Oregon's new housing mandate faces fans, foes throughout state
To hear housing advocates tell it, Oregon is on the verge of addressing a wide range of social problems by effectively eliminating single-family zoning throughout the state.
During a housing conference held at Portland State University last week, several speakers said the mandate approved by the 2019 Oregon Legislature will create more affordable housing, ease the homeless crisis, compensate for past racial discrimination and fight climate change. House Bill 2001 requires that most cities allow a duplex on every lot, and up to four units on some lots within single-family zones.
"We all know that more and bigger isn't sustainable anymore. They don't leave us fulfilled," said Metro President Lynn Peterson, who kicked off the 2019 Build Small, Live Large conference held Thursday and Friday, Nov. 7 and 8.
Not everyone in the region is on board, however. The Portland City Council is moving toward achieving and maybe exceeding the goal by approving the Residential Infill Project, which was in the works before HB 2001 passed.
The West Linn City Council, on the other hand, is considering ignoring the requirement, which must be completed within a couple of years because of budget and other concerns.
During an Oct. 21 council meeting, West Linn Mayor Russ Axelrod called the change "stupid," saying the city's infrastructure is not designed for so much potential more density. Councilors Teri Cummings and Richard Sakelik agreed. They also said they were worried the new units might not be affordable to many households.
"This seems like it will create more issues than it will solve," Axelrod said.
West Linn Councilor Jules Walters acknowledged that the bill's mandates may not be perfect, but seemed opposed to directly defying them.
"I'm not sure perhaps this is the best way, but at least it's a step forward and I'm very encouraged by that," Walters said. "And also be aware that we — I believe all of us at this table — are very supportive of our urban growth boundary and I'd rather have a cottage cluster next to me than to start building mansions on farms."
The Lake Oswego City Council is also considering imposing a $15,000 fee on the demolition of existing homes to fund parks programs. Though not specifically related to HB 2001, it could reduce the number of new units envisioned by it.
Resistance may be futile, however. HB 2001 includes a model set of requirements that will be imposed on cities that do not revise their zoning. Some speakers at the conference were scornful of the two cities for challenging them.
Portland supports density increases
In contrast to West Linn and Lake Oswego, the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability has been drafting a proposal to increase residential densities in single-family neighborhoods for years. The current recommendations would allow up to four units on practically every single-family lot. Some City Council members have said up to six units should be allowed. Such relatively small multifamily projects are frequently called "missing middle" housing.
A council briefing on the residential infill project — or RIP, as it is commonly called — is set for Dec. 11. The first public hearing where testimony will be allowed is set for Jan. 15, 2020.
Although work on RIP began well before the 2019 Oregon Legislature passed HB 2001, it would implement most of the new state requirements. The rest could be accommodated with a follow-up measure.
The plan is controversial. Many housing supporters, developers, land use planning advocates and social justice activists support it as a means to create more lower-priced housing. Some preservationists and neighborhood activists argue it will change the character of Portland and strain city services without guaranteeing that many people will be able to afford much of the new housing.
An independent Johnson Economics report commissioned by the city concluded the plan would have mixed results. The report, which was released in November 2018, said most of the new housing would be investor-owned rental units with few home ownership opportunities. Existing lower-cost homes likely would be demolished for the new housing in Lents, Brentwood-Darlington, Montavilla and other lower-income neighborhoods.
At the same time, the Portland region needs to accommodate approximately 250,000 new residents over the next 20 years, requiring many more housing units of all kinds to be built. The report found the current RIP recommendations would result in 38,115 new homes being built over the next two decades — nearly three times the 13,665 predicted under the city's current zoning.
The report only predicts a relatively small increase in demolitions the recommendations are adopted — from 1,384 to 1,501 over the next 20 years. But the net increase of 24,333 units is much greater because so many multifamily projects will replace them.
Even some of the speakers at last week's housing conference acknowledged that many households might not be able to afford much of the new housing. The report predicted average rents for the new units would be $1,823, more than 35% higher than the current average. But the speakers said some of the new units will be built by nonprofit developers that keep rents low to serve low-income families. And they noted that both Portland and Metro have passed bonds to fund larger affordable housing projects in the city and region.
Holly Bartholomew contributed to this story.
Where do new density requirements apply locally?
As approved by the 2019 Oregon Legislature, the residential density requirements in House Bill 2001 apply to all cities within the boundary of the Metro regional government with a population of more than 1,000.
Those cities are Beaverton, Fairview, Forest Grove, Gladstone, Gresham, Happy Valley, Hillsboro, Milwaukie, Oregon City, Portland, Sherwood, Tigard, Troutdale, Tualatin, West Linn, Wilsonville and Wood Village.
The requirements also apply to all unincorporated areas of Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties within the boundary that is served by sufficient urban services.
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