Will Kotek’s Plan to Spur Housing Lead to More McMansions and Fewer Trees?

A bill aimed at cutting red tape and stiff-arming NIMBYs generates fierce debate.

TREES AND HOMES: Strolling the Alberta neighborhood. (Tim Saputo)

BILL OF THE WEEK: House Bill 3414

CHIEF SPONSORS: House Speaker Dan Rayfield (D-Corvallis) and Rep. Maxine Dexter (D-Portland) at the request of Gov. Tina Kotek.

WHAT IT WOULD DO: HB 3414 would significantly reduce local governments’ ability to deny developers variances from land use regulations for properties inside urban growth boundaries that are zoned residential. (The bill includes exceptions for applications that involve “health, safety or habitability issues” and does not waive regulations around height and density.) Since the bill was introduced, interested parties have proposed a flurry of amendments, but none has yet been accepted. The bill would also create a new entity called the Housing Accountability and Production Office.

PROBLEM IT SEEKS TO SOLVE: Oregon is short at least 110,000 housing units, according to a 2022 state analysis. Many economists believe that Oregon’s disproportionately high rate of homelessness is attributable to the high cost of housing and the time it takes to produce new homes. Some critics believe state land use laws and local zoning codes give neighborhood associations and government bureaucrats pretexts to slow the development of new homes and to make it more costly.

This bill pits two powerful, countervailing forces: Kotek and her many allies’ desire to increase housing supply against environmentalists and local governments who want to protect water, habitat and the principles behind Oregon’s pioneering land use laws.

WHO SUPPORTS IT: Kotek, the Oregon Home Builders Association, various trade unions, and Home Forward, the state’s largest owner and operator of subsidized housing.

In testimony before the House Committee on Housing and Homelessness, Home Forward gave an example of why developers want variances waived. Since 2019, the nonprofit has been trying to develop a 100-unit apartment building in Troutdale. It asked for variances to increase window sizes and reduce the number of parking spots from two per unit (many of the apartments are studios). Troutdale said no. Home Forward reduced the number of units to 85 and upped the number of parking spots to 140, but the project still hasn’t started.

“The delay caused by the denial of Home Forward’s variance requests and subsequent process has added a year and half to our expected project timeline,” Home Forward testified.

WHO OPPOSES IT: The cities of Happy Valley, Wilsonville and West Linn, among others. The city of Portland didn’t outright oppose the bill, but suggested several changes. Environmental groups, including the Urban Greenspaces Institute and Willamette Riverkeeper, also testified against the bill.

Critics’ objections range from a loss of local control to the failure of the bill to require demonstrable increased housing production in exchange for the waiver of variance, to the wholesale gutting of certain protections that underpin Oregon’s land use system. Bob Sallinger, conservation director at Willamette Riverkeeper, says the bill as currently written would allow developers to cut down trees on any Portland lot or develop freely along the Willamette River and to erect McMansions rather than multifamily housing.

“The bill was portrayed as cutting red tape and getting rid of NIMBYism,”Sallinger says. “It radically tips the land use planning system in favor of developers at the expense of other critically important values for our communities and without necessarily securing any tangible community benefits in return.”

At a lengthy hearing May 9, advocates and lawmakers debated amendments aimed at allaying critics’ concerns while still generating more housing.

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