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Forum: Affordability key to city health

Newberg City Club talk takes a hard look at Newberg's housing situation

When the topic of affordable housing arises, preconceived notions are inevitable.

A Newberg City Club discussion last week aimed to dispel misconceptions, present facts and make a case that affordable housing improves the overall health of a city.

“A lot of minds immediately run to the federal government’s housing (and) urban development program, Section 8 housing subsidies, and that’s not what we’re really here to talk about today,” Community Development Director Doug Rux, one of the speakers, told the audience.

Instead the talk focused on the general concept of housing affordability in a community: citizens having jobs that pay enough for them to be able to rent or own housing in a particular area — a growing challenge as income levels continue to lag behind the rising cost of living.

That’s a national issue, it’s a statewide issue and it’s a local issue, Rux explained using a plethora of data.

Newberg has about 22,900 residents, according to the most recent estimate. The growth was fairly steady at 2.3 percent per year until the recession hit. As was happening nationwide, construction of new housing ground to a halt: Newberg’s building department went from issuing 300 residential permits in 2007 down to 45 permits in 2012. It’s grown slightly since then, up to about 55 per year.

Income levels have also suffered a blow in recent years: in 2000, the median Newberg household income was $61,262, meaning half the city made more and half the city made less.

By the time 2013 rolled around, that median income had dropped to $60,980.

“Buying power that the members of the community had actually diminished,” Rux said.

Individual workers had a median income of about $38,600 in 2013, while the median rent during that year was nearly $1,300 a month.

With stagnating or falling buying power, coupled with rising rents, it becomes harder to fit into the generally recommended equation that one should not spend more than 30 percent of their gross income on either rent or a mortgage, taxes and utilities.

City Councilor Denise Bacon, the second speaker, focused particularly on how affordability fits into the city’s well-being.

“The Newberg City Council talked about its goals for the city and one of the statements that was made was that we wanted Newberg to be a healthy, vibrant community,” Bacon said. “And when you have a middle class who can’t afford their homes you do not have healthy or vibrant citizens: the stress of being burdened by your house payment is eventually going to wear down on you.”

She emphasized how different the economic picture is in the modern age versus the economics previous generations dealt with.

“The stress level is a little different – it’s not the world of the ‘50s anymore,” she said.

The discussion had an overall theme that ideas about housing need to change given the current conditions.

Part of that change, both speakers noted, is a trend toward smaller residences whether they are multifamily units or single-family homes. The city has taken steps to usher in such a shift, allowing lot sizes as small as 3,000 square feet in the R3 zone as well as the more common 5,000-square-foot lot in the R1 zone.

“That’s relatively small compared to 20 years ago when there were 8,500-square-foot or 9,000-square-foot lots,” Rux said.

Given the R3 zoning, three houses could potentially be constructed on what was once a single lot.

But with change comes conflict, particularly when bringing in additional density to existing neighborhoods. Neighbors might not appreciate substantial changes applied to the area they’ve chosen to buy into. Densification in particular often leads to some degree of neighborhood concern.

These sorts of conflicts were all visible last summer during the rezoning process for the high-density Martell Commons apartment complex. Neighbors testified that allowing high-density housing, on what is now open space that in the past could have only been developed into low-density housing, would impact property values and neighborhood character.

While Bacon said the property value issue is a myth that has no hard evidence to back it up, neighborhood character is a little harder to quantify since it is often based on perception. And neighborhood character has to be balanced against some of the more modern thinking about multifamily placement, Rux noted.

“How do you put multifamily next to single-family and make them compatible with one another? How do you put multifamily next to industrial and make it compatible? In the old-school days you always put your multifamily housing out by the busiest road, out by the biggest industry, and said ‘Oh, that’s compatible.’ But then there’s a thing called social justice and now you’ve got to be equitable across the board, so you’ve got to find different ways of how you disperse this,” he said.

Multifamily placement also allows planning for increased city walkability. Placing high-density housing near the city core, near amenities, services and transit, means residents can live more of a low-car lifestyle — which, the speakers mentioned, is an important component of affordability as the associated costs of automotive transportation can be a large burden for people.

As each new development process shows, there aren’t any easy answers to housing affordability questions. But if it’s any consolation, Newberg is not alone in experiencing this problem.

“When I’m doing research I’m shocked,” Bacon told the City Club audience. “The entire world is having the same struggle we have.”


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