Oregon legislators could cast crucial votes this week on a bill that would require denser housing in single-family neighborhoods around the state.
The measure has largely been kept out of public view for most of the legislative session. But it’s expected to soon move to the Legislature’s budget committee — and then go to showdown votes on the House and Senate floors in the waning days of a session expected to end this month.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, the sponsor of House Bill 2001, and her allies see the measure as a crucial part of their efforts to ease a housing crunch that has driven up prices and left many people scrambling for a place to live.
Critics counter that adding density could hurt the livability of existing neighborhoods while doing little to produce affordable housing.
A lot of people “might not be able to afford to buy a detached single-family home,” said Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, who has been working with Kotek on the bill. “The prices of those starter homes are rising further and further out of reach. So to have duplexes, to have townhomes, those sort of things … is really important.”
The idea of rezoning single-family neighborhoods to allow more multi-family options has taken hold in increasingly crowded cities around Oregon and the rest of the country. But it’s also been accompanied by strong opposition. In California, where average home prices top a million dollars in some cities, legislative attempts to require steep density on transit corridors have so far been stalled.
Northeast Portland resident Elizabeth Deal was among several neighborhood activists who trooped down to a legislative hearing on the bill last week to argue against the measure.
“I believe in numerous types of housing,” said Deal, but she added that “this bill is a blatant land grab to allow developers to outbid families who want their starter homes so they can build their own wealth.”
Deal and other critics argued that developers are most likely to buy up the cheapest houses in a neighborhood and put in more expensive homes — even if those new homes happen to be duplexes or other kinds of attached housing.
John Liu, a financial analyst active in the Portland Coalition for Historic Resources, testified that many of these more modest homes are subject to the state's new limits on rent hikes. But new housing is exempted for the first 15 years.
“This is actually an anti-rent control bill,” Liu said.
Mary Kyle McCurdy of 1000 Friends of Oregon — a land-use group that has long supported denser development — countered that the coalition in favor of the bill includes numerous affordable housing groups like Habitat for Humanity.
“Those are the people who actually build and deliver affordable housing,” said McCurdy, “and they want this bill."
Supporters also argue that increasing density in established neighborhoods would help reduce commute distances, thereby helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They also say it gives seniors more options for staying in their neighborhoods, and that it promotes neighborhood diversity.
Fahey said single-family zoning has often been historically used to “keep our neighborhoods economically and racially segregated. … It’s not an institution that I feel like we as our local communities or cities or state should be upholding.”
Still, the measure has also been vigorously opposed by a number of cities around the state that say House Bill 2001 would trample on their own local efforts to figure out where it makes the most sense to provide multi-family housing.
Erin Doyle, a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities, said in prepared testimony that Kotek did agree to several changes that make the bill less onerous. But she said it is not enough to eliminate the “deep concerns” that cities have about this new mandate from the state.
Doyle said that cities instead need more financial help with planning and infrastructure development to pave the way for more housing.
However, one top aide to Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, charged legislative leaders complain that local government has too often gotten in the way of boosting housing production in the state.
“What I’m hearing on the ground is the neighbors make it really, really hard to do density,” said Anna Braun, Courtney’s legislative director. “And the city officials frankly can’t stand up to them. They need the state to help them.”
Braun was speaking at another legislative hearing, testifying in favor of a Courtney bill aimed at requiring high-density development on transit corridors. The current version of Senate Bill 10 excludes the Portland area — which does its own regional planning for density around transit — and covers the three other cities with extensive transit systems: Eugene, Springfield and Salem.
So far, that measure seems to be languishing in committee.
Kotek, the House speaker, worked out some deals early on that helped bring several Republicans on board. But she let the measure sit for more than two months in the Joint Ways and Means Committee, lowering its public profile.
The measure finally moved out of a subcommittee last week and is poised to quickly move through the House and Senate floors in the end-of-session crush of bills — if it has the votes.
The bill’s main density requirements would be required for cities of more than 1,000 within the Portland area’s urban growth boundary and for cities of more than 25,000 in the rest of the state.
The bill would require these cities to allow so-called “middle housing” units in single-family neighborhoods. These include up to four units of attached housing, cottage clusters and townhouses. Cities between 10,000 and 25,000 outside the Portland area would have to allow at least duplexes.
Fahey, the Eugene legislator, noted that the latest version of the bill would give cities more latitude to determine whether a particular lot is suitable for more density. She said she was walking her dog recently examining the houses and lots in her neighborhood. She concluded that the passage of HB 2001 wouldn’t lead to a sudden spurt of construction activity.
Still, Fahey added, “every lot that is developed in the city that might be well-suited for town homes or a duplex or a triplex that is instead developed this year with a single family home — that was a missed opportunity.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated to accurately reflect a quote from Rep. Julie Fahey about housing affordability.