When the Eugene City Council was introduced to HB 2001, they apparently hated the state housing bill, which requires every Oregon city of more than 10,000 people to allow multi-unit “middle” housing in any residential neighborhood within the urban growth boundary.
At the first council work session on the issue in March 2019, in a feat of bipartisanship, councilors across the political spectrum joined together in disdain for this bill. Councilors said that they didn’t think the bill itself would suit Eugene, but it seemed like they also disagreed with it on principle, annoyed that influential Portland-based legislators would try to usurp local authority.
“I don’t like this bill at all. It has many problems,” Councilor Alan Zelenka, one of the council’s more liberal members, said. “It’s a cookie-cutter Portland solution imposed on the state.”
“There isn’t a place where you can let this pass and make it okay. Not for me,” conservative Councilor Mike Clark said at the 2019 work session. “This won’t just be bad for liveability, it’ll destroy some neighborhoods. This would be a horrible, horrible outcome. There is no working halfway on this one that will make it acceptable to me.”
The state didn’t listen to the Eugene City Council, however, and the bill passed last summer. Last September, after Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill into law, some councilors put a motion forward to fight to repeal it in the 2020 legislative session. But Mayor Lucy Vinis encouraged them to let it go, telling the council that fighting it would be a “fool’s errand,” and most of them have cooled down and are more willing to discuss how to move forward, tailoring the bill to Eugene.
At the July 22 work session, city planners presented the council with information on the Middle Housing Code Amendments project to develop land use code changes that comply with HB 2001 and fit Eugene’s needs. This conversation addressed housing equity problems that have been present in Eugene as a result of systemic racism throughout the city and state.
During their presentation on their plan for public engagement, Metropolitan and Community planners Terri Harding and Sophie McGinley emphasized HB 2001 as an opportunity to create more equitable housing practices.
Harding and McGinley said that the city needs to look at developing the new land use code from an equitable and anti-racist perspective, seeing as zoning regulations in many cities across the country have historically restricted more affordable, multi-unit housing in certain neighborhoods. This was done intentionally to create racially segregated cities across the country.
They made it clear that a big part of the project would involve reaching out to groups representing a diversity of race and economic class, including local leaders from the Black, Indigenous, People of Color community.
Councilor Betty Taylor has recently said that she doesn’t think Eugene still upholds racist policies from the past. Last month, Vinis and most of the City Council released a statement supporting the Black Lives Matter protesters and condemning racism in the community, which Taylor and Clark didn’t sign.
Taylor said that she didn’t want to sign the statement, which recognized that some city policies have continued a legacy of racism, because she doesn’t believe that there are racist policies embedded in Eugene’s institutions. At the July 22 work session, she maintained that position, saying that she was disturbed by the focus on race in the proposed middle housing outreach project and that previous racist housing policies are irrelevant now.
“It’s illogical to say that we’re excluding people. Those things are no longer happening,” Taylor said.
As a part of creating equitable, diverse roundtables to discuss the niches of HB 2001 through the Middle Housing Code Amendments project, Harding and McGinley said that it would be important to compensate people for their time and energy spent giving input.
This proposal comes in the midst of national conversations about racism which have brought forth a wider acknowledgement that people of color should be actively involved in creating more inclusive policies and they deserve to be reimbursed for this labor instead of being expected to educate white people for free.
The council also pointed out that using unpaid volunteers for big, time-consuming projects like this often results in panels dominated by people who can afford to work for free, who are often older, wealthy white people.
“If we really want a diverse group of residents to participate in these processes we can’t just limit it to people who can afford to give us their time for free,” Councilor Claire Syrett said.
Taylor said she disagreed with the notion of paying volunteers to assist.
“I don’t know when we started paying volunteers,” Taylor said. “All kinds of groups rely on volunteers. Volunteering means you don’t get paid.”
Councilor Emily Semple expressed confusion with the project, saying that she doesn’t see why the community should start having these conversations until there is a clearer idea about what the code will look like and how the policy will be implemented.
“So we’re going to convene these groups and spend a couple of months educating them about the possible issues? I think that’s a fine thing to do, but I don’t think it’s very productive considering how everything could change,” Semple said. “I’m not convinced that we need three months of meetings and paying people before there’s something to really talk about.”
Problems with density
Zelenka, who represents the University of Oregon area of ward 3, said that he thinks it is damaging to look at this project with a one size fits all approach. He said that the HB 2001 will impact his ward disproportionately, as developers would be incentivized to buy out older single unit homes around the UO campus, turning a large profit to transform them into expensive apartment buildings that can fit dozens of students.
Zelenka has said in prior meetings on the matter that this would transform the nice neighborhoods around campus into party zones. (If you’ve ever walked down Ferry Street on a Duck home game day, you’d probably know that’s already a lost cause.)
Clark also brought up new concerns about more dense housing that would come from multi-unit complexes, saying that these are prime conditions for coronavirus to spread.
“It’s now critically clear that density creates greater capacity for disease to grow,” Clark said. “Density kills people in this new environment we live in.”
Councilor Greg Evans, the only person of color on the council, talked about growing up in a segregated neighborhood in Cleveland and experiencing racist housing policy firsthand. He mentioned that not only has zoning policy been a way to racially discriminate, but so are lending practices, which have historically kept people of color from being able to own a home.
“This is not just a zoning issue,” Evans said. We also need to work to remove those barriers in commercial bank lending and insurance.”
Clark, who, by day, is a mortgage lender, said that racial discrimination in lending practices was resolved by heavy government restrictions after the 2008 housing crisis.
“Today is an entirely different atmosphere than 10 years ago,” Clark said. “There is an intense list of remedies for people who think they have reason to think they’ve been discriminated against.”
Evans, who said he had lived experience with mortgage discrimination, disagreed. He said that just because there are laws against something doesn’t mean that people won’t find loopholes.
“They keep doing the same things that they’ve been doing in the past,” he said.
The city of Eugene must develop a new land use code by July 2022 or it must implement the state’s model. Now that the council has weighed in, the Planning Commission will begin to start the public outreach effort.
Taylor and Clark both made comments throughout the work session about continuing to fight this bill, which frustrated Councilor Chris Pryor, who also serves on the state’s Housing Rulemaking Advisory Committee. Pryor urged any of his colleagues who were still upset that the bill had been passed to stop trying to get this bill repealed.
“We’re stuck with what it is and we’re going to have to work with that,” Pryor said. “I don’t want to leave it up to Salem to decide all the nuances of what we should do on the local level. I’m pleading for us to get started as soon as possible so we can have a code that’s good for Eugene and still reflects HB 2001.”