In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, I thought I’d write in praise of a new initiative from state representative Tina Kotek (D.), the very lefty speaker of the Oregon House. According to a recent report in Willamette Week, she is drafting legislation that would relax land-use regulations for homeowners living in some of the state’s larger cities, which in turn could yield a much-needed increase in housing supply. My hope is that her proposal will garner bipartisan support.
Metropolitan Portland is, like many desirable urban regions in the U.S., experiencing a severe housing crunch, and the lack of affordable housing is having a number of negative consequences: It is driving lower-income households to lower-cost regions; making it exceptionally difficult for those who do stick around to save money, form families of their own, and move up the housing ladder; and it is deterring any number of would-be residents who’d benefit from Portland’s high and rising productivity from moving to the region in the first place. Given Portland’s richly-deserved reputation as a left-wing redoubt, you won’t be surprised to learn that many local politicians, Kotek included, have called for rent control, or rather “second-generation rent stabilization,” to address the affordability problem, an approach that isn’t likely to succeed — see Joe Cortright’s helpful discussion of the issue at City Observatory.
So what could help mitigate the problem? In short, Portland needs more housing within easy reach of employment opportunities and the urban amenities that have made the city so attractive. Building more housing in the boonies can only be part of the solution, as not everyone is willing to endure painfully long commutes. Broadly speaking, there are two ways to boost the supply of well-located housing. First, Portland could do more to combat traffic congestion, which would effectively “shrink” the region by shortening commutes from outlying suburbs. As appealing as this might sound, congestion pricing, the surest antidote to traffic congestion, isn’t exactly a political winner. Expanding mass transit could ease congestion at the margin, but there’s only so much it can do in a relatively low-density region like Portland, where not all commuters are bound for a compact central business district. The second and more promising way to boost the supply of well-located housing is to take a more direct approach and to actually build more supply in the heart of the region. This is where Kotek’s latest proposal comes in.
As I understand it, Kotek wants to allow property owners in Oregon cities with populations of 10,000 or more to build as many as four housing units on land currently zoned for single-family housing. At the more modest end, this could mean building an accessory dwelling unit on an existing single-family home — a so-called “granny flat.” More ambitiously, it could mean building a small cluster of townhomes on the grounds of what was once a sprawling single-family residence. Short of building a granny flat for a loved one, homeowners in far-flung suburbs won’t have much incentive to take advantage of this new freedom. It is homeowners in the most desirable, centrally located neighborhoods who will be most tempted to develop their properties.
We often hear about NIMBY (“not-in-my-backyard”) homeowners fighting tooth and nail against new development in their neighborhoods, but Kotek’s proposal gives homeowners an excellent reason to become YIMBYs (“yes-in-my-backyard”): It would greatly increase the value of their property. And at the same time, the new multifamily dwellings that would spring up in what had previously been single-family neighborhoods would offer more affordable housing options for older Oregonians looking to downsize or younger ones hoping to start families of their own. Note that these new homes wouldn’t be high-rises that blacken the sky. They’d be modest “missing middle” mid-rises, not unlike those that dotted U.S. cities in earlier eras, and that offered striving families a stepping-stone to middle-class prosperity.