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Affordable Housing Push Challenges Single-Family Zoning

Earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed a law that requires most Oregon cities with more than 1,000 residents to allow duplexes in areas previously zoned exclusively for single-family homes.

Earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed a law that requires most Oregon cities with more than 1,000 residents to allow duplexes in areas previously zoned exclusively for single-family homes. Shutterstock

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Other states also might end zoning that favors one home on one lot.

This article originally appeared on Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

BEND, Ore. — Phil Chang has a naturalist’s take on the 600-square-foot rental unit he built on top of his garage last year, after the city made it easier for people to add apartments to single-family homes. 

Bend, a fast-growing city of nearly 100,000 in central Oregon, has plenty of big houses on large lots for vacationers and retirees who are flocking to the city, and developers could easily fill more expensive single-family homes featuring mountain views. But like many West Coast communities facing a housing crisis, affordable rentals are scarce for people with jobs that support tourists and the influx of new residents. 

“I almost think of it as ‘habitat,’” said Chang, who works in natural resources for the state of Oregon and lives in a walkable neighborhood just west of the historic downtown. “A 3,000-square-foot house with granite countertops is habitat. We could fill Bend up with habitat like that, but it wouldn't be a really diverse community.”

Thinking of housing as a mix of “habitats” helped Bend get a jump on what’s coming to Oregon and, potentially, other cities and states facing rising rents, stagnant household incomes and a tight housing supply: an end to zoning that favors single-family homes.

Earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed a law that requires most Oregon cities with more than 1,000 residents to allow duplexes in areas previously zoned exclusively for single-family homes. Cities larger than 25,000 also must allow townhouses, triplexes and fourplexes. 

Cities in other states, including Minneapolis and Seattle, are moving ahead with similar zoning changes. It has been a far tougher sell in California, though, where efforts stalled this year to pass rent control and denser zoning around transit centers.

The proposed statewide zoning changes raised concerns in many suburban California communities about local control, and what denser development might mean for neighborhood character. The bill also lacked the strong support of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

In many places, people worry that diversifying single-family neighborhoods could change traffic patterns or affect the value of their homes. Those not-in-my-backyard objections could be one of the biggest hurdles, Brown said.

Nonetheless, she said she thinks other states will follow Oregon’s lead.

“We have had a focus around single-family homes that is both racially discriminatory and economically discriminatory,” Brown said in an interview with Stateline. “We’ve got housing issues in every community on the West Coast. One of the ways we are going to solve both our environmental problems and our economic justice issues around housing [is] to increase density.”

The move challenges long-held housing patterns dating to the 1950s, when single-family homes emerged across the United States as the dominant form of new housing. In some places, local officials used single-family zoning to keep lower-income African Americans out of middle-class white neighborhoods, as blacks typically could not afford to purchase detached single-family homes.

The thinking behind Oregon's new law is that “infill development” can, if done well, address some of the historic inequities that led to racial and economic segregation and displacement in neighborhoods, especially in Portland, the state's largest metro area. 

“The historic use of single-family zoning has segregated our cities by race and now is doing so by income. And the correlation between race and income is deep,” said Pam Phan, a policy and organizing director with the Portland-based Community Alliance of Tenants, an advocacy organization for renters.

One aim of the new zoning law is to give communities new tools to build what’s sometimes known as “missing middle” housing, multi-unit or clustered housing no bigger than detached single-family homes. That means requiring cities to allow courtyard apartments or multiple residences in many places that until now were restricted by zoning laws to detached single-family homes.

The bill was among a package of affordable housing measures pushed by Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek, including a rent control measure that passed earlier in the year.

“We cannot stop,” the Democrat said. “These bills and these budget allocations are really important and will be game changers for the state of Oregon. But the crisis is deep, and the need is deep, and we have to keep going.”

The bill had bipartisan support — as well as opposition. Democrats in some affluent Portland suburbs said their constituents worried that developers would replace some single-family homes with two more expensive townhomes on the same lot.

Bend Blazes a Trail

Other cities might look to Bend, which preceded state law in adopting zoning changes that allow duplexes and triplexes in residential areas once reserved for single-family homes. The city also made it easier to build what are known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs) like the one above Chang’s garage. The city permitted 298 such ADUs after 2016.  

It was, the Bend City Council reasoned, one way to make room for affordable housing in a city that saw its population double over two decades and is projected to add 30,000 residents by 2030. Bend and other Oregon cities have difficult-to-expand urban growth boundaries that limit new sprawl. That means new development must be a creative mix of habitat, especially if Bend wants to be affordable for everyone.

“What was done in Bend has now become a model,” Bend Mayor Sally Russell said. “We started it, we tested it.”

The new state zoning law also addresses a structural mismatch in available housing, particularly in cities like Portland, said Mary Kyle McCurdy, deputy director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, a conservation group that got its start advocating to restrict sprawl in the 1970s. 

In Portland, two-thirds of households consist of one or two people, McCurdy said, yet most of the available homes are detached single-family housing. An estimated 90% of residential areas are zoned for single-family, detached homes.

“We got here through several decades, and it’s going to take a while to get out of it — and it’s going to take more than one tool,” McCurdy said. 

Unusual Allies

The legislation brought together an unusual mix of allies across rural and urban divides. Conservative leaders in more politically mixed central Oregon saw how a lack of affordable housing constrained business growth. Lawmakers in wildfire-stricken southern Oregon towns saw the legislation as a way of addressing climate change, by creating denser neighborhoods with less of a carbon footprint.

Groups like AARP supported the efforts, because they see the potential for creating housing options for older adults who may not want to leave their neighborhoods, but who no longer need a large, single-family home.

And affordable housing advocates, including Habitat for Humanity, embraced the bill for increasing their ability to build duplexes and triplexes in places that were once constrained by single-family zoning. 

“The amazing thing about zoning reform is that you don’t have to use tax dollars to do anything to get these gains,” said Michael Andersen, a policy analyst at the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, a think tank that advocated for the zoning changes. “None of these homes get built unless someone wants to build there.”

But critics of the new zoning law fear the character of single-family neighborhoods could change when new types of housing are added to the mix. The League of Oregon Citiesargued that its member cities should have the ability to design their own neighborhoods.

Many cities also raised concerns about managing and paying for the infrastructure of increasingly dense households in places where the sewer lines can’t handle any more people flushing the toilets, said Erin Doyle, formerly a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities.

“People live there,” Doyle said. “And that’s why in part infill becomes controversial, is because people live there and they become concerned about the livability and what they purchased, versus their expectations for what they purchased, versus what could potentially happen.”

Damian Syrnyk, a city planner in Bend, said that high-quality design has made a big difference in demonstrating to naysayers that duplexes and triplexes can have a similar footprint as neighborhoods stocked exclusively with single-family homes. 

One such example in Bend is NorthWest Crossing, a planned community that took about two decades to fully build. The sidewalk- and tree-lined streets are dominated by single-family homes, but the development also includes townhomes, affordable apartment complexes, senior living centers and “cottage clusters,” smaller groupings of single-family homes without driveways.

The commercial areas are home to several Bend-based outdoor lifestyle brands, including the Hydro Flask water bottle company and Ruffwear dog gear. 

“We wanted it to look like the older parts of Bend that people love,” said Dale Van Valkenburg, the director of planning and development for the company that developed the project, Brooks Resources. “It’s not tract housing.”

Erika Bolstad is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. 

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