White House: Oregon single-family zoning law could be model for nation

The Biden administration asked House Speaker Tina Kotek to join a panel on solutions to a housing crisis

By: - October 29, 2021 4:30 pm

House Speaker Tina Kotek addresses the chamber during a legislative special session on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregon’s 2019 law effectively ending single-family zoning could be a model for states across the nation, White House officials said during a meeting with House Speaker Tina Kotek, who spearheaded the law. 

Kotek, a Portland Democrat, and state lawmakers and local elected officials from California, Utah, Texas and Kentucky joined a virtual call with several Biden administration economic advisers to discuss the high cost of housing in cities throughout the country. 

A portion of the $150 billion earmarked for housing in the administration’s slimmed-down $1.75 trillion social spending plan unveiled on Thursday is intended to help state and local governments pay the cost of implementing zoning reforms like the Oregon law.

Kotek, who is now running for governor, told the group Oregon’s new law is intended to restore an older model of housing that enabled people with various incomes and at different stages of their lives to live in the same neighborhood. 

“This is how we used to do things before we became wedded to the idea of a single-family home as  a standalone home with a big yard,” she said. “When I moved back to Portland after graduate school, I lived in a very established neighborhood in a fourplex apartment complex nestled in an old neighborhood with all kinds of different types of housing, and it provided a lot of opportunity for me. That’s what we want to get back to.” 

When she introduced the measure in 2019, duplexes weren’t allowed on 77% of land zoned for homes in Portland, she said. After a June 2022 deadline for cities to update their land use regulations to comply with the law, every city in the Portland area or with a population higher than 10,000 will have to allow duplexes wherever single-family homes can go.

Cities in the Portland area, along with every city in the state with 25,000 or more residents, will also have to permit triplexes and fourplexes on any lots where they would approve single-family homes. The law also reduced restrictions on remodeling large homes into apartments. 

Supporters contend building more duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and small apartments will boost neighborhood diversity. Young people with student debt, immigrants and working-class families might not be able to afford to rent or buy a single-family home in a nice neighborhood, but could swing half of  the duplex next door. 

The changes don’t solve Oregon’s housing crisis, Kotek acknowledged. 

“The re-legalization of middle housing that occurred in Oregon is very much a long-term solution to providing more supply in our state,” she said. “It’s going to take about 20 years to fully implement this, but we are going to see gradual change year after year and provide more housing options in our communities because of this.” 

It was important to create a statewide requirement, rather than incentives for cities to change zoning on their own, because otherwise some communities would work to build more homes and others wouldn’t, Kotek said.

Other states are still focused on incentives. 

Utah state Sen. Jacob Anderegg, a Republican from the Salt Lake area who joined Kotek on the call, described how his state Legislature tied state funds for transportation projects to a list of 25 best practices for increasing the supply of affordable homes. Cities have to submit an annual report about what they’re doing to reduce the cost of housing to qualify for the funds, addressing at least three or four of the state’s recommendations. 

Anderegg said the Utah approach gives political cover to local elected leaders, who are more susceptible to pressure from angry residents who don’t want their neighborhoods to change. 

“Our local officials will say, ‘Well, we just don’t have the political will and my constituents will lose their minds if we rezone this,’” he said. “And out of the other side of their mouth, they’re going, ‘Yeah, but if you force us to do this, then we can blame you, and it’s the right thing to do.’”

The Oregon and Utah laws, as well as recent legislative action at the state and local levels in California, Austin, Texas; and Louisville, Kentucky, are examples of what White House senior adviser Brian Deese called the “national laboratory of experimentation at work.” 

“The federal government not only can’t address the challenges of housing supply and affordability alone, but in fact states and local governments are at the center of how we can solve this housing supply challenge as a country,” he said.

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway 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.