Oregon’s land use system contributes to housing crisis
By Knute Buehler
As a physician, I have learned that it is essential to make a correct diagnosis before developing a treatment plan — for the wrong treatment can be ineffective, worsen the patient’s condition or even contribute to their demise. Unfortunately, the affordable housing crisis in Oregon reveals a sick Oregon with many not recognizing the underlying disease.
The current affordable housing crisis is devastating families in the Portland metro region, in vibrant regional cities like Bend and even some rural areas. The cause? On a macro level: an economy that is not producing enough good-paying jobs. On a micro level: a dysfunctional land-use planning system.
This issue is crucial to the well-being of our state. There is an abundance of evidence showing that a lack of affordable and workforce housing contributes significantly to inequality, poverty and lackluster job growth. Inequality is intensified by locking disadvantaged and people of color into regions where they are underemployed or unemployed and prevents them from moving to communities with better paying jobs and greater opportunity. Poverty is institutionalized by concentrating lower-income people in regions that lack high quality schools and healthy communities. And job growth is stifled by the misallocation of labor.
The result? We now have 21st-century segregation via land-use regulation.
Many factors contribute to this crisis besides declining incomes and a troublesome land-use planning process. Our failing mental health system, lack of adequate infrastructure investment, an increase in the short-term rental market, growing construction regulations and a lack of building trade workers are also factors. However, it is increasingly recognized by economists, including President Obama’s chief economic adviser, that in Oregon and several other areas of the country, the growing mismatch between the lack of developable land and escalating demand for housing is one of the most important drivers of the housing crisis.
Fortunately, this problem is going to receive much-needed attention in the 2016 legislative session. However, it is important that past mistakes are not repeated. Proposals such as rent control and mandatory inclusionary zoning will only exacerbate the problem. If one continues to stimulate demand for housing while limiting supply, price will continue to rise. Solutions need to focus on stimulating the construction of more affordable housing without raising the cost. This can be accomplished by relaxing land-use and building restrictions in exchange for more affordable and workforce housing, encouraging cities to lower property taxes and other fees, limiting challenges to expansion of cities’ urban-growth boundaries, providing more funding for infrastructure improvement, encouraging innovative high school courses for training in the building trades and doing a statewide audit of state land holdings to identify parcels that could be used for multifamily housing.
Lack of affordable housing is an indication of an unhealthy Oregon. This now contributes to growing poverty, inequality and uneven economic growth. It is time for us to be thoughtful, correctly diagnose the problem and develop a treatment that restores a vibrant, healthy Oregon.