compatibility. To address these issues, the city established design standards in 2003 for the newly constructed skinny homes.

"Skinny House" Design Standards

With the establishment of new design standards, the program began to build community support, enabling Portland to amend the local zoning codes to promote the development of these homes. The city passed a resolution to halt further demolition of existing homes and called for an exemption on minimum lot size requirements, allowing more flexibility in developing vacant lots. The code, which was amended in 2006, now allows skinny houses in a variety of residential zones (as well as some commercial zones), having lots that are 36 feet wide or less. Developers are not required to provide a garage, nor in some cases, any form of off-street parking. These amended regulations apply only to skinny houses; other developments on the same site are subject to standard regulations. In addition to the code amendments, Portland also eased the approval process for skinny homes that are built on the small lots.

Permit-Ready Houses

Based on citizen involvement and feedback, the city hosted a design competition to choose a series of permit-ready designs. Permit-ready skinny houses have designs that are preapproved by the city council and have already passed life, safety, and structural review. "By making architect-designed plans available to the public for free, pre-permitting the plans, and reducing some permit fees, incentives were created for builders to build nicer homes without incurring certain costs. Architect fees alone can be several thousand dollars. Additionally, the narrow lots are less expensive, although there is variation depending on location," stated Ross Turkus from the Portland Bureau of Development Services.

When the permit application is submitted, the site plan is the only item reviewed, with a turnaround time of about a week, saving the developer both time and money. While most standard fees apply, applicants receive a 50 percent discount on Bureau of Development Service-related charges, which include plan reviews and building permit fees. These fees vary according to the size and scope of the project, but Portland provides residents with a sample of fees that can be expected when building a smart home. Developers may purchase building permits and receive plan sets with the assurance that the plan will be approved. However, if a developer wants to make changes to the exterior, the design is no longer permit-ready and is subject to normal review processes. Changes to the interior floor plan are allowed, provided that the modifications are approved by the architect who originally designed the skinny house during the design competition.


Portland has created a new, innovative program to facilitate infill development and increase housing opportunities. Although it will take time to assess the impact of the program and its new regulations, eight skinny houses have already been approved. Next, the city is planning on expanding the program to promote housing affordability. According to Ross Turkus, "As we contract for three new designs, we are collaborating with housing nonprofits and builders to offer options at various price levels."


The City of Los Angeles and Live-Work Revival

An artist loft.
Historically, land use patterns followed the traditional neighborhood design, allowing a range of uses within a centralized area. This type of development encourages walkable neighborhoods, making it possible for people to live, work, and shop in the same vicinity. Over time, methods of transportation evolved, making it easier for people to travel outside of city boundaries. This increased mobility allowed people to move from inner cities to more spacious areas in the suburbs.

Suburban neighborhoods offered people what cities could not—an abundance of land. The thriving suburbs increased our dependency on the automobile, which was further amplified when Euclidean-type zoning segregated the land according to the type of use. This type of zoning is most prevalent in the United States, but is now being modified to accommodate mixed-use developments that include affordable housing. With these modifications, neighborhoods will support a variety of entrepreneurs and creative professionals who are seeking housing that is both affordable and near to work. The remainder of this article discusses the emergence of live-work units and highlights Los Angeles' adaptive reuse program, which is working to revive live-work spaces.

Emergence of Live-Work Units

From the 1940s to the 1960s, manufacturers moved out of downtown industrial buildings, leaving them vacant and the surrounding area blighted. By the 1970s, artists occupied these spaces and had successfully petitioned for the legalization of live-work units. In San Francisco, the shortage of affordable housing available to artists prompted urban planners to allow live-work conversions in industrially zoned neighborhoods. To keep these units affordable for the artists, provisions in the code allowed tax fee waivers and relaxed zoning requirements. Other cities, such as New York and Chicago, also adopted live-work ordinances to help establish artist communities and allow similar uses within commercial, office, or industrial zones.

