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Housing density fight heats up
The latest flashpoint in the fight over increasing homes in single-family neighborhoods is a bill in the 2017 Oregon Legislature that critics say would rezone them for multi-family housing.
House Bill 2007 was introduced by three Portland and three downstate legislators, including Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek. Although the summary says it is intended to speed up the production of affordable housing, it is being attacked as a giveaway to developers that would not guarantee the new housing it produces would be less expensive.
The issue erupted during a Saturday town hall held in Multnomah Village by state representatives Margaret Doherty, Jennifer Williamson and Ann Lininger. Although billed as an update on the 2017 Oregon Legislature, around half the standing room only crowd came to oppose the bill. After the legislators made brief opening statements, the first nine audience members who spoke criticized the bill. No one supported it.
"I think it started off with good intentions, but it has morphed into something ugly. Like 'drill, baby, drill' is supposed to solve our energy problems, 'build, baby, build' is being offered as the solution to the affordable housing crisis," said Peggy Moretti, executive director of the Restore Oregon historic preservation organization.
A legislative staff member finally said the town hall needed to move onto other issues, such as how to balance the budget that is facing a $1.6 billion shortfall. Williamson thanked those who opposed the bill for their feedback, but would not say where she stood on it.
Among other things, HB 2007 requires cities and counties to speed up applications for affordable housing projects. It also includes provisions preventing local governments from restricting density increases in residential zones, although conditions can be imposed on where the growth can occur.
Supporters include the Oregon Home Builders Association and the 1000 Friends of Oregon land use watchdog organization. They say it will reduce home prices by increasing the supply and type of housing.
"We need different kinds of housing in different stages of our lives. Two-thirds of people live in one or two family households, but 90 percent of our residential zoning is for single-family homes," says Mary Kyle McCurdy, deputy director of 1000 Friends.
Opponents, which include neighborhood organizations and activists, say the bill would destroy the character of existing neighborhoods without guaranteeing the additional housing will be affordable, however.
"House Bill 2007 threatens and undermines the single-family home type of urban environment that Portland and other Oregon cities have protected for decades with zoning. If passed, the overreach of HB 2007 will take away local control by gutting single-family zoning restrictions," says local neighborhood activist Margaret Davis.
Davis is also puzzled that 1000 Friends and the home builders both support the bill. McCurdy says they have both agreed and disagreed on issues over the years.
The bill has already been amended and approved by the House Human Services and Housing Committee. It has been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee, where Williamson serves.
By coincidence, the town hall was held in a part of town that has led the fight against increasing residential densities. It is symbolized by opposition to a 71-unit, four-story apartment building that is under construction across the street from where the town hall took place. It dwarfs the other buildings in the Multnomah Village business district.
Allowing multi-family housing in single-family neighborhoods has become a huge issue in Portland. Until recently, the fight mostly centered on the recommendations of the Residential Infill Project created by former Mayor Charlie Hales. A majority of its citizen steering committee proposed rezoning large portions of existing single-family neighborhoods for the construction of so-called missing middle housing, including duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, row houses, small apartments and cottage clusters. More accessory dwelling units also would be allowed.
The recommendations were endorsed by the City Council late last year when it updated the state-required Comprehensive Plan intended to govern growth for the next 20 years. Project staff with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability are currently writing the City Code revisions to enact the recommendations. They will be considered by the citizen Planning and Sustainability Commission that advises the bureau before going to the council later this year.
Several members of the steering committee, including McCurdy, have formed the advocacy organization Portland for Everyone to lobby the council in support of the recommendations.
HB 2007 highlights
As currently written, House Bill 2007 would:
• Require affordable housing projects to be approved in 100 days.
• Block cities from denying housing development applications due to failing to comply with "discretionary design review standards."
• Prohibit local government from adopting standards such as through national historic districts to "discourage needed housing."
• Stop local governments from reducing the density of some housing development applications if their density is allowed by zoning.
• Require local governments to allow properties that are zoned to allow non-residential places of worship to also allow detached affordable housing complexes.