Oregon is on its way to making a significant change in what housing is allowed to be built in the state.
The state’s House and Senate have now both passed a measure that requires cities with more than 10,000 people to allow duplexes in areas zoned for single-family homes. In the Portland metro area it goes a step further, requiring cities and counties to allow the building of housing such as quadplexes and “cottage clusters” of homes around a common yard.
House Bill 2001 will now go before Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, who is expected to sign it. It had bipartisan support and was approved on the last day of a wild legislative session that saw some Republican senators flee the state over a climate bill.
Experts say it would be the first state-level legalization of a housing type that has become very difficult to build in much of the U.S.
This type of housing is often called “missing middle” housing — that is, everything between single-family homes and mid- or high-rise apartment buildings. Buildings such three-flats or courtyard apartments used to be common, but many communities made them illegal, often as part of a strategy for racial and class segregation.
But amid a housing crisis that has taken hold in many parts of the country, some municipalities are considering rolling back such policies. The city council in Minneapolis decided in December to eliminate single-family zoning and allow duplexes and triplexes throughout the city. California recently considered a housing bill that would have allowed quadplexes in neighborhoods zoned for single-family housing and more density near transit, but it was tabled until January 2020.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat, was the driving force behind Oregon’s bill. “We all know we have a housing crisis,” she said in February. “We need multiple tools. One of them is to smooth and encourage additional construction.”
Rep. Julie Fahey, a Democrat from Eugene, worked with Kotek on the bill. Many people “might not be able to afford to buy a detached single-family home,” she told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “The prices of those starter homes are rising further and further out of reach. So to have duplexes, to have town homes, those sort of things … is really important.”
She said the bill’s passage probably will not lead to a huge burst of construction. Nonetheless, Fahey said, “every lot that is developed in the city that might be well-suited for town homes or a duplex or a triplex that is instead developed this year with a single-family home — that was a missed opportunity.”
Among those advocating for the bill was Habitat for Humanity of Oregon, which builds affordable housing in the state.
Steve Messinetti, CEO of the Portland-area chapter of Habitat for Humanity, said his organization builds mostly where duplexes and triplexes are legal. It’s the only way to make the numbers work to build housing affordable to people who whose income is $30,000 or $40,000 a year, he said.
“There’s a lot of builders out there who want to do good and want to make the sort of houses people need, but you just can’t make a 1,000-square-foot home [work] on a $200,000 piece of property,” Messinetti told the Sightline Institute, a sustainability organization that also pushed for the bill.
Others were skeptical of the bill, including Portland real estate agent Laura Wood. “I have a lot of first-time homebuyers, and they all want exactly what I want,” she told OPB. “They want a house in a neighborhood.”
At least one letter writer espoused the common objections to increased density, arguing that the bill would “destroy neighborhoods” and “that the real winners will be developers, not people who can’t afford a home.”
According to Sightline, approximately 2.8 million Oregonians live in areas that will be affected by the bill’s passage, and most of those live in areas where the fourplexes would be legalized. The state implemented statewide rent control earlier this year.
Kotek, the bill’s champion, said in February she understands there’s a lot of fear around adding missing middle housing. Portland already allows duplexes on corner lots, she said, but fewer than 5% of those residences have been converted to duplexes. She also wanted to make clear that the bill is not a ban on single-family homes.
“I grew up in a single-family home,” she said. “This isn’t about single-family homes. This is about choice. This is about the future, this is about allowing for different opportunities in neighborhoods that are currently extremely limited.”