Although live-work units originally catered to traditional working artists, advancing technology and computers created new telecommuter professionals, such as financial planners, architects, graphic artists, and film editors, who could also take advantage of live-work units and spend less time commuting and more time at work. With increasing frequency, cities such as Los Angeles are finding that telecommuting professionals are in need of homes that are both affordable and accommodating to their businesses.

City of Los Angeles Adaptive Reuse Program

In 1999, the city of Los Angeles adopted the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance to encourage the conversion of historic downtown commercial buildings into housing. The ordinance, which allows underutilized buildings to be converted into apartments, condominiums, live-work space, and artists’ lofts, has helped to significantly increase the housing supply. The people who live in the live-work spaces come from a variety of professions and include accountants, architects, artists, attorneys, consultants, engineers, and other similar occupations. The program further supports the development of these spaces as live-work units through incentives, including:

  • Streamlining the approval process by exempting the project from a site plan review;
  • Waiving underlying density restrictions on the number of housing units allowed, provided that each unit is a minimum of 450 square feet;
  • "Grandfathering-in" all nonconforming floor areas, setbacks, and heights, which removes the required approval of a variance;
  • Allowing mezzanines to be added to the lofts without considering the added space as new floor area, so long as it does not exceed one-third the size of the floor area below; and
  • Limiting projects' new parking requirements, as long as existing parking is maintained.

The program has successfully created thousands of housing units, 935 of which have been officially designated as live-work spaces. As a result of incentives to revitalize neighborhoods, the downtown area is being transformed into a 24-hour center city with much-needed housing. In 2003, prompted by the success of the program, city leaders expanded the ordinance to include Chinatown, Lincoln Heights, Hollywood, and Koreatown.


Many suburbs, which originally offered more space than center cities, were developed using zoning practices that separated land according to use. These practices are now being amended to allow multiple uses, such as live-work spaces, which promote both the reuse of existing buildings and the creation of affordable housing. As a result of live-work programs in Los Angeles and other cities, blighted areas are being transformed into thriving communities where people can spend less time commuting and devote that time to their jobs, all from the comfort of their affordable new homes.

Chicago's Accessibility Code Incorporates Multi-Agency Regulations

A wheelchair ramp.
When rehabbing affordable housing that is financed by the federal government, developers must comply with federal laws that require new construction to comply with accessibility standards. These laws are written as civil rights laws, not as building codes, which can complicate the implementation of accessibility regulations at the local level. Additionally, federal guidelines are purposely vague and broad to allow localities the flexibility of interpreting the laws in accordance to their specific needs. This complicated process can significantly impede the development of affordable housing through administrative delays and added development costs. This was the case in Chicago, but the development of a new building code has limited the confusion of conflicting accessibility regulations from the federal, state, and local levels.

The Chicago Building Code

The Chicago Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) Architectural Services Unit organized a subcommittee comprised of developers, homebuilders, architects, city officials, and representatives for the disability community to write Chapter 18-11 of the Chicago Building Code (CBC). The chapter assists developers in making rehabilitated housing more accessible to persons with disabilities. The new chapter, which is part of the first overall comprehensive revision of the CBC in over 50 years, conforms to federal, state, and local accessibility requirements and is designed to ease the development process and save construction costs by eliminating unnecessary delays.

The accessibility code, formally adopted in 2004, allows a residential unit to be modified for accessibility without requiring major structural modifications, resulting in savings of up to 20 percent. The MOPD sponsors training seminars to familiarize developers with the accessibility code. Additionally, developers are encouraged to work collaboratively with city staff to ensure that their projects comply with all codes before proceeding to the next stages of the permitting process.


Rehabilitated residential units are essential to the development of affordable housing. In developing a comprehensive building code that includes accessibility provisions from multiple agencies, Chicago is working to shorten the approval process by easing accessibility requirements, and by adopting consistent and predictable codes. For more information on regulatory barriers affecting the rehabilitation of affordable housing, please refer to HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research publication, Best Practices for Effecting the Rehabilitation of Affordable Housing. These best practices are designed to address the challenges to rehab at its development, construction, and occupancy stages.

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