Oregon Strikes Exclusive Single-Family Zoning, But Effects May Take Years

By Jeff Mapes (OPB)
Portland, Ore. July 3, 2019 11:04 p.m.

Oregon is getting national attention for becoming the first state to pass legislation that eliminates exclusive single-family zoning in much of the state. But it could be many years before the landmark legislation has a major effect — if it ever does.

Housing experts on both sides of the fight over House Bill 2001 say market forces and the reaction of developers will play an important role in determining how much multifamily housing gets built in urban neighborhoods that have traditionally been largely reserved for detached single-family housing.


“I think it’s probably more symbolically important than practically important at this point,” said Jenny Schuetz, who studies metropolitan policy issues at the Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.  “It takes probably a couple of years before the market really shows how it is going to respond.”

Under the new bill, cities of more than 1,000 in the Portland metropolitan area and those of more than 25,000 in the rest of the state will have to allow up to fourplexes in single-family neighborhoods. Cities between 10,000 and 25,000 would have to at least allow duplexes.

A new triplex is pictured on the corner of Northeast Sixth Avenue and Northeast Ainsworth Street Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, in Portland, Ore. A bill in the state Legislature would change single-family zoning rules to allow more buildings like this in cities looking to grow more dense.

A new triplex is pictured on the corner of Northeast Sixth Avenue and Northeast Ainsworth Street Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, in Portland, Ore. A bill in the state Legislature would change single-family zoning rules to allow more buildings like this in cities looking to grow more dense.

Jeff Mapes / OPB

Nearly 70% of Oregonians live in a city subject to one of those requirements, according to Sightline Institute, an environmental group that supported the bill. Gov. Kate Brown is expected to sign the measure.

Assuming she does, it will be a few years before the market even begins to react. The new zoning requirements for smaller cities won’t take effect until June 30, 2021, and larger cities have until June 30, 2022. Cities could also seek extensions to deal with infrastructure problems.

“There are a lot of steps that will take place prior to any actual on-the-ground zoning change,” said Erin Doyle, a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, who pushed the measure onto the legislative agenda, has insisted from the start that the measure is aimed at gradual change — not as a single quick-fix solution to the state’s rapid rise in housing costs.

“By allowing a broader array of housing options in areas that are currently exclusively zoned for single-family zones,” Kotek said, “families will have more affordable options than just a big home on a 5,000-square-foot lot.”

Kotek and other supporters have noted that Portland in the early 1990s began allowing duplexes on corner lots in most neighborhoods — and that even today only about 4% of those lots have been converted to duplexes.


Still, changes to single-family neighborhoods could be the most visible in Portland.

Related: Represented: Rethinking Single-Family Zoning In Oregon

The city, in the midst of a boom in apartment construction, is working on its own plan for increasing density in areas now zoned for detached houses. The Residential Infill Program, which has been approved by the planning commission and is before the City Council, takes a big step beyond HB 2001.

The proposal would cap the size of new single-family houses in much of Portland while allowing developers to build more square footage if they provide additional units.

Eli Spevak, a planning commissioner and developer who specializes in denser infill housing, said HB 2001 helps shore up political support for the Residential Infill Program since it requires Portland to move in this direction anyway.

He said he hopes cities around the state “will thank the state for the nudge and political cover to do what we should have done anyway.” But Spevak said he wouldn’t be surprised if many cities still look for ways to get around the new requirements.

Doyle, the League of Cities lobbyist, said cities won’t have a lot of flexibility to avoid allowing at least duplexes on every lot where it would allow a single-family house. However, she said the bill does give cities more flexibility in determining which lots could accommodate larger multifamily units.

Doyle said the league objected to the bill because it takes away local zoning control without providing cities the money to upgrade water and sewer services and other infrastructure to handle increased density.

“I imagine there will be a lot of grumbling” about the measure when the League of Oregon Cities meets for its annual conference in late September in Bend, she said.

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Still, HB 2001 puts Oregon at the head of a burgeoning movement to reimagine cities where single-family neighborhoods have long dominated the landscape. Advocates want to create denser residential areas that offer a wider range of housing choices. They also say denser neighborhoods increase walkability and the effectiveness of transit.

In California, there has also been a determined legislative effort to create more neighborhood density in places like the Bay Area and Los Angeles where the middle class has been largely priced out of the housing market. But the drive foundered amid strong opposition from local governments and homeowners who say increased density will hurt the character of their neighborhoods.

Schuetz, the Brookings Institute expert, said Oregon’s success could further encourage advocates around the country.

“Striking down single-family-only zoning sends a strong message,” she said, “that even the exclusive neighborhoods need to accommodate growth and a more economically diverse group of residents.”