Opinion, by Joshua Kielas
Recently I’ve been hearing a steady stream of misleading arguments about the upcoming Oregon State law called HB2001. The law takes effect on July 1st and requires Eugene to make specific changes to its zoning code in residential neighborhoods that encourage the development of missing middle housing types such as multiplexes. These arguments are designed to frighten people into encouraging Eugene City Councilors to do nothing more than the required minimum, as opposed to adding additional incentives that would help encourage the construction of smaller, more affordable spaces. Perhaps unsurprisingly, positions in favor of the minimums are also being cloaked in the guise of being a smarter approach to encouraging affordable housing.
Opponents of zoning change are constructing a boogeyman for the public in the form of developers who will knock down our more affordable older houses and replace them with expensive new row houses. It is suggested this will happen if we make the mistake of adding anything we aren’t specifically required to implement by the new law. And the path they offer to salvation is to take more time during this affordable housing crisis than has already been taken since the law passed way back in 2019 in order to come up with additional ideas that might help guide development toward more affordable spaces.
Unfortunately for opponent’s arguments, the state minimums already allow for their boogeyman. No new additions required. No matter what we do, a developer will be able to knock down an old house and replace it with new row houses. The proposals being made to tweak the minimums are more about details such as building heights, off street parking requirements, and extra flexibility in where units can be placed on a lot.
Even though every year that passes sees the housing market get more expensive, and shockingly, last year housing prices grew by almost 20%, the argument opponents are making is basically, ‘Don’t make any new changes designed to push the incoming wave of new development toward more affordable spaces – yet. Instead lets wait, and spend more time studying the problem.’ But since today’s new construction builds our future affordable housing stock, and prices don’t seem to be going down, I can’t see the logic in continuing to wait.
Suggesting that we should throw out some of the excellent ideas, such as detached units, because of a few controversial proposals like building heights and parking spaces seems misguided. Detached units would allow people to build additional living spaces on their property without having to connect them to existing structures like a traditional duplex or triplex does. That would add flexibility, and likely make it less attractive to knock down an existing older and more affordable house since building around it would be easier.
I think we need to read between the lines on this one so we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Many of the people leading the charge against additions to HB2001 minimums for middle housing are the same people who have been leading the charge against any changes to housing code that increase flexibility for a long time. They are arguably many of the same people who helped create a situation where our state felt the need to pass this missing middle housing law in the first place.
In contrast to the opponents, who tend to be housing secure, the collection of groups who are pushing for changes above and beyond the minimum includes developers, but it also reads like a list of the organizations that support people who are most commonly victimized by the current housing environment such as renters, senior citizens, the poor and unhoused, and people of color. You can see the public comments made during the Eugene Planning Commission’s public hearing here.
I’m not trying to say these changes won’t benefit developers. This is one of those times when the needs of the community seem to align with the needs of a special interest group. It’s a challenging debate, with many homeowners who benefit from the current situation through comfort, privacy, and financial gain landing on one side, and those who have, sometimes literally, been left out in the cold by housing realities on the other side.
I hope we don’t take an all or nothing approach and miss this opportunity to make a few intelligent additions to HB2001’s minimum requirements, such as allowing detached units and encouraging smaller and more affordable housing. Doing so now doesn’t prevent us from continuing to study the issue and tweak our middle housing code as we go. I think it’s important to remember these changes to our neighborhoods won’t happen all at once. They’ll pan out over the course of many years.
Going forward we should also begin work on incentives for cooperative housing, and a way to permit a tiny house on wheels in order to enable more affordable rentals and get serious about lowering the barriers to home ownership for lower income community members.
Useful links and additional information:
Public Comments Email for HB2001: firstname.lastname@example.org
Eugene City Council Public Hearing on HB2001 – April 18, 2022, 7:30 pm
April 14th update: University of Oregon School of Law’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center released a white paper on HB2001 middle housing misconceptions that is worth reading.
Joshua Kielas is a long time Eugene, Oregon resident who currently lives in the River Road neighborhood. He just finished serving four years on the board of directors of the River Road Community Organization (RRCO) and is a member of the KEPW News Team. He is currently a home owner, a landlord, and is building an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) to create more affordable housing. The opinions expressed in this article are entirely his own, and are not intended to represent any organization he is affiliated with.