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Ethics & Religion
Column #1,996
November 14, 2019
Ban "Single Family Zoning"
By Mike McManus

Oregon has become the first state to pass a law to ban single family zoning across the state. In cities of more than 25,000 people, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and "cottage clusters" can now be built on parcels that are currently reserved for single family houses.

Oregon's Democratic Governor Kate Brown is expected to sign the bill into law which would affect areas that are home to some 2.8 million people. Oregon would then become the first state to ban the century-old practice of reserving land for a single type of residential development.

This is a great victory that will lower housing costs and thus make it possible for moderate income families to buy homes that were previously out of reach.

Across America, the zoning norm is single family housing outside of cities. The consequence has been an acute urban housing shortage.

Minneapolis became the first city to end single family zoning last December. Seattle followed suit in March by eliminating single family zoning in 27 neighborhoods. Charlotte, North Carolina has also held hearings to debate the issue. A state level "upzoning" bill to allow less expensive housing stalled in California's senate earlier this year after a previous attempt failed in 2018.

This development was pushed by members of the "Yes In My Backyard" (YIMBY) movement and several other groups who have been seeking zoning reforms to create denser and more affordable housing units in the face of chronic housing shortages.

Oregon's land-use laws weren't addressing the acute urban housing shortages that have challenged Oregon's cities over the past decade, particularly their residents with lower incomes. Single family zoning laws are racially exclusionary at their root.

Oregon Rep. Tina Kotek, the Democratic Speaker of Oregon's House, and the bill's chief sponsor, introduced the bill in February. "This is about choice," she said at the time. "This is about allowing for different opportunities in neighborhoods that are currently extremely limited."

Four months later her bills passed by a committee vote of 17-9. "We all have an affordable housing crisis in our areas," said Rep. Jack Zika, a cosponsor of the bill and one of four Republicans who supported it. "This will not be a silver bullet, but will address some of the things that all our constituents need."

The Oregon League of Cities opposed it. "Should the state be deciding what the American dream, or the Oregon dream is? Or should homeowners and home sellers and the localities that zone them be deciding that?"

President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order establishing a commission to examine regulations that limit new housing construction, including restrictive zoning.

Several Democratic presidential candidates have also proposed policies to revise restrictive zoning laws. But their ideas also include renter protections, expanded subsidies for public housing and other government interventions that the deregulation-oriented White House does not support.

Portland's sprawl-fighting "urban growth boundary" which separated the city from farms and forestlands, is perhaps the best-known example of the unusually tight grip that state regulators keep on local land use, and it long predates the current "Yes in My Backyard" fever.

In 1973 Oregon passed a law to concentrate growth within established communities. "The purpose is to make sure that urban sprawl doesn't move into farmland," said Ethan Seltzer, a professor emeritus of urban planning and policy at Portland State University.

To ensure that cities are meeting their populations' needs, metropolitan and state regulators regularly assess whether the urban boundaries can accommodate some 20 years of growth. And Oregon's cities and towns must follow other rules handed down from state legislators in Salem, the state capital.

One requirement is to zone for a variety of housing types. In Portland's metro area, cities are required to meet a minimum density level. By state law, housing is supposed to be made for all income levels.

Oregon's "single family zoning ban" is a major step in the right direction. A much larger share of the population will be able to afford to buy their own home.

Every state should consider a similar reform.


Copyright (c) 2019 Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers. To read past columns, go to Hit Search for any topic.

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