Kotek’s housing council wants to make expanding cities easier, a tough sell in Salem

Members of a governor-appointed council say Oregon needs to temporarily loosen its land-use laws to meet Gov. Tina Kotek’s goal of building 36,000 homes per year – an idea that’s proved to be one of the more divisive proposals to address the state’s housing crisis. 

Over the past few months, Kotek’s Housing Production Advisory Council identified many barriers that would lead to Oregon building fewer homes than needed to keep pace with growth, leading to higher rent and mortgage costs and more homelessness. There aren’t enough construction workers to build the needed homes, cumbersome permit requirements make projects take longer and cost more and the state doesn’t have enough land ready for homebuilding. 

To address the last barrier, council members recommended that the Legislature allow all cities to expand their urban growth boundary one time in the next 10 years without going through the usual expansion process that can take years to complete. The boundary is the invisible, state-approved line around a city that dictates where and how it can grow.

That was a key component of a Kotek-backed bill that failed on the Senate floor in the last few hours of the legislative session. The council hasn’t formally endorsed the proposal, and public testimony during its Friday meeting demonstrated what a tough sell the idea would be in a state dominated by Democrats supported by environmental interests. 

“This opportunity, if every city in the state takes advantage of it, could produce 150,000 units,” said Deborah Flagan, a council member and vice president of community engagement at Hayden Homes. 

That would get the state 30% of the way to building the 500,000 homes economists say are necessary over the next two decades to keep pace with demand. 

The proposal would allow cities with populations below 25,000 to add up to 75 acres and cities with larger populations to add up to 150 acres. The Portland metro area would be capped at 900 total acres. At least 30% of the homes added would need to remain affordable for at least 60 years. 

The League of Oregon Cities supports the concept, said Ariel Nelson, the league’s lobbyist on housing and land use, but it wants more attention to details. 

“The current (urban growth boundary) expansion or adjustment process at the state is too cumbersome, too time-consuming and expensive to be responsive to our current housing crisis,” she said. 

Cities in the Portland region are skeptical about the proposal, said Anneliese Koehler, state and regional affairs adviser for Metro. Instead of adding land on the outskirts of city boundaries, cities in the region need more support to redevelop and fill in vacant lots, she said. 

“Metro continues to struggle to understand why this concept is needed in our region,” Koehler said. “Specifically, our understanding of the intent of this bill is to offer opportunities to increase land supply for housing production. While I cannot speak for other areas of the state, raw land supply is not the crux of the Metro region’s housing supply crisis. We have thousands of acres of buildable land inside our UGB.”

Corie Harlan, the cities and towns manager for Central Oregon LandWatch, said the Bend-based environmental organization had deep concerns about expediting the urban growth boundary expansion process. Central Oregon LandWatch was the main opponent to Bend’s attempt to grow by about 8,000 acres in 2008. It took almost another decade for the city to win state approval for a more modest 2,000-acre addition. 

“First and foremost, UGB expansions must be based on a demonstrated need,” Harlan said. “And this recommendation undermines this reasonable, necessary and core tenet of our land use system that is at the heart of Oregon’s livability.”

Expansion in Bend

Since the state approved its urban growth boundary expansion in 2016, Bend has added another 35 acres for affordable housing and 260 acres southeast of town for housing and commercial development. Both additions happened because of state laws that made it easier for the city to expand its urban growth boundary. 

Bend Mayor Melanie Kebler said the recent 260-acre expansion is proceeding much faster than typical expansions and recommended that the council use the 2021 law that allowed Bend to take in that land as a model for statewide policies.  

“It really doesn’t make sense to hold to old ways when we’re working to get a jump on the future and really accelerate housing production,” she said. 

Many of the people who spoke to the council defended Oregon’s land-use system, saying it should be hard to expand city limits. Marion County resident Aileen Kaye said voters are concerned about homelessness, not affordable housing. 

“I feel that the current push for massive homebuilding is a bait and switch by Governor Kotek,” Kaye said. “Voters thought the governor was going to focus on, and I take this wording from today’s meeting notice, ‘How to provide immediate relief to unsheltered Oregonians and prevent thousands of families from becoming homeless.’” 

Casey Clapp, a tree scientist from Portland, said maintaining urban growth boundary limits as they are is necessary to keep Oregon special. 

“It’s what’s keeping Oregon Oregon as opposed to creating a Denver or some other sprawled city that you’d see in the Midwest out of Portland and Salem and Eugene and Bend and all these other places,” Clapp said. “People are moving to this place because of the gorgeous beauty that we have, and these really innovative land-use rules as opposed to getting rid of all that and shooting ourselves in one foot while we’re thinking we’re making ourselves a better place with the other foot.” 

The council is expected to send its final recommendations to Kotek by the end of the year. 

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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.