A duplex in the Buckman neighborhood. Credit: Thomas Hubka (
If only national media would stop writing about how great Oregon is. If only Californians would quit moving here. If only developers would stop demolishing older homes in Portland neighborhoods and putting up pricey monstrosities in their place. Then there wouldn’t be a housing crisis, right?
Or so goes the wishful thinking by those Oregonians who yearn for the way it was — or at least, their recollection of the way it was — before double-digit rent increases, bidding wars for starter homes and the sight of people living on the streets became so routine. Unfortunately, nostalgia, unrealistic solutions and misplaced blame won’t relieve the strain of an unrelenting population boom or reverse the years of underbuilding of new housing units. More than three years after Portland first declared a housing emergency and Oregon’s rental vacancy rate dipped to a nationwide low, the state as a whole remains woefully short of creating the housing it needs.
A proposal from House Speaker Tina Kotek to loosen single-family zoning restrictions just might be the game changer Oregon needs. The Portland Democrat plans to introduce a bill next month that requires towns and cities with more than 10,000 people to allow construction of duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes in neighborhoods currently zoned for single-family homes, as Willamette Week and The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. Communities would have 16 months to draw up their framework for such development or cede that responsibility to the state.
Kotek’s proposal is a smart and pragmatic approach to a housing problem that goes beyond the Portland metro area and crosses city and county lines. It recognizes that development is most efficient and environmentally responsible in neighborhoods with established networks of schools, parks and transportation. It leverages the economic reality that building two, three or four smaller units on a lot will translate into lower prices or more affordable rents to a broader range of buyers. And Kotek’s proposal sends the unmistakable message to communities, particularly those that have resisted affordable housing in their neighborhoods, that they cannot wall themselves off from the state’s shared responsibility to provide housing options for new or displaced residents.
Importantly, in terms of the physical change to neighborhoods, Kotek’s proposal is mindful of residents’ concerns. Her plan doesn’t call for the eradication of single-family homes nor for building megaplexes on every corner. The goal is to offer a broader mix of housing options that can be blended into single-family neighborhoods — think town homes or houses divided into four apartments — giving potential buyers and renters more options at lower prices.
It is, of course, not without controversy. Even in Portland, where residents wring their hands over homeless students hopscotching from one school to another and the throngs of people living on the street, there’s strong opposition to a city-led proposal to allow more development of duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes in neighborhoods zoned for single family housing. Residents eye the Residential Infill Project as a potential giveaway for developers who will destroy “neighborhood character” as opposed to recognizing the cold, hard math of too few housing units for too many people.
But that proposed plan, which has been in the works for years, only adds support for relaxing zoning on a statewide level. Oregon senior economist Josh Lehner wrote about the potential for the Portland proposal on the blog for the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, even before hearing of Kotek’s proposal. He highlighted the findings in a report by a city-hired economist that allowing such modest multi-unit developments in single-family neighborhoods would yield a net increase of 1,800 housing units per year for the next 20 years — a result that should not be underappreciated. “By simply allowing for — not requiring — town homes and triplexes to be built on existing lands in the City of Portland, the policy can accommodate one out of every seven new Portland area households in the coming decade,” Lehner wrote. “That is a big finding.”
Increasing density in established neighborhoods with schools, parks and regular public transportation isn’t just about providing housing. It’s about providing opportunity. Groundbreaking research led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, who spoke earlier this month at the Oregon Leadership Summit, shows significant differences in outcomes for adults based on the neighborhoods where they grew up as children, even tracking the effects after a child moves to a new neighborhood.
In Portland, not surprisingly, the data maps the greatest economic opportunity in wealthy neighborhoods like Laurelhurst and Alameda with far less economic opportunity associated with childhoods in lower-income neighborhoods. Kotek’s proposal offers a relatively painless way to boost such economic opportunity for families who couldn’t otherwise get a foothold in such neighborhoods.
Certainly, Kotek’s proposal is a starting point that will need refinements. Communities, particularly those just clearing the 10,000-resident threshold, may balk at the state elbowing in on decisions that have traditionally been left to them. Cities may seek to block development through other excessive regulations or fees. And as Kotek herself pointed out, increasing supply is only one front of many on the battle for affordability. But the state can and should step in to lead on this pressing statewide problem on which local jurisdictions have failed.
“We need big ideas if we’re going to continue to make some kind of progress on our housing crisis,” Kotek told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board, acknowledging that the heavy lift of such legislation. But it boils down to this: “If people care about the housing crisis and they care about the availability of residential units,” Kotek said, “then we have to allow more construction in residential areas.”
— Helen Jung for The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board