Our Opinion: Portland residents must embrace density
The problems of homelessness and housing affordability are obvious to anyone who travels the many roads lined with makeshift dwellings or who experiences the sticker shock of a two-bedroom house or studio apartment.
So, it's worth noting that these issues used to be far down the list of things that Portlanders and Oregonians were most concerned about. Over the past few decades, education and the economy have typically been the top issues in Oregon.
John Horvick of DHM Research noted in a recent meeting with the Pamplin Media Group editorial board that polling shows our new twin top anxieties concern the homeless and the related, but separate, matter of housing costs.
How the region got to this point and what might be done about it are at the heart of a new report from the Value of Jobs coalition, which has been tracking trends in the regional economy for a decade. The coalition, led by the Portland Business Alliance, just released its annual economic checkup, which calls out housing affordability as a major economic concern.
If you are wondering why housing costs have soared in the Portland area, the report from the coalition and ECONorthwest spells out the underlying causes. For starters, since 2010, only seven units of housing have been built in Oregon for every 10 new households. In the Portland region, 103,000 new units were needed in the past decade to keep up with population growth, but only 79,500 were built.
And despite a short-lived burst in apartment construction from 2016 to 2018, the supply is again drying up. Fewer building permits are in the pipeline — only 2,500 new homes are expected to be completed in the metro region in 2022.
Not enough housing of all types is being built to meet the demand. The only effective way to lower costs is to increase the supply. This doesn't always directly correspond to a reduction in homelessness — which often is related to mental health issues, addiction and domestic abuse — but it would address the ability of all families to live comfortably in this region.
The Portland Business Alliance is laying out a policy agenda to support an increase in housing supply. Among other things, the alliance will:
• Push for higher zoning densities near transit lines.
• Advocate for streamlining city permitting processes.
• Review fees and systems development charges that add to the cost of housing.
• Ask for reform of Portland's inclusionary zoning rules to make it easier to develop larger and new mixed-income housing projects.
These ideas are a good starting point for Portland, but they need to expand to the entire metro area, since housing is tight and costly regionwide.
Many local leaders are quick to look for new tax dollars to address homelessness — hence, the mad rush to put a regional homeless services tax on the May ballot. (See story, Page A14.) But they also need to look at how their own policies and fees limit the speedy delivery of new housing.
Tigard and other jurisdictions have set a good example by waiving or reducing systems development charges for affordable housing, a concession that helps these projects pencil out for nonprofit organizations or developers.
Our congressional delegation could help amplify the calls for the federal government, which has dramatically reduced funding for subsidized housing, to help local governments that waive fees for affordable housing.
Cities also need to implement the 2019 Legislature's House Bill 2001, which allows duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes in many neighborhoods previously limited to single-family homes.
Along those lines, every jurisdiction should clear the way for more accessory dwelling units (think garage apartments or backyard cottages). Local governments also can be supportive by donating land, where available, or otherwise subsidizing developments earmarked for affordable housing.
Reducing fees and bureaucratic obstacles, loosening zoning requirements, and offering a helping hand are all good strategies for making this region a place where everyone can afford to live. But there's one more element, and that brings us back to public attitudes.
Local residents are very concerned about the cost of housing, but at the same time, they aren't always open to changes in their own neighborhoods.
NIMBYism is still alive and well in Oregon, but unless this state is willing to blow open its long-standing protections for farm and forest lands, the people inside urban growth boundaries must become much more receptive to density in all forms — even if it's in their backyards.
Without more housing, the costs will only go higher — and that means the next generations will not have the same comforts of home and accumulated wealth as the current ones.
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