Addressing the Affordability Issue

How cities address social equity during growth is critical


The state of Oregon has banned single family zoning. What does this mean? The Legislature passed an innovative bill called HB2001 which allows alternative housing types in single family zones. Detached homes can still be built in Oregon, but developers are no longer restricted to them. Why is this so groundbreaking? There is an affordability crisis in cities across the nation. In the city of Bend, the desirability of the location with its natural resources and cultural activities has driven the cost of housing up dramatically. The lack of supply exacerbates this trend. What’s been predominantly built until recently are detached single family homes, the most expensive option to buy or rent.

What HB2001 does is allow duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, town homes, cottages and tiny homes to be built on lots zoned for single family homes. Lot sizes and setbacks have also been reduced to align with typical single family lots and parking requirements have been reduced. Accessory Dwelling Units up to 600 SF are allowed on any residential property that can meet the setbacks and FAR, with no parking required.

The goal of these changes is to encourage alternative housing types that can address the missing middle housing that used to be so prevalent before the onset of zoning. It can allow affordable ownership and rental opportunities that are currently not available to the middle income market. Banks have financed apartments since the recession, but they have favored mostly high-end units. Locally only non-profit developers and a few private developers using Tax Credit Financing are able to produce apartments that are affordable to those at or below the median income.

Individuals at the median income level make up our essential workers, teachers, firefighters and police. Workers in service industries that keep our shelves stocked during this time of COVID-19 are below the median. We need these people in our communities to be available and to avoid added traffic and pollution if they drive from outlying areas where they can afford to live.

The city of Bend adopted an Affordable Housing Fee in 2006 that collects .333% of all building permit fees in the city. These funds produce several million dollars each year and are administered by the Affordable Housing Manager at the City who oversees the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee. I serve on that committee. We have loaned out millions of dollars for the development of affordable housing and administered Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) that are Federal Funds. These funds leverage other financing as much at 16 times its value to help produce hundreds of housing units.

Affordable housing is defined per county for all U.S. counties. A table exists in each county and is updated yearly that lists income levels typically from 30% to 80% of the median and adjusted for family size. In Deschutes County, currently a family of four at 50% of the median can earn up to $38,250 up to 80% at $61,200. To be affordable, rent, utilities or mortgage and insurance can’t exceed 30% of their gross income. This number is going to vary across the country, but what is important to note is that income has not kept pace with expenses across the nation since the recession. Companies have difficulty recruiting employees because they simply can’t find an affordable place to live which impacts the economy of the entire region.

The State has taken this proactive approach to eliminate barriers to creating the kinds of housing people need at a price they can afford. Government cannot force development but they can get out of the way with needlessly restrictive zoning, and allow by right the housing needed. NIMBY’s can’t stop this kind of housing if it’s allowed by right. What is left to be seen is if these innovative housing types will pencil out for developers and if banks will proactively seek to finance these types of developments.

Additionally the City Council has directed staff to create an ordinance that will allow Single Room Occupancy developments in appropriate sites in Bend. This type of housing can address a need at many income levels. Young, recent college graduates to homeless veterans and everyone in between could take advantage of SRO housing. These and mixed use retail/residential developments are being encouraged in the central core that has recently enacted a Tax Increment Financing District. Growing up instead of out to preserve our natural resources is another goal of the city.

If the state of Oregon and its many cities can do this, then it’s something other states and municipalities can embrace as well. How we address social equity during growth is critical. Zoning was created after WWII in part to exclude minorities from owning property and that disparity of accumulated wealth is being felt ever more strongly today. Embracing alternative housing types can help to redress this wrong, as well as providing safe affordable housing for all.

Katherine Austin, AIA, Architect licensed in California in 1991 & Oregon, specializes in affordable housing, serves on City of Bend’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee and AIA OR Bend Section Committee.

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