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Oregon House Speaker claims historic districts rooted in racism, bill's opponents cry foul

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Moretti, executive director of Restore Oregon (left) opposes a bill to create more housing in single-family neighborhoods introduced by Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek of Portland. A controversial proposal to create more lower-priced housing was explored during an unusual hearing at the 2017 Oregon Legislature last Thursday. It pitted former allies against each other and included a charge by Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek of Portland that wealthy homeowners in historic districts are trying to protect properties acquired under racist housing policies by fighting multifamily projects.

Citing a 2010 article in The Atlantic magazine, Kotek said historic preservation neighborhood districts protect "winners of race-based housing policies." She made the comment at the end of the hearing when no one had an opportunity to respond.

Introduced by Kotek and five other legislators, House Bill 2007 seeks to speed up the permitting process for affordable housing projects and prevent local governments from banning duplexes and accessory dwelling units in single-family neighborhoods. It also prevents cities or counties from applying additional protections for housing in residential neighborhoods designated for national historic status.

Kotek also told the House Committee on Human Services and Housing that much of the opposition to the bill is NIMBY — Not in My Back Yard — thinking. Multnomah Neighborhood Association Land Use Chair James Peterson, who was at the hearing and opposes the bill, calls Kotek's comments "inappropriate for someone in her position."

The bill is supported by affordable housing advocates, homebuilders and environmentalists, who say it will increase the availability of smaller housing units, which will cost less than the large homes now being built in single-family neighborhoods.

"House Bill 2007 will result in more and more affordable housing," said Mary Kyle McCurdy, deputy director of the 1000 Friends of Oregon land use watchdog organization.

Some homeowners, neighborhood activists and historic preservationists oppose the bill, saying it will encourage the demolition of older, less-expensive homes without guaranteeing their replacements will be truly affordable.

"House Bill 2007 will do far more harm than good," said Peggy Moretti, executive director of Restore Oregon, a statewide nonprofit preservation organization.

Moretti said her organization usually agrees with 1000 Friends of Oregon on land use issues, but "1000 Friends have forgotten who their friends are."

Michael Mehaffy, chairman of the Goose Hollow Neighborhood Association, agreed, saying he regards 1000 Friends of Oregon as an ally on most issues, but not this one. Mehaffy is also a senior researcher for KTH University in Stockholm, Sweden, and executive director of the Sustasis Foundation, which promotes livable neighborhoods. He also said the bill's supporters should work with neighborhood residents to find common ground on the affordable housing issue.

The hearing was unusual for several reasons. The committee had previously considered and approved the bill on April 24. It is currently in the Joint Ways and Means Committee, which has not yet scheduled a hearing on it. Although no one opposed the original version of the bill, Kotek subsequently proposed a series of amendments — including some restricting protections for future historic preservation districts — that sparked a backlash when they were revealed.

The amendments were not actually being considered by the committee, however, because it no longer has jurisdiction over the bill.

In fact, the committee chairwoman, Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer (D-Portland), said hundreds of letters and emails submitted on both sides of the issue could not be accepted and entered into the record because of that.

On top of that, only 10 invited witnesses were allowed to testify. And none of them represented a historic preservation district, despite their prominence in the amendments and Kotek's dig at the people who live in them.

In addition to McCurdy, Moretti and Mehaffy, the other witnesses were: Anyeley Hallova of the Project PDX development firm of Portland; Phil Beyl, an architect with Portland-based GBD Architects; Sean Hubert, the chief housing and employment officer with the Portland-based Central City Concern social service organization; Eli Spevak, owner of the Orange Splot development firm of Portland; George Kramer, a historic preservation consultant in Ashland; Rob Hallyburton, community services division manager of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development; and Eric King, the city manager of Bend.

Many of the arguments at the hearing were the same as those in the debate over the "missing middle" housing policy approved by the Portland City Council last year.

The city policy is more ambitious than Kotek's bill. It would rezone most single-family neighborhoods in Portland to allow more smaller multi-family housing projects, including duplexes, triplexes, four-plexes, accessory dwelling units, cottage clusters and garden apartments.

The policy was included in the state-required update of the Comprehensive Plan that has been filed with the Department of Land Conservation and Development for approval. It is being challenged by the Multnomah Neighborhood Association, which charges it was rushed through at the last minute without sufficient public involvement.

The staff working on the Residential Infill Project at the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability are currently drafting the city code amendments to implement it.

Their work includes size restrictions on new housing in the single-family neighborhoods to help ensure they are more compatible with existing homes.