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A homeless camp along the banks of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon.(Photo Courtesy: Portland City Auditor/Independent Police Review)
By SARAH ZIMMERMAN Associated Press
Published: 09 August 2019

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon hopes to build its way out of its housing crisis under first-in-the-nation state legislation signed by Gov. Kate Brown Thursday meant to encourage local cities to construct denser, more affordable housing options.

The law targets a century-old practice known as "exclusionary single family zoning," where local city governments only allow for the construction of single family home. The zoning often prohibits multi-family residences including duplexes, triplexes and others that are often more inexpensive. Critics say the practice has acted as a form of economic and racial segregation.

"If a community is filled with only large and expensive homes, that often restricts who can move there," said Robert Silverman, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Buffalo. "Couple that with the other historical barriers that have prevented minorities from homeownership and this all works to perpetuate segregation in communities."

'Missing Middle Housing'

Under the new law, cities with more than 10,000 residents must now allow for the construction of some type of what's known as "missing middle housing," or housing types that are somewhere between high-rise apartments and single family homes.

The move comes months after the governor signed the nation's first rent control law, limiting rent increases to about 10% annually.

"States across the country should pay attention to what Oregon is doing on housing," said David Morely, a senior research associate with the American Planning Association. "Oregon has taken incredible first steps in addressing its housing crisis."

It's estimated that nearly 2.8 million people live in cities affected by the law, which was inspired by a Minneapolis city ordinance.

Soaring Rents in Oregon

A lack of affordable housing is part of the reason behind soaring rents, experts suggest. From 2000-2016, Oregon produced only 89 houses for every 100 families, according to state data. The period following the Great Recession saw some of the lowest growth, with only 63 units produced for every 100 households from 2010-2016.

Thousands of people have poured into the state for jobs and in some cases, for a lower cost of living.

One in three renters pays more than 50% of their income on rent. That's far higher than the Congressional-set definition of housing affordability, which suggests setting aside 30% toward housing costs.

National Housing Crisis

Across the United States, over 11 million people spent put more than half their income toward rent in 2016, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

Damian Syrnyk, a regional planner in the fast-growing city of Bend, praised the Oregon bill for addressing housing affordability in a way that still allows for local control. But he cautioned that there's nothing in the law requiring new construction.

"The amount of impact this law has is entirely dependent on developers," he said. "I have no idea how many people will come in to submit permits to build new types of housing, or if housing developers will even want to build more affordable units."

Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, the Portland Democrat behind the bill, acknowledged its limitations but said affordable housing developers, including Habitat for Humanity, have listed zoning restrictions as a major barrier to planned development.

"This bill alone won't guarantee that we'll meet our housing supply goals," she told lawmakers on the floor last month. "However, every single home makes a difference to someone and relieves pressure in tight housing markets."

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