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Initially, HB 2007 pretended to be about 'affordable housing,' but recent comments by the sponsors reveal its 'build-baby-build' intent

The city of Portland has declared a "housing emergency" as housing costs have soared beyond the reach of many Portland residents. In response, two Portland legislators, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, chairwoman of the Human Services and Housing Committee, teamed up to introduce HB 2007, ostensibly aimed at speeding up permitting processes for affordable housing. Very quickly, housing builder interests — joined, remarkably, by 1000 Friends of Oregon — pushed for and got amendments that would encourage demolitions of sound homes to enable construction of "needed" housing — selling at unaffordable market rates.

Let's take a look at just two examples. One would weaken local communities' ability to shape their future and protect their historic past by limiting the effects of design review and historic protections.

Urban areas protected by design review are typically important core areas and include historic districts, which are economic engines in many smaller towns in Oregon. Historic districts are a draw for tourists and can attract both state and federal tax benefits.

The genesis for this provision appears to be an ongoing debate in Portland about the role of historic districts. The effect would be to push one view of that debate on communities statewide, while threatening existing affordable homes and apartment buildings.

The second destructive example is a mandate to force all cities and counties around the state to allow duplexes and Accessory Dwelling Units ("granny flats") in all single-family zones. While Portland may be considering a limited form of such rules (and already allows regulated ADUs everywhere), applying this statewide makes no sense.

Many Oregon communities face challenges of disinvestment and demolition by neglect. Encouraging demolition of existing, often affordable, housing for replacement by new market-rate construction of duplexes is the last thing many such communities need. In fact, the experience in Portland with allowing duplex replacement is that low- or moderately priced single-family homes are targeted by developers who then construct pricey, high-end duplexes well out of reach of most Oregonians — hardly a solution to the affordability problem.

But wait a minute. Won't "supply and demand" work in housing, so that after a lot of high-end housing is built, prices will fall and mid- and low-income residents will start to find affordable housing?

Sadly, no. Decades of experience show that many thousands of new high-priced market-rate rental units don't translate into affordable housing.

Seattle in the United States and Vancouver and Toronto in Canada are case studies. Ever-greater income inequality allows affluent residents to bid rents higher, and affordable housing is destroyed in the process.

If the real intent of HB 2007 were housing affordability, it would include these provisions:

n Enable demolition review for affordable housing, ensuring that the replacement structure be affordable as well — by accepted HUD standards.

n Provide tax incentives for rehabilitation of existing work-force housing, with special emphasis on energy efficiency, lead paint mitigation and seismic retrofitting (in areas subject to major earthquakes).

n Support building-code changes to ease conversion of existing single-family houses to duplex or multi-family use.

• Clarify ADU rules and provide for "templates" for quick approval.

• Place limits on conversion of rental housing to short-term rentals — with reasonable enforcement provisions.

• Establish a permanent source of funding for affordable housing construction bonds, ensuring a supply of truly affordable housing into the future in communities across the state.

• Providing enforcement to ensure that publicly subsidized "affordable" units in privately owned buildings stay affordable for at least 50-60 years — correcting a glaring weakness in today's low-income housing programs.

Initially, HB 2007 pretended to be about "affordable housing," but recent comments by the sponsors reveal its "build-baby-build" intent!

The Legislature needs to set it aside, and undertake a major, public review of affordable housing policy and land-use decision-making before attempting a replacement bill in the next biennium.

Jim Heuer is chairman of the Portland Coalition for Historic Resources, consisting of neighborhood activists, preservation organizations, and anti-demolition groups throughout the Portland area.

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