Balancing Our Environmental Policy Scorecard

Residential zoning action as climate action

By Kelsey Zlevor 

Eugene is facing two crises that impact the future habitability and accessibility of our community. One is climate change, and the other is housing access. 

In the wake of the Holiday Farm Fire that ravaged hundreds of homes and left our unhoused community breathing hazardous air, compounded by the reckoning with structural racism in Oregon’s land use system, the objectives are clear: We must repair the harm caused by race- and class-based discriminatory zoning codes, we must increase access to a variety of housing options, and we must reduce our fossil fuel use to prevent housing disruption caused by intensifying natural disasters linked to climate change. 

We literally have to do it all. This would seem impossible, if not for the fact that we are being presented with two steps right now to make it possible. But it only works if we act on both.

The first is the Fossil Free Eugene (FFE) coalition advocating to transition the city to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, and the second is the implementation of House Bill 2001 to promote infill development, or multiple dwelling units (duplex, triplex, etc.) on existing single-family residential lots. While advocating for the allowance of different housing types in single-family zones may not seem like a climate issue, it is exactly at this intersection of policy where our collective power can and should be built to advance environmental justice and curb emissions. 

FFE, a coalition of grassroots organizations, is currently pressing the Eugene City Council to pass ordinances to transition the city to renewable energy. FFE is demanding a ban on construction of all new fossil fuel infrastructure in the city, transitioning all utilities in the city to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 and levying a carbon fee on Northwest Natural that would fund the transition of low-income and historically marginalized communities from fracked gas to electric appliances. Given the city’s Climate Recovery Ordinance calls for the reduction of fossil fuel use by 50 percent of 2010 levels by 2030, measured transition away from fossil fuels is critical.

The other course of action at our disposal is our city’s implementation of House Bill 2001. HB 2001 is Oregon’s landmark statewide legislation legalizing multiple dwelling units on properties zoned single-family in large cities, otherwise known as middle housing. I served as an appointed member to the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development’s Middle Housing Model Code Technical Advisory Committee in 2019, where we developed the baseline model code all eligible cities can adopt to comply with the legislation.  

This model code is now in Eugene’s hands. We can either adopt the code outright to allow middle housing, go further with this model code to encourage middle housing, or incentivize middle housing. Incentivizing middle housing has the least regulation, most flexibility, and the greatest potential to reduce housing costs out of the three choices. 

Incentivizing middle housing is a step towards dismantling Oregon’s segregated zoning system, which has up to this point upheld structural racism by barring housing variety in residential zones. It also is one of our greatest options to reduce GHGs: the UN’s “The Weight of Cities Report” states infill development can reduce GHGs by a factor of two or more by locating housing closer to downtowns and transit, and the Cool Climate Network at UC-Berkeley recently published the California Local Government Climate Policy Tool that found urban infill surpasses every listed tactic in most jurisdictions in terms of reductions in GHGs. 

This is not to say that heating electrification matters less, but that these policies are multiplicative. Only when they work in tandem do we stand a chance at mitigating climate disruption.

Through several leadership roles in Eugene, I have witnessed decisionmakers’ enthusiasm for mitigating the climate crisis and increasing housing access, and a simultaneous aversion to taking intersectional steps to achieve it — regulating the use of fossil fuels and incentivizing middle housing. I find this dissonance disturbing. To advance climate justice requires us to challenge the status quo with bold policy change. 

A Fossil Free Eugene necessarily calls us to incentivize middle housing if our climate and equity values are to be in alignment. To develop our community with integrity means we must advocate for both a just transition away from fossil fuels and a variety of housing types. To do one of these without the other is to not only forge an uneven policy scorecard but is to render one’s-self climate neutral. 

Transitioning to renewable energy is climate action, incentivizing middle housing is climate action, and we will undoubtedly need both if we want to build a just and livable future.

Kelsey Zlevor is a planning and land use consultant at Cameron McCarthy Landscape Architecture and Planning in Eugene. She is a member of both the City of Eugene Sustainability Commission and Downtown Neighborhood Association, and organizes with Sunrise Eugene.

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