Milwaukie vote ensures homes for people of various incomes
What is the special sauce that makes a collection of buildings, services and people into a community?
There's no one answer to that question, but shared values are one of the characteristics that comes up time and again.
On Aug. 18, the Milwaukie City Council took a historic vote to adopt a new comprehensive plan, which puts into practice the values we identified in a communitywide visioning process three years ago as clear directions for how Milwaukie will shape its growth over the next 20 years.
During the All-Aboard Milwaukie visioning process of 2017, we learned that we have a lot of work to do to create the Milwaukie of 2040 that is entirely equitable, delightfully livable and completely sustainable.
The city has led the way on that work by setting council goals that invest time and money in figuring out the steps we need to take to be the place we all want this to be. Those investments show up in the clear and thoughtful policies set forth in the new comprehensive plan. While there's a lot to celebrate in every section of the plan, our housing policy work most strongly reflects Milwaukie's vision.
Diverse housing creates more livability
Housing is one of the places where cities can have the greatest influence over equity, and where we can make choices to improve livability and sustainability in many ways. Milwaukie is mostly built out — our last big construction boom was in the 1950s and '60s, when urban design relied upon the car to get everyone around.
Cars are still important, but we have learned that building around cars is costly. You can only build so many single-family houses before you run out of space, and those houses are mostly going to be far away from amenities like grocery stores and bus stops, because all of those services that help enrich a community require a certain level of density to survive.
The supply of homes drops, prices go up and people who have lived their entire lives here — or people who were raised here and want to move back with their families — can't afford to do so. Unless we change, only wealthier people will be able to afford to live in Milwaukie.
Milwaukie's cost of housing skyrocketed 85% between 2012 and 2018. Rents already are too expensive in Milwaukie for individuals like teachers, and a mortgage is out of reach for a slightly higher-wage earner like a construction worker. Some 51% of our renters and 32% of Milwaukie's homeowners are spending more than 30% of their gross household income on monthly utility and housing bills (based on 2010 Census data).
That's too much. Right now, almost 70% of Milwaukie's housing land is dominated by single-dwelling homes. We can diversify housing options while still preserving the pleasant, charming neighborhoods Milwaukie is known for.
Many of the policies in the new comprehensive plan are designed to encourage the development of "missing middle" housing — multiplexes, cottage clusters, ADUs and townhomes. These housing forms were once commonly built in urban areas. Years ago, I lived in a duplex on a block in the Westmoreland neighborhood of Portland that was mostly single-dwelling homes, but included a house converted to apartments and a charming single-story brick garden apartment complex of seven units.
Mature trees provided shade in the summer. Our yards were well-maintained, and it was a safe and enjoyable place to live, with regular bus service, shops and restaurants in easy walking distance. All of the housing was built decades ago. By changing our policies and codes regulating density, Milwaukie can help shift the balance and make the construction of mixed neighborhoods like this attractive once again.
Equity isn't just about making sure folks at different income levels can still call Milwaukie home. Richard Rothstein's book "The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America" is a relentless recounting of the ways in which zoning, land-use policies and banking practices were used to deny Blacks, Indigenous people and people of color the right to live in neighborhoods that were defined as "white."
Decades of racist housing policy have forced many of these populations to accept living in crowded, substandard and disproportionately expensive housing as a way of life. Along the way, generations of families have missed out on the chance to buy a house and to begin building generational wealth.
It is time for America to correct this systemic racism, and Rothstein's research helped us understand how to begin to do so.
Some Milwaukie homeowners look at the rapid development that's taken place in Sellwood and are afraid they may suddenly find themselves with an apartment complex looming right next door. We don't have the walkability or level of services here that have driven that transformation. A better comparison is the Montavilla neighborhood of Portland.
For decades, Montavilla has been zoned to allow construction of up to fourplexes in what's mostly a single-dwelling neighborhood with standard-size lots. As Montavilla resident Michael Andersen writes in an article for Sightline Institute, "Our pocket neighborhood has about 200 low-density residential buildings. All told, 39 years after Portland's 1980 upzone, 20 homes have been built using the increased density."
Encouraging missing-middle housing alone won't be enough to address the housing crisis. But over time, it will help, while preserving the livability of our neighborhoods. We also have included policies to promote land banking, incentives for developers to build affordable units in mutiplexes, and we will be looking at our zoning maps to see where we could allow other forms of higher-density development.
Moving ahead together
Our adoption of the new comprehensive plan is an affirmation of the efforts of hundreds of residents, numerous consultants and countless of hours of staff time. In all, there were a dozen hearings with the council and the planning commission. The city convened 24 meetings of a resident-led advisory committee and hosted more than 10 communitywide events and online surveys to engage the public.
It was a lot of work, and there is more to come as we update city codes. But Milwaukie is already a better place for it. Having these big conversations about our identity has provided a focal point for the community. We have all gotten to know one another better, and those relationships are a springboard for the next steps.
I'm so excited by how many of Milwaukie's residents have shown up for these conversations, and I hope we all continue to work together to make the Milwaukie of 2040 one that feels welcoming and accessible to everyone.
Kathy Hyzy is a Milwaukie city councilor.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.