Caution needed in revising Milwaukie comprehensive plan
Early in 2020, we will finish two years of work to update our woefully outdated Comprehensive Plan. We've had a great, robust process, and I appreciate all the residents who came out for meetings, as well as the hardworking Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee.
The Comp Plan sets broad policies, and launches us into the harder, more detailed work of updating our code, including zoning. That will be a multi-year staged process, but zoning and housing work will likely come first. There are some tough calls to be made about where we add density by opening up to more "missing middle" housing — triplexes, quadplexes, cottage clusters and townhomes.
Creating homeownership opportunities
After a couple of decades with very little new home construction, the end of the recession brought a building boom for Milwaukie in terms of both apartments and single-family homes. Since 2016, 130 apartments, over 70 single-family homes, and a dozen duplexes or accessory dwelling units have been built. But the pipeline of what is coming in the next three years is considerably bigger — some projects are still in planning, but it seems likely that we will see something like 500 more apartments, 170 units at a new senior complex and over 100 more single-family detached homes by 2023. This will constitute at least a 10% increase in housing in Milwaukie in seven or eight years.
But those new single-family homes are mostly selling for over $500,000 apiece — a price range far out of a reach for many in our community. So adding missing middle housing options is crucial to add a range of price points to provide home ownership opportunities to more people in our community. I am confident that Milwaukie can forge a good path to creating these opportunities.
Misguided state law
The one-size-fits-all approach of HB 2001, passed by the legislature last summer, is misguided policy — wielding a bludgeon where we should be using a scalpel. An advisory group is working with the state on regulations to implement HB 2001, so the exact interpretation of the statute's rather vague language will be clarified. At its most extreme, HB 2001 could be read to require allowing up to a fourplex to be built on every residential lot — upzoning from one to four the number of units that can be built in our single-family zones. There are countless problems with the legislation, but due to space constraints, I will only highlight the four which most concern me:
HB 2001 could result in a net decrease in affordable housing: Nothing about the bill provides funding for building affordable housing, rather it creates an incentive for property owners of naturally-occurring affordable housing, such as duplexes and smaller, older homes in Milwaukie, to scrap that housing and build a new fourplex which is likely to rent at higher rates. Further, studies indicate that blanket upzoning results in an overall increase in property values that makes home ownership that much more unreachable for people of modest income, as well as impedes use of some affordable housing tools, like community land trusts.
HB 2001 does not facilitate home ownership and hence wealth accumulation for underserved communities: Some of the middle housing types called out in the bill, such as townhomes and cottage clusters, may be conducive to smaller ownership lots, but duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes are generally not. Those will be the easiest for landowners to build, and allows them to ensure an income stream into the future. There is no reason to believe the legislation will result in significant home-ownership opportunities. This conclusion was also reached by economists in analyzing Portland's Residential Infill Project, see portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/705704.
HB 2001 creates incentive for replacing older homes — some of which is appropriate, but some which have historic value which Milwaukie is way behind in recognizing and protecting.
Most crucially, zoning changes are largely irreversible, so should be made with caution. Although Speaker Kotek said on OPB's Think Out Loud earlier this year that the legislature can fix anything that turns out to be wrong with HB 2001, that is not really true. Upzoning leads to a new vested property right for property owners, and cities cannot turn back without creating a legal issue.
That legislators knew HB 2001 created perverse incentives that would not facilitate more affordable housing is evidenced by the fact that they also found the need to enact HB 2003. That legislation requires cities to plan for promoting more affordable housing (something Milwaukie has already been doing), and could have been accompanied by better policy options, such as adding quotas for cities, or providing a sunsetting tax incentive for property owners who add a unit or more to existing lots by 2025 and keep it under a specified cost range. That would create some pressure on those cities that are dragging their feet in allowing missing middle housing.
Forging an incremental approach
So as we dive into our housing code in the first half of 2020, the biggest question we have to answer is whether to rezone all of our residential areas to allow more density on every lot, or whether to start with focused areas, such as along major arterial roads or transit corridors. Some of my City Council colleagues favor the former. I strongly favor the latter.
The questions are not just about housing, but also about trees and greenspace, and the hot-button topic: parking. How we move from home to work to daily errands is likely to change over the next 15 years, with the advent of self-driving cars and introduction of more bus, shuttle and shared-car options. Some families are already downsizing from two cars to a single car and more people are using bikes for transportation, not just recreation. But most of our community is still many years away from a car-free future, and we have to be careful not to sacrifice the livability of our neighborhoods in the interim.
So while the day will come when we can do away with off-street parking requirements for new homes and apartments, that day is not here yet. This counsels for an incremental approach as to both expansion of higher-density areas and reduction of parking requirements.
We will have a robust discussion of these issues in the first half of 2020 — if these are issues you care about, please follow the city's website, newsletter and social media to know when meetings are taking place and surveys are available. You have a last opportunity to chime in on the Comp Plan policies in the hearings — get details on those and see the policies here: milwaukieoregon.gov/planning/comprehensive-plan-update.
In the meantime, have a lovely holiday season!
Lisa Batey is a Milwaukie city councilor. These views are those of the author only, and do not represent the views of the Milwaukie City Council.
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