A new Oregon law could increase locations where affordable housing can be built at a time when many communities are grappling with the pressures of too few homes. It’s one of many Oregon laws that will take effect in the new year but, according to one city planner, it could clash with local land-use rules.

Passed during the 2021 legislative session, SB8 is meant to allow for the development of affordable housing on land currently zoned for commercial or light industrial uses.

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It restricts local governments from denying affordable housing applications, with certain exceptions, such as being located on a floodplain or unable to be served by utilities. Developments are required to serve people who earn 80% or below the local median income.

“The intention is to make sure that there aren’t any artificial constraints in the zoning code that limit sites for affordable housing,” says Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, who worked on the bill as a member of the legislature’s House committee on housing.

Marsh says it has been difficult to find tracts of land for affordable housing in the Rogue Valley after Southern Oregon’s destructive Almeda Fire in 2020.

“We’ll see how much impact this actually has in the Rogue Valley, but I do think we have small cities that are already wondering – Ashland is one, I think Talent is one – whether some areas that otherwise have been set aside for commercial or light industrial should be housing areas,” she says.

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But the new law has critics.

City of Medford Planning Director Matt Brinkley says the new law will be problematic for municipalities like his by preventing them from requiring zoning changes, the process Medford uses to evaluate whether there’s sufficient infrastructure for development.

Brinkley says the law will make it difficult for cities to deny affordable housing applications, even if there’s insufficient infrastructure, such as sewer capacity.

“Here in the city of Medford, we would not be able to go back and tell a developer ‘No, you can’t develop that’ because procedurally there’s no mechanism for that,” he says. “It might work somewhere else, but I think it is going to be problematic for us.”

Instead, he says, the city’s comprehensive plan already eliminates such confusion by accounting for those needs.

“Laws like Senate Bill 8 that preempt local land use decision making and community involvement, quite frankly, just upend that whole thing,” he says.

Both Brinkley and Marsh agree that the biggest hurdle to getting more affordable housing built is the funding needed to subsidize developments.

Marsh says the number of affordable housing developers in Southern Oregon is limited and they have a good track record of collaborating with local communities.

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