A Step Toward Justice

Middle housing recommendations support affordable and climate-responsive housing

As a Eugene resident, parent and legal scholar who focuses on housing and climate justice, I am deeply concerned about a local petition circulating under the misleading title “Housing and Climate Justice.”

I realize some people may have signed this petition without knowing its motivations. My hope is to refocus attention on local work that actually supports housing and climate justice, and to inspire continued conversation about these issues. 

My passion for this work has its roots in the Cully neighborhood of Northeast Portland, where I grew up. After losing our house to the lender, my parents moved our family of six to the only available place we could afford — a two-bedroom unit in a fourplex on a major thoroughfare less than a mile from a 24-acre landfill. Our neighborhood had significantly more sites contaminated with industrial pollutants and significantly more People of Color and very-low-income families (like mine) than Portland’s more restrictively zoned neighborhoods. 

I didn’t know it then, but the single-family-only zoning designed to racially and economically segregate American cities was keeping neighborhoods with cleaner air, better-resourced schools, less congestion and more trees out of our reach. These regulations achieved their intended segregationist purposes when adopted nearly a century ago, and they continue to do so today. 

I have since immersed my life in housing and climate justice work. As a law professor, I focus my research and teaching on housing and climate justice. I supervise the Sustainable Land Use Project of University of Oregon School of Law’s Environmental & Natural Resources Law Center. I serve on the board of Housing Land Advocates, which works to ensure all Oregonians can obtain adequate and affordable housing. I currently serve on a committee advising on how Oregon can reduce climate pollution in cities in a way that is equitable. And, in 2020, I advised on the implementation of Oregon’s Middle housing laws.

This is why I was so concerned to receive a four-page flyer promoting a “Housing and Climate Justice” petition and urging me to oppose the Planning Commission’s recommendation to reform strict single-family zoning to allow “middle housing” such as duplexes and triplexes, and to provide incentives to create more affordable housing in all Eugene neighborhoods.

Three things make this petition particularly misleading, in my assessment. First, the petition asks the City Council to reject a unanimous recommendation to adopt the most pro-affordable housing and racial justice zoning reform in Eugene’s history — urging the council to instead adopt a code based on the minimum compliance allowed by law. 

Second, the petition’s author claims that delaying this long-overdue reform is needed because feedback from housing or climate justice organizations or the public has not been provided. Exactly the opposite is true. 

Third, the petition’s website includes misleading and erroneous material. 

What will be lost if the City Council adopts the minimum middle housing code allowable under state law — as the petition demands? Incentives to create more affordable housing, climate-responsive housing and small housing. 

Fundamental to justice is genuine and fair participation. But the petition uses justice language to essentially erase the engagement of social and environmental justice organizations and thousands of Eugene citizens who participated in the most diverse and robust public participation process in Eugene’s history. The commission hosted Facebook Live discussions on affordable housing, exclusionary zoning, the state middle housing law and other topics.

Meetings were accessible by Zoom and YouTube, and recorded. Economic consultants provided analysis. An Equity Roundtable advised on the work. There were stakeholder groups, surveys, info sessions and presentations. In a truly unique step, 29 Eugene residents were selected by lottery to join a demographically representative review panel that developed guiding principles, reviewed code concepts and vetted draft proposals.

The product of this 18-month process is a middle housing code with broad and diverse support. No single policy action can solve our housing crisis or remedy a century of exclusionary zoning and environmental racism, but the Planning Commission’s recommendation takes a long overdue step in the right direction. 

We find ourselves in a time when many people aren’t sure who to trust. If your concerns are housing and climate justice, I recommend engaging with local and state organizations that have fair and affordable housing, racial justice, or climate justice in their missions — organizations like Better Housing Together, Beyond Toxics, DevNW, Fair Housing Council of Oregon, Housing Land Advocates, Huerto de Familia, Lane Independent Living Alliance, NAACP Eugene/Springfield, Oregon Law Center, Pacific Northwest Just Futures Institute for Racial and Climate Justice, and Springfield Eugene Tenants Association.

Sarah J. Adams-Schoen is an assistant professor at the University of Oregon and a faculty member of the UO’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center.

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