Commissioner Carmen Rubio Considers Easing Regulations on New Housing. Not Everybody Is Happy.

Rubio’s desire to increase housing production could weaken environmental protections.

As the city’s commissioner in charge of both housing and development services, Carmen Rubio faces related challenges: a shortage of affordable housing and a complex permitting system that developers say is glacially slow and includes too many costly requirements.

Rubio wants to make building housing easier and cheaper. Judging by a survey she recently circulated, that might mean relaxing or scrapping requirements instituted to protect the environment and combat the effects of climate change.

The survey Rubio’s office circulated last week provoked different responses: dismay from environmentalists and approval from housing developers.

The survey asked respondents to note which city building requirements it “should consider suspending or modifying to support increased housing production.” The survey went to city staff in permitting and code development roles as well as developers, architects and builders who sought permits from the city over the past four years.

A number of the options listed were regulations related to climate and sustainability, such as requirements for open spaces, bicycle parking, bird-safe windows, eco-roofs and trees.

“Every regulation and process has one or more advocacy groups, and each requirement is attempting to move us toward worthy goals. However cumulatively, the impact of these complex layers of regulations and processes is inhibiting housing production,” Rubio’s office wrote to survey recipients. “Some regulatory relief must be provided to incentivize the housing production that’s needed to meet the current crisis. Some compromise is needed.”

Bob Sallinger, urban conservation director for Willamette Riverkeeper, says watering down environmental regulations doesn’t address the root causes of the housing shortage, ignores the city’s climate goals, and is unfair to the low-income communities that already bear the burden of less-resilient buildings and locations. For instance, low-income communities are more likely to live in parts of the city with fewer trees, exposing them to higher temperatures. He says Rubio’s survey is “an age-old political tactic that pits progressive causes against each other rather than addressing the root causes of the problems….It’s not because of our tree code or eco-roof code that we’re in this crisis.”

“Our lowest-income and marginal communities live in the grayest landscapes, the most polluted landscapes, the hottest landscapes,” Sallinger adds. “This kind of approach would exacerbate that, not rectify it.”

Rubio says the survey is a response to Gov. Tina Kotek’s goal of building as much new housing as possible.

“We are under clear direction from the governor and legislature to explore both process and policy changes to speed up housing production,” Rubio says, adding that the survey is just the first step in the engagement process and would go through rigorous workshopping before coming in front of the Portland City Council. “The state has authority in this area, so our goal is to proactively shape—and capture in one place—any and all ideas for exploration and future engagement.”

Housing developers, meanwhile, cheer Rubio’s attempts at easing regulatory burdens. Developers often cite seismic upgrade costs, system development charges, parking restrictions, and a host of other zoning codes and requirements—including a lengthy and convoluted permitting process—for why projects are so expensive.

Patrick Gilligan, executive vice president of Lincoln Property Company, says he’s glad the city is reevaluating its requirements.

“Whatever the city can do to help alleviate costs, that’s going to allow projects to be built more competitively and cost effectively and help us get out of this difficult situation,” Gilligan says. “The cost of capital is way too high to afford a lot of these things.”

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