It has become so expensive to live in the city proper or even some of its suburbs that people with full-time jobs have often been displaced from their residences. That's why it's all the more tragic that a bill making its way through the state capitol aiming to enable more affordable housing, House Bill 2007, is not an answered prayer but a Trojan horse.
Under the auspices of making it easier and faster to build affordable housing by requiring faster processing of permits, it is an attack on Oregon's most historic buildings and places and our ability to engage in the quality placemaking that has made Portland the most popular city in America. The bill would prohibit discretionary design review for any housing project, whether "affordable" or not. It would prohibit the designation or protection of National Register Historic Districts in all residential neighborhoods. At a time when Portland has been facing an epidemic of old homes — often affordable ones — being demolished to make way for McMansions, this Trojan horse of an affordable-housing bill will actually hasten more demolition of modest, not-outrageously-expensive housing.
The funny thing about fast-tracking permitting and skipping design review for affordable housing, while a noble enough effort in itself, is that neither are not what has held up affordable housing so much as economics. HB2007 has no requirement that the housing that cities and counties will be forced to permit must be "affordable" to low-income families, or that renters will not be displaced. The bill gives developers the absolute right, regardless of local zoning, to demolish a $300,000 family home to build multiple $800,000 luxury townhouses. This is already happening across Portland, and under HB2007 it will happen all over the state.
The bill as currently written has expanded into a stealthy attempt to usurp local control over land use policy and to largely eliminate historic preservation. Crafted in collaboration with the Oregon Home Builders Association, HB2007 has turned the community's justifiably passionate desire for more affordable housing to political ends. It makes sweeping changes from a top-down, state-mandated level to decisions that have heretofore been a local prerogative.
Perhaps worst of all, this reactionary Trojan horse is being piloted by otherwise-progressive Democrats: House speaker Tina Kotek, who represents St. Johns, and Representative Alyssa Keny-Guyer, elected from southeast Portland. Like the 1,000 Friends of Oregon, another proponent of HB2007, they have seemingly been led into believing that to make housing affordable while maintaining our growth boundaries we must cannibalize our values. Yet this doesn't have to be an either-or scenario. The greatest cities commit real resources to building housing, but they also protect their most enduring architecture, neighborhoods and places.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com