April 26, 2024

Oregon housing law deserves applause rather than contempt



An article published April 9 on the Daily Journal of Commerce website, “New law touted as triumph for affordable housing … but is it?,” reviewed a new law, Senate Bill 1537. The article’s authors argued that this legislation will do little to help build new housing. We disagree.

Oregon has underproduced housing in astonishing amounts since the Great Recession. Recent analysis from Up for Growth (upforgrowth.org) estimates that over the last decade, the Portland region has produced as little as 0.7 units of housing for each new household formed. That means two things. First, the need is large, and the housing crisis will not be solved overnight. Second, we must take meaningful steps and give local jurisdictions and builders the tools they need if we want to house people.

Senate Bill 1537 does just that. It will pave the way for an unprecedented amount of housing, including regulated affordable housing, in several ways. First, it helps provide land. Small communities that cannot afford to navigate the unwieldly UGB expansion process are now free to work with the state and developers to urbanize land that includes large amounts (30 percent) of affordable housing. In certain communities, the market rental rates are at a level that significant subsidies are not required to close the gap for affordable. This is very common outside of the Metro region.

The authors take aim at Governor Kotek’s Housing Production Advisory Council, a group that worked diligently and produced a detailed set of recommendations to spur housing production (as was its explicit charge). The authors argue that watchdogs and environmentalists are better suited to help identify potential strategies. Putting aside the argument of who should – or shouldn’t – have provided the governor with ideas, it seems odd to point to these groups as likely to recommend pro-housing strategies. Indeed, these are the very champions of Oregon’s “unique” (and not necessarily in a good way) land use system that has failed to deliver needed housing. Time and time again they have sued cities and developers that have attempted to meet the housing needs of Oregon residents.

Common sense says that reliance on those who try to stop future housing is not likely the best-suited group to help us build more. The governor simply recognized and sought new ideas to jump-start the process and help her achieve a goal of building 36,000 homes a year. For that we say kudos!

Senate Bill 1537 recognizes the fact that cities have differing needs. It does not force any city to expand. Rather, it allows those that wish to grow, but lack the resources, to do so. Other areas will not grow. The state merely facilitates this choice.

Oddly, the article criticizes the requirement that jurisdictions adopt “clear and objective standards” in their housing codes, arguing that they breed “Soviet-style housing (monotonous, brutalist and cheap).” This is odd because this requirement has been state law for over a decade and has nothing to do with recent legislation. Regardless, this fearmongering about brutalist architecture is at least 50 years after brutalism showed its ugly face. You would be hard-pressed to see such apartment blocks in Forest Grove, Canby, or Gresham; yet all these cities have worked diligently to make sure that their zoning codes are clear and objective. Indeed, Wilsonville, which the article calls out, has recently facilitated hundreds of attractive, unique housing units while having some of the strictest (yet clear and objective) design standards in the region.

Requiring clear and objective standards also does not change city codes that now require neighborhood meetings and discussions before parties even apply for development. Such standards provide for housing that meets standards that are spelled out – eliminating only subjective terms like “consistent with the neighborhood” or “that won’t upset anybody.” Clear and objective standards facilitate new housing and are extremely useful tools for both developers and cities to avoid unnecessary and costly red tape.

If some cities need to revise their codes to become clear, it may be that they have spent too much time writing unclear codes to slow housing. Opponents should remember that housing is a basic human right and need.

The authors of the April 9 article also fear a lack of appeals after approval. We argue that there have been too many appeals, and that a streamlined approach to housing is necessary to meet the state’s housing goals, which merely satisfy our existing need for housing.

The article cites a “faux ‘historic neighborhood’ in Portland” that routinely fights added housing. There are always opponents who may resist change, but the cities that are willing to provide housing for Oregonians will be enabled to do so without the long legal battles that have become too routine.

Finally, the April 9 article argues that the result of the governor’s actions will be Oregonians suffering from living in unattractive housing. This incredibly elitist argument supposes that it’s better to go unhoused or spend an increasingly disproportionate amount of one’s income on housing rather than suffer the indignation of living in a house that is – gasp – subjectively less beautiful than other houses. Here, the article shows its true colors. It cares nothing for the people who need housing, but rather advocates for aesthetics unrestrained from the need to house everyone, including our most vulnerable neighbors. We congratulate Governor Kotek for overcoming tired arguments about the need to push design form over function. We are in a housing crisis: If we want to ensure that our children and grandchildren can afford housing, we must build a lot more of it!

No single law can solve our unprecedented need for housing production (the GIs returning from WWII faced a similar need). But Senate Bill 1537 will enable cities to help provide housing to Oregonians who all deserve a reasonably nice place to live, within the constraints of their economic abilities. For that reason, we cheer!

Tags: Construction, Real Estate and Land Use, Construction and Development, Homebuilding

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