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Let's step back. Where is the evidence that Oregon zoning laws are a significant contributor to high housing costs? Where is the evidence that randomly demolishing houses for densification will reduce traffic and sprawl, improve neighborhood livability, or enhance environmental qualities such as tree canopy?

CONTRIBUTED - Rod MerrickEvery week it seems another housing density bill emerges from the current legislative session that makes a mockery of thoughtful land-use planning. 

In the most extreme example, SB 10, densities of 14 to 75 dwellings per acre must be allowed everywhere within a half-mile of frequent transit lines.The organization 1000 Friends of Oregon (1KFO) and the homebuilders associations (OHBA) have formed an unlikely alliance to advocate for this legislation in the guise of providing urgently needed affordable housing.

The rhetoric used to shame opposition is divisive along every conceivable bias from race to economic well-being dressed in happy talk of creating new, friendly neighborhoods for everyone, everywhere.

Spinning off the Portland RIP rezone, three bills in the 2019 Oregon legislative session promise affordability through statewide mandates for increased housing density: SB 10, HB 2003, HB 2001 (all online).

If any pass, resembling their current content, the result will undermine the fundamental goals of Senate Bill 100. That 1973 foundational land-use law protects farms and forests, requires cities to grow incrementally and stabilizes neighborhoods. It requires an ongoing 20-year supply of land for all types of housing for all levels of income, provided through planning processes at the local level, first and foremost with meaningful citizen engagement.

For developer/investor interests, OHBA is gunning for unlimited access to land zoned residential while simultaneously advocating for expansion of the urban growth boundary (UGB).

1KFO has a singular historic focus to preserve forest and farmland and limit UGB expansions. Growth boundary constraints are substantially (if imperfectly) settled in policies and public opinion. To further its relevance, 1KFO has retooled as an advocate for "affordable innovative housing."

Longtime adversaries, 1KFO and OHBA, found common ground demonizing zoning regulations as the source of high housing costs.

For consistency, both organizations use rhetoric and talking points provided by 1KFO's staff and volunteers promising that dense redevelopment of all single-family neighborhoods will lead to more affordable housing, even for homeless.

They have combined their well-funded lobbying horsepower to draft legislation that radically pre-empts local zoning. All include unfunded mandates that burden local government and local taxpayers.

For 1KFO, the target is the elimination of single-family zoning by requiring at least two and as many as four dwellings on every new or redeveloped residential lot applied throughout urbanized Oregon.

OHBA has embedded provisions designed to hack building code regulations, accountability laws, and abbreviate permit processes that cost developers time and expense. 

Let's step back. Where is the evidence that Oregon zoning laws are a significant contributor to high housing costs? Where is the evidence that randomly demolishing houses for densification will reduce traffic and sprawl, improve neighborhood livability, or enhance environmental qualities such as tree canopy?

Is there evidence that the LUBA systematically fails to enforce SB 100 requirements for local governments such as Portland or Bend? Will the implicit long-term redevelopment provide neighborhood stability, reduce displacement at all income levels, and improve the character of Oregon's cities as SB 100 requires? These questions beg to be answered.

Consider some facts. In excess of 41,000 lots zoned for denser housing in Portland are available excluding ADUs. These entitlements are largely unused. Portland's cost of housing burden is high but comparable to 20 other U.S. cities and the lowest among large cities on the West Coast despite a reputation for quality of life and low unemployment. 

Rental costs are leveling or declining. Rental units are now overbuilt for years to come. Housing price increases in 2018 were 60th among the largest U.S. cities. 

In Portland's adopted 2035 Comprehensive Plan, every residential corner lot is zoned for two houses, every midblock lot may include an 800-square-foot ADU, and density overlays apply in substantial areas of the city. Prices have crested. Construction of single-family housing and apartments is projected to slow next year. Will rezoning with a sledgehammer contribute to affordability? Think again.

The Portland RIP charade and its legislative distaff are bold and dangerous interventions. We need leaders who analyze facts, not rhetorical dog whistles, before formulating policy and passing laws that result in permanent economic, social, cultural, and environmental damage. Now is the time to diffuse these legislative cluster bombs. We have time to get this right.  

Rod Merrick is an architect, president and land use committee chair of the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association, and served on the Residential Infill Project Stakeholders Advisory Committee. He wrote this piece with contributions from friends and neighbors.

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