By Midge Pierce
As goes the City, so goes Salem with bills on the legislative docket for rent control and densification. Mayor Ted Wheeler indicates support for the bills similar to Portland proposals to address housing shortages and lower rents despite their lack of affordability guarantees.
Tina Kotek’s House Bill 2001 mirrors Portland’s Residential Infill Proposal (RIP) by allowing up to four units on all single family residential lots in towns of at least 10,000. She positions it as parity – a way to give all income levels a shot at housing options, but her characterization of critics as racists has raised hackles.
Critics counter that the bill itself is a racist practice that destabilizes minority communities and displaces the voiceless. They point to Seattle and San Francisco where RIP-style upzoning pushed out long-time residents, much as the gentrification of Portland’s Albina neighborhood did to the black community here.
James Peterson, the muscle behind a legal challenge to RIP, slams HB 2001 for undermining local zoning, landuse, environmental policies, comprehensive plans, transportation and infrastructure.
On the Senate side, a rent protection bill caps hikes at 7%. Tenant advocates claim the cap is insufficient. Others add that the bill’s exemption of buildings less than fifteen years old is a “giveaway to the construction and redevelopment” industry, discouraging investment in existing affordable housing to make way for new builds. They cite rent control failure elsewhere and its lack of testing here.
As sides line up, bill supporters have backing from deep-pocketed investors with influence over politicians, non-profits like 1000 Friends of Oregon and media outlets, according to critics who claim The Oregonian, Willamette Week and other publications have closed ranks behind advertisers with development interests. They call rationales about protecting Oregon’s urban growth boundaries from suburban sprawls bogus because build-ready land exists within UGBs without ripping up neighborhoods and towns.
Some observers dismiss the state bills as non-starters that will not play well in Oregon’s small towns. A scathing nine page letter submitted to state rep Alissa Keny-Guyer by environmentalist Paul Conte calls the house bill a usurpation of local authority that undermines covenants and may contribute to climate change caused by increased congestion and tree-denuded heat islands.
In Portland, where Infill has traction, critics push for environmentally sustainable growth alternatives such as internal conversions of existing homes that preserve trees, gardens, and that vanishing breathing room once called yards.
Frequent critic Rod Merrick says planners turn a deaf ear to longtime stakeholders. He finds pro-growth rationales that densification reduces crime “because more people are out and about at all hours” laughable. Another concluded, “We are not Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai despite the propositions of certain media outlets.”
Meanwhile, vacancies rise even as high end construction costs fail to fall far enough. With most new builds charging top dollar, one out of every three Oregonians spends more than 50% of their income on housing.