Need for housing exceeds all boundaries: Steve Duin column

When Tina Kotek first campaigned for a statewide emergency declaration to deal with Oregon’s homeless crisis, she pitched zoning changes, navigation centers, $100 million for shelter expansion, and, of course, a new commission.

“I think we just have to step up and do something more dramatic,” Kotek said, having suggested anything but.

At the time – January 2020 – Kotek was Speaker of the House. She’s now governor-elect, the only woman left standing after a race that focused on how much the catastrophe, in homelessness and housing, has worsened over the last 34 months.

It’s left to her, at long last, to demand that we dramatically rethink, revamp or flat-out eradicate Oregon’s urban growth boundary.

Those boundaries are Gov. Tom McCall’s legacy: He signed epic Senate Bill 100 into law in May 1973, determined to end the “unfettered despoiling of the land,” curtail urban sprawl, and protect the state’s farms and forests.

But the housing crisis is our legacy, and our wretched destiny unless we confront all that has changed in the last 50 years.

The cost of housing, irrevocably tied to the limits on buildable land, is devastating not only to those taking refuge in abandoned cars and tents, but families who can’t find an affordable home or apartment on their blue-collar salaries.

The Regional Housing Needs Analysis – released by ECONorthwest 18 months ago and commissioned by the state – describes not only the current housing calamity but the impending one.

The report estimates a need for 583,600 new “dwelling units” by 2040. More than 140,000 units are required “to address historical shortages of housing production and housing needed for people experiencing homelessness.”

Another 440,000 will be needed for population growth, housing for families drawn to Oregon by, if nothing else, the abundance of water and hydro power.

Kotek and the Legislature can’t deal with those numbers by only banning single-family zoning.

If they think we can nimbly resolve the homeless crisis by wedging affordable housing into existing neighborhoods, Ezra Klein of The New York Times will update them on the ongoing insanity in Los Angeles. One reason the City of Angels now has 28,000 unsheltered residents is that the average cost of each new “affordable” unit is $596,846, spiraling ever upward by the price of land, permits, architecture concessions, and the lawsuits brought by the nearest neighborhood association.

What’s worse, ECONorthwest reminds us, this state will need public funding for at least 171,000 of the housing units required by 2040: “For context, there are about 69,000 publicly-supported housing units in Oregon currently.”

When we can no longer afford the cost of the available land, construction, and subsidies for the poor and disadvantaged, it’s time to reconsider whether we can still afford the urban growth boundary.

Need for housing exceeds all boundaries: Steve Duin column

The expansions in the Portland metro area’s urban growth boundary since 1979.

As Homer Williams – a long-time Portland developer who has spent the last 10 years focused on homeless issues and solutions – notes, “There’s a direct correlation between the cost of land and the cost of housing. Everything starts with the land. And the price of the land is going to determine what you’re going to put on top of it.”

The demand for, and cost of, land has soared because Oregon has purposefully shorted the supply. McCall and the Legislature championed that approach in 1973 because they were rightfully and powerfully concerned about forests, streams, farms and Californians.

But they could not anticipate the income disparity that would so disrupt living conditions inside the urban growth boundary in 2022. They could not envision a Portland where a new homeowner would have to pay 78% of their medium income to make the monthly payments on a $549,000 median-priced home.

I want to believe they would be just as innovative now as they were in ‘73 in dealing with the crisis at hand.

The urban growth boundary, long managed by Metro, has never been inviolate. Portland’s has seen three dozen expansions over the years, including a 19,000-acre extension in 2002 to accommodate more than 38,000 new homes.

“I don’t think there’s any stomach for eliminating the boundary, but it needs to be a planning tool, not an edict,” says Dave Hunnicutt at the Oregon Property Owners Association. “Unfortunately, we’ve made it into an impenetrable wall.

“I think the best solution, and what we haven’t done very well in this state, is to figure out ways to encourage all types of housing, rather than just infill and density and 2,500-square-foot homes on 3,000-square-foot lots. When the state economist says we have a problem, it’s clear that this has gone beyond the point of our normal, partisan land-use wars.”

On Thursday, Kotek said she’d follow through on that state-of-emergency declaration for housing and the homeless:  “I know we can make things better, fix things, come together. Because Oregonians don’t back down when things get hard, we dig in, we think outside the box.”

And maybe, given the emergency at hand, outside the urban growth boundary.

— Steve Duin

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