by Paul Conte
Mixing willful ignorance and cocksure zealotry, Eugene planners and planning commissioners are irresponsibly pushing residential zone changes that would deepen racial exclusion in Eugene’s housing.
The proposed changes would quadruple or more the allowable density and dwellings per lot throughout Eugene’s neighborhoods.
Planning staff claim this de facto upzoning would improve both housing affordability and racial inclusivity by increasing supply. But the actual outcome will be the opposite because the staff’s approach is based on the discredited neoliberal theory that deregulation and free market capitalism produce the best social outcomes.
The staff shamelessly misappropriated the tragic history of zoning provisions that once excluded Black residents and then unabashedly promoted the false narrative that Eugene’s current zoning regulations remain the reason that Black households are excluded from many neighborhoods.
Fact: Eugene zoning regulations do not contain a single provision that differentiates based on race.
Lack of financial capacity, not race, prevents too many Black and other households from living where they would prefer. Because nonwhite households generally have substantially lower incomes than white households, proportionally more nonwhite households cannot afford — and therefore are effectively excluded from — some neighborhoods, based on housing costs.
Reducing racial economic disparities would reduce racial housing inequities. Simply adding additional, expensive dwellings would not.
The high cost of housing is a challenge for many Eugene households. However, the true housing crisis is the large number of “housing-cost-burdened” households, and these are almost entirely households with incomes less than half the area’s median income. Reducing the number of households, of any race, that are housing-cost-burdened requires preservation and production of deeply affordable housing.
The city staff approach does neither because it relies entirely on two thoroughly debunked theories.
First, that any increase in the number of dwellings, no matter the price or rental cost, would significantly reduce the cost of all housing, including rentals affordable to housing-cost-burdened households. Second, that having a single version of the lot and development standards for all of Eugene’s nominally single-family neighborhoods would significantly improve housing equity across the city.
The staff’s reliance on a simplistic model of supply and demand ignores overwhelming expert opinion that housing markets are segmented by several factors, most importantly by price or rental cost. Adding supply to upper cost ranges will not significantly reduce the cost of housing in lower ranges.
Solid research on housing equity has established that to effectively reduce racial housing disparities, zoning policies must be based on distinct subareas’ demographics, housing markets and transportation infrastructure, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
Astoundingly, the planning staff brazenly admit they aren’t even going to consider how their proposed deregulation may cause significant displacement of Black and other lower-income households. As a result, the staff proposal has no provisions for inclusionary zoning (requiring a certain amount of affordable housing in new developments), restricting demolitions of lower-rent dwellings, requiring right-of-return for current tenants, or limiting the floor area and/or number of bedrooms of new rental dwellings to keep new rentals in more affordable ranges.
In a housing market such as Eugene’s, with escalating demand and constrained land supply, investors maximize their return by developing high-end rentals for households with above-average incomes who are nonetheless priced out of the single-family home market.
A new quadplex at 94 and 96 W. 15th Avenue is a perfect example. Each apartment rents for $3,195 per month. The developer cleared the site by demolishing two former lower-cost rentals — a two-bedroom house that rented for $1,310 per month, and a four-bedroom house that rented for $1,595 per month. The demolitions directly displaced the occupants. Even broader, indirect displacement results from gentrification, fueled by free-market upzoning, which inexorably leads to rent increases that force low-income households to move.
The Eugene Planning Commission’s white upper-income members have wholly bought into the staff’s false narrative. In contrast, a Black advocacy group’s recent, well-researched report states:
“In Charlottesville, our studies and lived experiences overwhelmingly show that when we permit market-rate and luxury housing development without deep affordability, we see skyrocketing rental rates, rapidly accelerating development in previously Black-majority neighborhoods, and displacement of predominantly Black lower-income residents.
“[F]air housing will only be fulfilled if displacement prevention and preservation/production of deeply affordable housing are uppermost priorities.”
Instead of doing comparable research and analysis of Eugene, the planning staff has prioritized a propaganda campaign that pushes the false claim that market-based new development will trickle down or filter to reduce the cost of housing for lower-income households. The staff also claims its proposal would increase choice and housing equity. But only higher-income households would benefit from any new choices of market-based housing types. And the notion that “equal” (identical) zoning criteria in staff’s one-size-fits-all approach is “equitable” directly contradicts expert recommendations to develop multiple, context-based plans for smaller subareas to protect non-white residents.
In future decades, Eugene staff’s and planning commissioners’ simple-minded goal of removing barriers, no matter whether well-intentioned, will be viewed just as racist as an earlier generation of white urban planners’ decisions to demolish poor Black neighborhoods and remake New York as a modern city with tower in the park housing projects.
Paul Conte is a neighborhood advocate who has consistently supported evidence-based policies to provide housing that’s affordable to low-income households, including in the Jefferson Westside Neighbors where he’s lived for over 40 years. Learn more at Housing-Facts.org