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Affordable housing bills encounter farmer objections

Bills aimed at improving affordable housing in Oregon have come under fire from farm and conservation groups for allowing expedited expansion of urban growth boundaries.
Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

Published on February 9, 2016 1:26PM

Last changed on February 10, 2016 10:45AM

SALEM — With advocates for the poor lamenting Oregon’s “affordable housing crisis,” lawmakers are considering altering land use laws to allow more home-building.

The proposals have encountered resistance from agriculture and conservation groups, which claim cities should focus on building within existing “urban growth boundaries” rather than expanding onto farmland.

Young and beginning farmers face a problem similar to that of urban residents who can’t find affordable housing, as farmland ownership is often financially out of reach, said Peter Kenagy, a farmer from Benton County.

“We also have an affordable farmland issue,” Kenagy said during a Feb. 8 hearing on Senate Bill 1575.

Among other provisions, SB 1575 would “expedite” the process of expanding urban growth boundaries to create more affordable housing, which critics say would create communities without readily accessible services and transportation.

Meanwhile, people who live in areas surrounded by farmland are bothered by common farming practices, said Mary Anne Nash, public policy counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau.

“We see a continued conflict between urban and rural issues,” said Nash.

Mary Kyle McCurdy, policy director of the 1,000 Friends of Oregon conservation group, said directing affordable housing development to grow onto farmland “does not work for either side of the UGB.”

The costs of bringing water, roads and other infrastructure onto such rural properties costs about $100,000 per housing unit, so housing development makes more sense on undeveloped land within cities, she said.

“We’re picking on agricultural land because there are fewer people there and it’s cheaper compared to urban land,” McCurdy said.

Proponents of easing the UGB expansion process argue that restrictive land use rules have contributed to the lack of affordable housing in Oregon and must be part of the solution.

Oregon’s land use statutes have improved livability and preserved agriculture but “they have not come without costs,” said Jon Chandler, CEO of the Oregon Home Builders Association.

The impact of SB 1575 would be complicated for home builders. While the bill would speed up the process of expanding UGBs, it would also allow cities to adopt a form of “inclusionary zoning,” under which a portion of housing units must be priced to fit the median income of local families.

Home builders have traditionally opposed such zoning as posing a threat to real estate markets, and the practice is currently prohibited in Oregon.

Chandler said he’s willing to have a “thoughtful conversation” about inclusionary zoning in SB 1575. If the legislature sets the right parameters for such zoning, his group may not object to the proposal and even support it, he said.

In testimony supporting another proposal, House Bill 4079, Chandler said that Oregon should be generating about 25,000 housing units a year to keep up with population growth.

In 2015, though, only about 15,000 units were built, and the state has developed a backlog of about 100,000 units in recent years, he said.

Under HB 4079, the legislature would allow two 50-acre pilot projects in which the UGB expansion process would be expedited to accommodate affordable housing — one located in a community with fewer than 30,000 residents, and the other with more.

The bill would allow developers to demonstrate that their ideas can alleviate the housing shortage, but if the pilot projects harm the agricultural economy, “you’re out 100 acres,” Chandler said.

Farm and conservation groups oppose HB 4079, arguing that it will “short-circuit” the UGB process rather than focus on land where suitable infrastructure already exists.

On Feb. 10, the House Committee on Rural Communities, Land Use and Water unanimously approved the bill, which has now been referred to the House Rules Committee.


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