Why Housing For All is Part of Oregon's Land Use System

Madeline Kovacs
Wed, 06/28/2017 - 10:45am

In the Fall, 1980 edition of the 1000 Friends newsletter, then-State Housing Council Chair Betty Niven stressed the importance of fully implementing land use planning Goal 10, Housing. Niven reminded readers that reforms required by the Goal pertain not only to housing supply, but also to "what people can afford to pay for a house - what might be called 'income-sensitive zoning.’

‚ÄčNiven’s words could have been written today, as Oregon struggles to address a statewide housing shortage, and as Oregonians from every county and municipality are being evicted and/or priced out of their communities. As Mayor Vinis of Eugene aptly put it in April’s Register-Guard, “It is not news that our community faces a housing crisis at all levels. There is a shortage of single-family homes at the upper end, which adds downward pressure on the housing market. As people scramble in a seller’s market, moderately priced homes become more valuable, and folks at the low end of the market are squeezed out. Added to this is our severe shortage of affordable rentals as well as subsidized housing, and we see unrelenting stress on tenants.”

It is tempting to mistake the predicament we now find ourselves in as a product of recent decisions, or recent changes, or to blame it on newcomers. But, that would be misguided. Rather, as a state, we have for many years failed to fully meet Goal 10. The Goal reads: “[P]lans shall encourage the availability of adequate numbers of needed housing units at price ranges and rent levels which are commensurate with the financial capabilities of Oregon households and allow for flexibility of housing location, type, and density.”

So, given the Goal’s explicit focus on serving all families, as incomes stagnate and prices rise, as competition for scarce housing stock heats up, and as demographics shift toward smaller household sizes, we should expect our local zoning and housing rules and regulations to evolve, too. When conducting long-range planning, jurisdictions need to not only consider how many people will be accommodated, but what KINDS of housing are required, how much it costs, and where it’s located. 

SE Salmon St Duplex - with a combination of HB2007 rules and planning guides like the Residential Infill Project, more communities across the state could have this kind of housing. 

Since the 1950’s, we’ve zoned the majority of our city and town residential lands for single-family, detached housing only. This has created a functional mis-match between what housing is allowed, and the housing that our communities need. As Mary Kyle McCurdy put it in 1000 Friends’ testimony to the Informational Panel on Housing and HB 2007 last month: “Today, there is almost no city in Oregon in which a family making the median income can afford the median priced home, for rent or purchase, based on paying 30% of one’s income on housing… There are many reasons for this… but Oregon’s cities are experiencing a longstanding, structural mismatch between the amount, type, location, and affordability of housing that Oregonians need, and how our cities and towns have zoned their residential lands for decades…” The majority of residential land in our towns and cities is zoned to effectively leave  out the young couple who has not yet started a family, the 70-something widow, and the single parent with 1 or 2 children.

What was Betty Niven’s prescription, back in 1980? She wrote: “...local practices which drive up housing costs - such as large lots, shortages of multifamily zoning, higher fees, delays in approval, vague standards, lack of buildable lands inventories and the like - must be eliminated or modified.” This is precisely what HB 2007A, now under consideration at the Oregon Legislature, proposes to address, albeit very moderately. Among other measures, the bill:

  • Fast tracks affordable housing building permits,
  • Streamlines local government procedures to make it easier to provide more housing (and especially affordable housing),
  • Allows additional dwelling units (ADUs) and duplexes in single-family neighborhoods,
  • Allows religious institutions to use their property to develop affordable housing, and
  • Introduces higher levels of transparency in the historic designation process and closes loopholes that circumvent local public participation.  

For young adults saddled with college debt and entering a sputtering economy, smaller, flexible housing options like ADUs and duplexes might put first-time homeownership within reach. For an entire Boomer generation, the flexibility to downsize into retirement could yield senior-friendly options within existing communities & neighborhoods, like an accessibly-built granny cottage, or a flat within a larger home.

There are other considerations, too: Flexibility in housing options can be especially important for families of color, helping to address historic and long-term barriers that have inequitably kept generation after generation from achieving homeownership. And, allowing more compact, diverse housing types in already well-connected places serves the quickly-growing market for walkable, less-auto-dependent urban and main street living, while better meeting our climate and sustainability goals.

Luckily, in Oregon, land use is also the solution, and we already possess the tools to address the problem. Niven again: “Too few people understand that Oregon is the only state in America to have recognized its responsibility by establishing state-level policies and a review process which are necessary to chop needlessly higher housing costs out of the local land development process.”

Old and new construction working together to provide diverse housing options in our existing communities.

We also believe that transparent, local public processes, espoused in Goal 1, are at the heart of what makes our state great. In Oregon, private groups of landowners shouldn’t get to circumvent local input and misuse National Historic Districts to wall off entire neighborhoods from change. This is especially true when no local public process has confirmed that the District in fact meets Historic District creation criteria; that there are much more effective tools available to preserve remarkable historic buildings; and that a holistic consideration of the benefits of a District in light of other citywide needs (like housing lower-income people, environmental protection, transit, and others), is conducted with local control.

For all of these reasons, 1000 Friends is advocating alongside affordable housing advocates, housing service providers, environmental conservationists, community-based organizations, and fair housing activists, to expand access to Oregon’s neighborhoods for all. It is our collective responsibility, as Oregonians, no matter our town or our neighborhood, to share in the benefits and burdens of change as equitably as we possibly can.

Oregon’s land use planning program is built on balancing the needs and interests of all Oregonians, both today and for future generations. We protect our iconic places, and we steward our working landscapes of farms, forests, and natural resources. We ensure that all towns and cities are welcoming, vibrant places to live - and part of fulfilling that promise means that we provide housing opportunities for all our people. That’s the Oregon way.