By Midge Pierce

It’s a tough time for state passage of tax plans, pension reforms and possibly emergency housing.

By the time you read this, a legislative bill nicknamed “Build Baby Build” may be history – or not. Either way, Oregon’s low-cost housing crisis seems here to stay.

Push back on HB 2007 has come from citizens who see the measure as onerous “over-reach” that, under the guise of affordability, usurps local controls by mandating Infill in their neighborhoods.

Critics say it fails to ensure cost- effective housing, incentivizes demolition and hamstrings historic districts. Reports indicate that more than 90 percent of written testimony has opposed it.

Developed as an affordable housing measure originally, HB 2007 was revised to allow market rate multi-housing in single family neighborhoods throughout Oregon. Powerful lobbies like the Homebuilders Association influenced the bill to speed permitting processes and, through amendments, allow less restrictive construction at whatever prices the market will bear.

HB 2007 has solid support from groups like 1000 Friends of Oregon whose local advocacy arm, Portland for Everyone, is a vocal backer of Infill Everywhere. Proponents claim the bill motivates construction that provides relief to the rent burdened. Policies that encourage developers to build up, not out, are touted as ways to prevent urban sprawl beyond growth boundaries.

The strong arm of House Speaker Tina Kotek is behind the bill, but her public chiding of opponents as exclusionary Nimbys galvanized critics who feel it will fuel rising values.

The frenzy will deliver displacement, not affordability, according to a representative of United Neighborhoods for Reform. Rising costs could push the vulnerable out of homes – sometimes to the street.

With the legislative session nearing its end, citizens attending a hastily-called public hearing said their testimony got short-changed once again. (An earlier informational “panel” discussion appeared stacked with bill proponents.)

Called first, Legislative representatives lauded the bill for providing housing relief, speeding the permit process and providing clear, objective building standards (as opposed to design reviews).

One representative said it was the state’s responsibility to motivate increased density because statewide mandates protect legislators from angry constituents at home. Representatives from boom towns like Ashland and Bend said everyone needs to share the burden of developing density to accommodate growth. “We all need to do our part to manage our resources,” said a southern Oregon delegate.

Portland speakers claimed there is no housing crisis, just an affordability crisis. Decrying the bill as a “deeply malignant way to feed the market rate housing boom”, a SE resident said too much new construction are cost prohibitive luxury units that sit vacant. Taking aim at Kotek for “poisoning the well” blaming Nimbyism for housing shortages, she blamed builder profiteering, adding that HB 2007 was a top-loaded market disaster.

Rod Merrick testified the bill would double the number of houses allowed in residential neighborhoods: “This bill makes single family zones illegal.”

John Liu cited the demolition of 3000 small homes replaced with houses that cost, on average, twice the original. He said when developers buy a house for $350K they replace it with one $780K home or two for $600 K.

Terry Parker warned that RIP city will live up to its name with this “bulldozer on steroids” destroying mature trees, green yards, open spaces and the American Dream. The fourth generation Oregonian said citizens are being misled about affordability by Oregon’s “defacto 1000 Enemies”.

Contractor John McCulloch described the bill as a “hand off to developers” who don’t need it. Despite personal gain from the building “gold rush”, he pledged that his housing foundation seeks to balance historic housing with affordability.

Restore Oregon is credited with the catchphrase, Fix It or Vote No. Returning from HB 2007’s abbreviated public hearing, Restore’s Executive Director Peggy Moretti shared concerns about the lack of analysis, public input, rush to legislate and the way the bill is currently written.

“This is far-reaching policy that fails to address affordability and does not stop demolition of modest-sized, moderately-priced housing, she said. “It does more harm than good.”

She added the bill has an irrational focus on undermining historic designations, which she says constitute a negligible 3% of all state housing. “It scapegoats historic districts when they have no meaningful effect on meeting overall housing needs.”

She points to the variety of housing in the Irvington Historic District, the state’s largest, as a way that multi-family housing, diversity and density can co-exist when communities are involved in local decision-making. “The intent of historic districts in not to prevent change, but to manage it.” New construction, she said, can be compatible with historic character.

Offended by accusations of Nimbyism, Morettii added, “Historic Districts are not enclaves of rich privilege. Affordability, density and preservation can work together.”

Moretti and like-minded cohorts have been instrumental in drafting incentives for adaptive re-use without demolition. The document recommends that existing homes could convert to up four units without triggering cost-prohibitive commercial building codes.

Refuting assumptions that “build baby build will trickle down” to affordable housing, Moretti concluded, “If something is not done to stop rampant demolition, Portlanders will wake up and not recognize this place we call home in a few years.”

Whether friend or foe of HB 2007, all stakeholders agree the housing crisis needs solving. If the bill fails, both sides promise some form of it will be back in local communities and future legislative sessions.