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Oregon has a grave need for more housing units, but strides taken to serve that need come with consequences

PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Infrastructure improvements are a significant part of the Smith Creek housing development in Woodburn, fueled by a grave housing need statewide, which in turn is fueled largely by population growth.The noticeable booming business of home and apartment building in Woodburn and the overall homeless problems locally and regionally are at a point of conflict.

Population growth and a recent history of lackluster housing-unit construction in Oregon contribute to high housing costs, inspiring measures being taken to address widespread problems engendered by housing shortages. Among the symptoms of the crisis are a proliferation of tent cities and urban "campers" especially rampant in places like Salem, Portland and many surrounding areas.

But infused into the focus on addressing the problems are understandable concerns about local livability and changing community complexions.

Topic surfaces in Woodburn

During a recent Woodburn City Council meeting, Community Development Director Chris Kerr delivered a detailed presentation on Oregon land use, in which he delineated many factors that play within the statewide land-use scenario. It touched on historical circumstances that contributed to Oregon's land-use system, including an urban vs. rural polarization, and how state land-use stipulations affect municipalities. As an illustrative tool, Kerr cited city of Woodburn's comprehensive plan.

The city's in-depth plan is a complicated vision affected by many factors: economic opportunity analysis; housing needs analysis; transportation system plan; planning and sub-area maps; environmental resources; historical resources; parks and recreation plans; target industries analysis; water master plan. The plan is not static, and planners juggle all affecting elements to work toward a balance within it.

The presentation was detailed and immensely informative, yet concerns and observations of the current and changing living environment inevitably emerged.

Construction & concerns

Councilor Debbie Cabrales has mentioned that housing and community identity appear to be changing rapidly within Woodburn, and Councilor Mary Beth Cornwell concurred, adding that it also seems housing development is rapidly outpacing commercial development, exacerbating the issue.

Both are true and, perhaps, both are inevitable.

"The state of Oregon is pushing housing development right now very hard," City Administrator Scott Derickson said. "It's a top priority for Oregon to see more housing developed over everything else: higher densities, density infill, housing as the number one priority."

Derickson explained that the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development issued a report a few months back that indicated Oregon is currently 100,000 housing units short of its current needs. Moreover, projecting 20 years out, between 650,000 to a million units will need to be constructed to accommodate anticipated future growth.

That coincides with a report issued by Oregon Home Builders Association Housing Program Director Samantha Bayer, which also underscored a combination of factors that include population growth coupled with anemic building contributing to the state's grave housing shortage.PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Construction of housing units to fill a dearth of availability has been fast paced in places like Woodburn's Smith Creek.

"Oregon has a constrained housing supply and has chronically been underproducing for decades," the report maintains. "Over the next 20 years, Oregon will need to build about 584,000 total new homes."

The report estimated that about a quarter of those units, 140,000, will need to address housing shortages across all income groups, and half — more than 270,000 — will need to provide for households under 80% of the median family income now and in the future.

"Oregon's housing developers need to produce between 30,000 and 40,000 new homes every year, almost doubling historic production rates," the report concluded.

"Where is that housing going to go?" Derickson posed.

An unpopular solution would involve expanding city urban growth boundaries, which in turn leads to sprawl and is not in keeping with state laws and regulations aimed at protecting wetlands, farmlands and the like.

"In this process where we talk about needing land to provide supply to meet that demand by expanding the UGB, well, we all know how that works," Derickson said. "So, the focus has been trying to consume every existing opportunity within the existing city boundaries to build housing."

To achieve that objective, developers build smaller, higher-density housing. Using Woodburn's Smith Creek development as an example, Derickson said it looks as it does because it's being developed within the parameters of state policy, which in turn is guided by a need to meet the tremendous demand fueled by population growth and its consequences.

Those consequences stand to affect the character of, not only Woodburn, but every community statewide.

"I think it's a very good concern that local communities, in terms of trying to decide for themselves about what types of communities they want to be; we lose that," Derickson said.

Outpaced commercial development will ultimately be equalized by in-market demand and inducements. Nevertheless, a conceptual understanding of the impetuses driving current conditions does not placate viable livability concerns, especially amid prohibitively high housing costs coinciding with inflation and other escalating, financially crippling phenomena.

"I honestly could not afford to move here and live here today," Cornwell said.

"I don't think any of us could," Cabrales agreed.

Derickson believes that while current housing needs must be addressed, the manner of addressing them by emphasizing multifamily dwellings may bring long-term financial consequences.

"The construction of multi-family (housing) as a primary objective is good in terms of providing supply to the immediate housing need," Derickson said. "But it doesn't provide the opportunity to build equity wealth that is transferable to generations, which is a real problem."

He said residents in vulnerable communities such as Woodburn lose the opportunity to build equity through inheritable home ownership.

Who benefits?

"We are syphoning that wealth off to investment companies that are typically located out of state," Derickson said. "So, the more rental properties we have, the more supply we have (means) we are not building up that locally-based equity."

Home building obstacles

Although one would not guess it after seeing all the building activity in Woodburn, especially the mushrooming Smith Creek construction, homebuilders are contending with obstacles as well.

The home-builders association report cites a variety of factors that put pressure on residential construction: rapid population growth; a limited supply of shovel-ready lots; workforce shortages; historic underproduction; supply chain disruptions; changing regulations; administrative delays; high demand for homeownership and high land prices.

Bayer said impacts from historic underproduction linger, and while current production is improving, demand continues to outpace it. Moreover, limited supply of land and housing is increasing the cost burden on consumers of all incomes.

New complications have also emerged.

"Lasting impacts from COVID-19, inflation and the supply chain crisis pose new challenges," she noted.

From the OHBA's perspective, state-generated solutions would include increasing shovel-ready lots, removing barriers to affordable homeownership and streamlining the administrative process.

"Administrative process can be complex and slow, reducing timeliness and number of units being build," Bayer said. "Land-use, zoning, infrastructure and design standards can have unintended consequences, creating barriers to affordable homeownership."

Constant factor

While the complex issue elicits discussion on myriad topics — everything from compromised community character to tent cities to construction crimping-regulations to inflation — one constant factor underpinning all discussions is population growth.

The 2020 Census listed Oregon's population at 4,237,256, increasing by 10.6% over the 2010 number. The U.S. population increased 7.4% to 331.4 million during the same period.

State and national population increases reflect global trends; the earth's population increased from 6.922 billion in 2010 to 7.753 billion a decade later, an increase of about 12%.

The gravity of those broader trends and numbers viewed through microcosmic local eyes indicate that Woodburn is clearly in the same orbit. Census numbers locally list Woodburn's population at 24,080 in 2010 and estimated it to be at 26,013 on April 1, 2020, about an 8% increase.

Population growth can be viewed through different lenses, some of which highlight potential economic growth possibilities. Others point out that population increases come with concomitant increased needs, and meeting those needs will necessarily present inescapable peripheral effects, such as altering the feel or sense of livability within a community.

Joseph J Bish, a senior advisor with Population Media Center, is described as "an expert on population, family-planning, and other global sustainability issues related to PMC's mission."

In a PMC blog dated June 25, 2020, Bish distinctly itemizes effects inherent to population growth. While he speaks from a macro lens, the consequences apply everywhere

"It is only logical that an increase in the world's population will cause additional strains on resources," Bish said. "More people means an increased demand for food, water, housing, energy, healthcare, transportation and more."

"(The ensuing) consumption contributes to ecological degradation, increased conflicts and a higher risk of disasters, like pandemics."

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