Undoing urban growth boundary isn’t the answer to our housing crisis

Opinion: Undoing urban growth boundary isn’t the answer to our housing crisis
Published in the Oregonian/Oregon Live on Dec. 04, 2022 (Photo courtesy of the Oregonian)
By Sam Diaz, Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, Kim McCarty, Executive Director of Community Alliance of Tenants, and Steve Messinetti, President and Chief Executive for Habitat for Humanity Portland Region

In his Nov. 12 column, “Need for housing exceeds all boundaries,” Steve Duin proposes that we address Oregon’s housing crisis by undoing the urban growth boundary. But simply opening up all of Oregon to development won’t solve our housing crisis, though it will exacerbate other challenges in the process. His “solution” will not result in housing options near existing schools, parks, jobs, stores and services that most Oregonians can afford.

The urban growth boundary is an innovative policy for designating land for development that continues to achieve its goals of preventing climate-harming and congestion-inducing sprawl while protecting land that grows our food and offers us moments in nature. While improvements can be made to how local governments expand the boundaries, the main problem we face is a lack of equally innovative policies that support the development needed inside our existing urban footprint. Building housing has become more complicated with more expensive and lengthy permitting and land use processes. For many projects, the jurisdictional fees surpass the cost of the land. For example, when Habitat for Humanity develops housing in our region, permitting fees plus “System Development Charges” paid to local jurisdictions generally exceed the market-rate cost for land.

Cities across the United States with no urban growth boundaries or zoning - including Houston, Dallas, and Boise - are experiencing similar housing shortages as Portland. Furthermore, previous expansions of the urban growth boundary in the Portland metro region have led to developments of more expensive homes on large lots far from jobs and public transportation - not the places affordable to live in that are so desperately in demand. The takeaway? The urban growth boundary isn’t the make-or-break lever for housing supply or affordability.

If turning farms, forests and watersheds into subdivisions won’t solve our housing crisis, what will? We need a comprehensive approach that includes stabilizing renters at risk of eviction, land use policies that encourage density near jobs and transportation, funding to close racial disparities in home ownership, fast-track permitting and fee waivers to encourage affordable housing, and increasing availability of underutilized land within urban growth boundaries.

  • Keep people housed. Expanding the urban growth boundary will not stop evictions and homelessness. The single most cost-effective way to address houselessness is to help prevent people from losing their homes in the first place. Portland State University’s Homeless Research and Action Center forecast at least 125,000 Oregon households at risk of eviction in 2021. It’s already happening – since January, monthly eviction filings have surged with hundreds more a month than in pre-pandemic times. In addition to increased rental assistance, we should look to offer free legal assistance for tenants; support small landlords; enact stronger renter protections; and encourage full utilization of our currently vacant housing.
  • Promote balanced approaches to infill in all neighborhoods and welcome more neighbors. Oregon has landmark legislation to allow duplexes, triplexes and other multi-unit homes in all neighborhoods. Housing density near jobs, transit, schools, services, and community spaces reduces carbon emissions, makes transportation cheaper and more accessible and adds to the diversity and vibrancy of our neighborhoods. To help spur increased development, every jurisdiction should waive fees associated with development and streamline permitting for affordable housing development, with state and federal support when necessary.
  • Give more Oregonians the opportunity to own their home. Even moderately priced housing options are out of reach for many people, especially for Oregonians of color and younger families, many of whom are scrambling to keep up with skyrocketing rents. A path forward is to restrict more properties to be permanently affordable through the community land trust model. In combination with a dedicated revenue stream from the state and local jurisdictions for down payment assistance and subsidies for affordable housing development, this model can facilitate homeownership for households earning low and moderate incomes.
  • Locate and leverage land within the urban growth boundary. Look around our own cities and towns. We have large areas of vacant lands, underused parking lots and empty commercial spaces, all available for building homes. Portland has recently proposed to inventory City-owned land and make all appropriate parcels shovel-ready for affordable housing. Other public agencies should do the same.

We don’t need to sacrifice our natural areas or farmland to meet the housing challenge. The real keys to unlocking housing supply and affordability lie within our urban growth boundaries.