Sunday, October 28, 2012

Attack of the house clones!

In the spirit of Halloween, I’ll tell you what spooks me. It’s not ghosts, ghouls, goblins, the Frankenstorm, or the prospect of a Romney presidency. No, it’s the outsized neo-traditional house clones that are popping up en masse in many a Portland neighborhood. Like zombies, they rise from the graves of once-affordable properties. What are these strange, deformed creatures of the night, with names like Meriwether, Ainsworth and Montgomery? They are the Renaissance Homes Vintage Collection – new homes with “all the updated charm, built-ins and period details of the Portland homes you’ve come to love.”

Okay, in the scheme of things, a recovering housing market is nothing to be scared of, and I applaud the effort to design homes that attempt to blend into the milieu of older neighborhoods. But I take issue with these offerings from Renaissance for several reasons:

An authentic 1910 foursquare in Southeast Portland.
Image: Portland FourSquare
1. Awkward proportions. These homes are inspired by classic single-family home styles of the early 20th century, including the foursquare and the craftsman bungalow. In practice, the house clones fail to replicate the aesthetic of these styles. Viewed from the street, something’s just not right. The proportions are off. The ratio and spacing of fenestration (windows and doors) compared to the rest of the front façade is often awkward. Many of the designs have large expanses of blank siding and tiny windows, probably to accommodate the large closets and privacy that we Americans demand. Equally noticeable are the narrow overhangs. Old Portland homes were traditionally built with wide overhangs, in part to provide more shelter in our rainy climate. The house clones leave out this detail, and it compromises their authenticity. Finally, many of the house clones are essentially four stories tall, with the first floor elevated to make room for a garage. Convenient, maybe; attractive, not so much.

2. Enormity. None of the house clones are smaller than 2,000 square feet, and a few of them break the 3,000 mark. This is particularly obvious on 5,000 square-foot or smaller lots surrounded by more modest homes, a situation most of them share. I’m quite certain that the house clones max out the floor-area ratios and building heights allowed in the zoning code. A few of the house clones in my neighborhood are on 2,500 square foot lots, with no usable outdoor space. In an era when average household and family sizes continue to decline and many people can’t afford or don’t have time to maintain a four-bedroom house, the house clones buck the trend. I suppose they are meeting a demand for successful families that want to live in urban neighborhoods rather than flee to the suburbs, which is good.

3. Limited designs. The Renaissance website shows 14 different models in the Vintage Collection. Really, they are slight variations on just three styles – the foursquare, craftsman and gable front. The foursquare-based design is particularly popular, and is what prompted me to call them “house clones” in the first place. I estimate there are at least ten identical foursquare house clones (and counting) in my neighborhood. Renaissance classifies its Vintage Collection as “custom homes," but they are precisely the opposite: standardized, cookie-cutter home designs that minimize effort and maximize profit. While other infill developers are building true custom homes that meet client preferences and respect site context (solar orientation, views, vegetation, surrounding homes), Renaissance is cranking out carbon copies.

R.I.P. 1135 SE Nehalem Street, pictured last summer on
Google StreetView.
4. Scraping. The house clones are typically established by demolishing existing homes, many of them modest bungalows that didn’t have much wrong with them. In doing so, Renaisssance is eliminating the few remaining affordable houses in Portland’s inner neighborhoods. Obviously this makes perfect economic sense: desirable neighborhood + cheap house – demolition and construction costs = profit. It’s perfectly legal, but it’s changing the character and scale of our old neighborhoods while not even helping with our city’s density goals. I find it exasperating that many of our city’s neighborhood associations (including mine) fight density and multi-family projects tooth-and-nail, but are happy to sit idle while bulldozers scrape dozens of modest homes to make way for outsized single-family house clones.

5. Price. The house clones start at $424,900. Many of them top $600,000. For a city with a median home price of $262,000, this is definitely an “upper market” product. The folks I see moving into the house clones are successful, white, attractive professionals in their 40s with two or three children and/or dogs. Good for them. For me, it’s more evidence that the wealthy continue to prosper while others of us struggle. Wealth inequality aside, there are scant for-sale housing products available in Portland for my income bracket. Portland developers are currently building either (a) ginormous house clones worth half a mil or (b) rental apartments. Meanwhile, homes in the $200-300K range have so much demand and so little supply that bidding wars are common. For my wife and I, who are in the market for a home, the house clones are not helpful. All they do is demolish homes that we could have afforded. Even if we had put in offers on some of these, we likely would have been outbid by cash offers from Renaissance and the like. Hooray for the free market.

While there are certainly more serious issues to worry about in Portland (homelessness and pavement conditions, for example), I can’t help but shudder every time I see a new house clone rise from the ruins of a modest, affordable home.

Happy Halloween, stay safe in the Frankenstorm, and regardless of who you vote for, please do vote.


  1. All things considered, these houses look ten times better than the best McMansion being built in eastern PA. A new house went up in my hood last year. It's a vinyl twin. One wall of the house is all vinyl with no windows. The only detail is a dryer vent, and of course they used the cheapest vinyl available on the market, the kind of stuff that's going to blow off in this Frankenstorm.
    Scotty Millar
    Twelve Grain Bikes

  2. I hear your frustration about replacing a single family home with another (much larger) single family home. Is it possible to require such replacements to be duplexes to help reach our density goals?

    One thing to keep in mind is that large houses are much more adjustable in the future than small houses. Many of the historic large inner SE houses have been split into multi-unit houses or shared by large groups of people, effectively creating dense housing with minimal retrofit. This is something that will be difficult to replicate farther out, where house sizes are more modest.