How not to solve a housing crisis (Continued)

What we learned from a hearing at the Oregon Capitol:  HB 2007 has not improved, but at least it has gotten more complicated

The McMansion Relief Act of 2017? Existing residential fabric already includes relatively affordable housing and is likely to provide only a small number of new units regionally, which are often much more expensive. A typical tear-down in NE Portland. Source: Restore Oregon.

Representatives of the homebuilder lobby were conspicuous by their absence at a May 25th  hearing before the Oregon House Committee on Human Services and Housing.  That is particularly curious, because it’s homebuilders that clearly have the most to gain from HB 2007, the Oregon bill titled “Relating to housing development; declaring an emergency.”

Instead, seven of ten invited speakers joined two legislators to speak largely in praise of the bill, and to re-frame the argument as a broad-brush attack on Oregon NIMBYs (short for “Not In My Back Yard”).  Precious little evidence was examined on effective tools for affordable housing or even housing supply.  Little consideration was given to the actual impacts and  possible unintended consequences of the bill.  It became clear that the central argument for the bill was an ad hominem attack on Oregon neighborhoods that allegedly “want to self-segregate,” in the remarkable words  of bill sponsor Tina Kotek:

“HB 2007 would get rid of some of the loopholes that allow NIMBYism to block development when wealthy neighborhoods simply want to self-segregate, and prevent affordable housing development in their communities.”

But does the evidence show that “NIMBYism” in wealthy neighborhoods is actually a significant barrier to affordable housing?  How much of the problem up to now has been, to be blunt, a heavy-handed failure to work WITH residents to find good win-win solutions?  (I say this as one who has put his own money where his mouth is on this issue, winning entitlements for affordable housing projects as well as much higher density infill developments.)

And when new housing is created over neighborhood objections, how often is it really more affordable? What actual percentage of new units are occupied by people of color for the first time?  More pointedly, what is the evidence that those who oppose HB 2007 (like the National Trust for Historic Preservation or Restore Oregon, to name two) do so out of a desire to “self-segregate”?

And to be blunt, how much of the proposed “solution” is a fantasy, inspired by ideologically charged identity politics and ill-conceived “command and control” thinking, and egged on by self-interested lobbies — and how much is grounded in real evidence of what works, including the cautionary evidence from other cities and countries?

In one of the few citations of actual evidence, Restore Oregon president Peggy Moretti gave statistics of how many homes were demolished in Portland in 2016 (376) and showed a series of examples of  single family units in the $300,000 to $500,000 range being replaced by other single-family homes or duplexes of up to a million dollars each.

Moretti concluded, “As it currently stands, this bill is a case study in overreach, unnecessary complexity, and bad unintended consequences.”

Moretti and others (including this author) were at pains to acknowledge the real problems, and the value of “gentle densification” from accessory units and multi-unit conversions.  We also pointed to alternative tools and strategies that are likely to be more effective, on the basis of the evidence of what actually works.

Let us hope that this bill will get more considered review on the facts and the merits, and that the over-heated and divisive attacks on existing residents and historic preservation advocates will subside.

So to recap, what did we learn on May 25th?

  1. No evidence has been presented that HB 2007 will significantly increase housing supply in Oregon.
  2. Even assuming it did, no evidence has been presented that HB 2007 would increase affordability.
  3. Even if it did, no evidence has been presented that the bill would increase neighborhood diversity.
  4. Instead, HB 2007 is being sold with a largely symbolic ad hominem attack on existing neighborhoods and advocates for Oregon’s urban heritage.
  5. The consequences will not be symbolic: continued slow (and not so slow) destruction of the livable and historic fabric of Portland, and other Oregon cities.  And possibly, an increasingly ugly and divisive tone in Oregon’s urban politics.

We give the final word to the great urbanist Jane Jacobs:

“Communities that want a certain thing are derided for saying ‘not in my back yard.’ If you listen to ‘not in my back yard’ people, their objection is often to something that shouldn’t be in anybody’s back yard. What has been proposed should be done differently”.

HB 2007 should be done differently.

See the full video of the session here:

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