Local governments making code switches for middle housing
More middle housing — a term that includes duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes and other kinds of accessory residential housing — will be coming to Washington County soon.
Both Hillsboro and Washington County are in the process of updating their development codes to come into compliance with state laws surrounding middle housing. In an effort to address a housing shortage and homelessness crisis that has become increasingly visible, Oregon has focused lately on so-called "missing middle" housing.
In 2019, Oregon state legislators approved House Bill 2001, the Housing Choices Bill. The landmark law requires cities and counties of a certain size to allow middle housing on virtually all residential lots by June 30 of this year.
Experts say the state's new approach has been a missing part of the equation when it comes to bolstering the inventory of available housing. Part of the affordability issue when it comes to rental units is a lack of supply, therefore prices are inflated.
Experts say that when local governments and developers focus on building single-family subdivisions and large apartment complexes, they're not addressing the "missing middle."
A family might outgrow apartment living, or a young professional might want to build equity, but not be able to afford the down payment or mortgage installments for a house. That's where middle housing options like townhomes and cottage clusters can come into play — but they're not always easy to find.
In both Hillsboro and the county codes, density requirements or vague wording has sometimes barred these kinds of developments — including accessory dwelling units (ADUs), sometimes called "tiny homes" or "mother-in-law apartments," which can share a single-family lot with a full-size house.
With the changes, a residential lot that would normally not allow two units can instead house a duplex, for example. On residential lots where a detached unit is allowed on the same lot as a single-family home, other kinds of middle housing must be allowed.
Officials say that diversity of unit types can lead to more affordable options for those who have no choice but to rent, as well as those who want to buy but can't afford a single-family home, especially in a hot housing market.
"A diversity of housing options and diversity in neighborhoods can help expand options at a range of prices. That will help low- and middle-income wage-earners achieve stability and help them build more economic mobility," said Washington County senior planner Theresa Cherniak during an April presentation before the Washington County Board of Commissioners.
Hillsboro's draft code amendments focus on allowing higher-density developments on lots that would normally only be filled by single-family homes. City officials say they want to bring Hillsboro into compliance with the new state laws as well as encourage more affordable housing.
"Ultimately, Housing Hillsboro is about more than just compliance with State of Oregon law changes; it is about the opportunity to remove barriers and achieve City Council goals and comprehensive plan policies to encourage the development of diverse and affordable units that provide more access to housing," a staff report states. "However, others argued that a more comprehensive review of Hillsboro's building codes are needed — and that the action taken to simply match HB 2001 isn't enough."
City Councilor Anthony Martin is one of those who thinks Hillsboro needs to do more.
"I just don't think that that goes far enough," said Martin at a May 17 meeting. "I think we, as a city, need to have a broader conversation about density, about development and about affordability in our community, and I don't think this does enough."
Martin wants Hillsboro to review its policies on property line setbacks, which he says are often flexed for single-family subdivisions. He suggested that might lead to less density than desired in these neighborhoods.
Councilor Olivia Alcaire also said city officials need to think more about programs that support the homeless, as well as first-time homebuyers. She also expressed doubt that middle housing automatically translates to affordable housing for lower-income households.
"When I think ADUs, I don't necessarily think low-income," she said at the May 17 council meeting.
City staff say this is just the first step in a longer process to revamp the city's development code and look at broader options for supporting renters in the housing market.
"This is the phase of compliance," said assistant city manager Rahim Harji at the meeting. "Once we check that box, then we are able to dig deeper and also look at things like housing ownership … what kind of things can be done to incentivize more people to buy housing. … That work is coming, it's ongoing."
Washington County's efforts
Washington County is a bit further along than Hillsboro in updating its building codes, including a review of setbacks and sidewalk requirements as part of its middle housing amendments. County commissioners are holding hearings on those proposals, which are expected to be approved June 28.
County officials say coming into compliance with the new state laws is just the first step of a broader push for middle housing.
"This ordinance is not the end of the county's work on housing in general or middle housing in particular," a county staff report states. "Jurisdictions throughout Oregon anticipate the need to revise and refine the regulations once they start to be used."
The document also laid out future actions, including funding sources for middle housing projects, reviewing design standards for single attached dwellings (units added onto existing homes), and considering a possible fee for local road and sidewalk improvements.
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