By Diana Bilovsky
I often find the discussion concerning House Bill 2001 hard to watch. The disagreeableness, coupled with competing facts, make the city of Eugene’s proposal confusing.
Let’s agree to two things. The first is HB 2001’s stated purpose — to increase “housing choices” that “all people can afford” (Oregon.Gov Urban Planning, Housing Choices).
Second, both sides — those who think what is being proposed is too much, and those who think it is just right — are equally correct. I have lived experiences that validate both.
My first housing in Eugene was on 17th Alley, exactly what the proponents are envisioning: a unit in a fourplex, in a bungalow’s backyard. But my experiences mirrored the opponent’s worst fears. Because my two-story middle housing was squished against a three-story middle housing on the north, and another two-story on the south, light and air was limited, as was vegetation.
Sleep was difficult because, whether the dumpster was locked or not, dumpster divers loudly scrounged for pickings throughout the night. And even though cheaply made with hear-through walls, rent was over market-rate.
Yet the proponents are also correct: We are in desperate need of housing. And as one who has been housing precarious for big chunks of my life, I understand the impossible choices limited low-cost housing creates. But here’s the thing: Density — even with no parking, no trees and 50-foot towers — while a sure bet to get us more market-rate housing, can never alone provide housing that all of us can afford. Because creating the missing housing choices for the close to 50 percent of us who can’t afford market-rate requires purposefulness (Eugene-Springfield 2020 Consolidated Plan).
And let’s additionally be clear, even though it is fashionable to say that building anything helps — it does not. The law of supply and demand doesn’t work because the demand is for affordable, not market-rate. Too, the concept of “filtering” (trickle-down affordability), first floated by 1920s developers as a painless answer to unaffordability, also won’t deliver. Consistent with current research, a study at that time on the effects of increased market-rate production found that while top end rents fell a tad, at the hurting lower economic levels, rents actually continued to rise (Modern Housing For America, Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era, Gail Radford, Pages 53-55).
Here are three suggestions that might get us closer to the goals of HB 2001:
- Require yearly reviews of middle housing to quantify parking impacts, prices of planned and completed units; and losses of low-income housing, neighborhood light, tree canopies. Facts gathered can guide us towards needed future improvements.
- In a demonstration project, incentivize property owners to build permanently affordable middle housing with the initial goal of 50 350-square-foot units — 45 percent of Eugene’s households are single person, and about the same number are lower-income. (Eugene-Springfield 2020 Consolidated Plan). Provide owners $20,000 to $30,000 waivers of construction fees and taxes as well as technical assistance. In return, deed restrict units to use by holders of Section 8 vouchers and those who earn 30 percent or below our area’s median income.
- Disallow short term rentals. If more housing is what we are after, middle housing must be prevented from morphing into hotels.
With diligence, it still may be possible for our community to unite around HB 2001, if only we remember the original intent: housing for all of us.
Diana Bilovsky is a writer and longtime advocate for the preservation of low-income housing, including authoring two preservation laws for residential hotels.