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Considering sufficiency and the need for affordable housing

Edward Sullivan

Edward Sullivan

Carrie Richter

Carrie Richter

One of us recently participated in an international conference on law, property and society. Among the topics discussed was that of sufficiency – at what point do we have too much “stuff” so that additional accumulation is unnecessary and done for ostentation, rather than need? The Canadian academic presenting the paper used two examples to illustrate what was an apparent conflict in the way we tend to view the world.

The first example concerned sympathy for a rare species of central African gorilla held in captivity, perhaps for protection, but living in solitude because there was no other gorilla of that species for propagation in that area. The second example dealt with what the academic termed the “extra-judicial killings” of those who “took” protected species because they had to feed their family.

The academic suggested that there is usually more sympathy given to a rare or endangered species than to the desperate circumstances that cause people to undertake unlawful killing of animals. To what extent are the better-off segments of our world willing to pay to assure the continuation of these species by changing the status of the less well off, rather than to point the finger of blame? There are certainly corrupt officials and those willing to pay for exotic animals and their products, but it is easier to blame the problem on them than to understand that the underlying endemic poverty may be a more pervasive underlying cause of this problem.

How does this relate to regulation of land use in the Portland-metro area – housing in particular? Portland is moving toward adoption of a new comprehensive plan and zoning code to deal with the addition of 105,000 to 136,000 new households in 20 years from about 240,000 households today, while regional projections are for an increase in the number of households by 56-74 percent. While Oregon law does not explicitly require public agencies to build housing, it does require that local governments designate sufficient land to accommodate the housing needs of potential homeowners and renters. Given the attractiveness of the Portland region, that is a pretty tall order. Because house prices and rents continue to rise higher than in other parts of the country, this likely means that redevelopment of existing areas must occur: housing must become denser and lots must become smaller to meet this challenge of growth.

In the face of these challenges, some people in the city and the region would prefer to blame other people or circumstances to avoid or divert attention from the housing obligations of public agencies like Portland or Metro. Keeping things just as they are, touting a vague “quality of life,” and vowing to protect the “character of the neighborhood” are phrases that often mask resistance to necessary changes and put a nice gloss on inaction.

The task of having our neighborhoods and accommodating others is not too difficult. For example, if agencies would inventory historic or other character-defining areas and take concrete steps to preserve them as another means of assuring housing affordability, then additional density and smaller lots could be provided judiciously, while community elements that we all hold dear could be preserved. But it is easier to ascribe bad motives or classify those we don’t know with suspicion or elevate an idealized version of a future that excludes others than to deal with our own realities.

To its credit, Portland is making some difficult decisions to meet its current and future regional housing needs. Accessory dwelling units in existing residential lots are allowed outright in certain circumstances, and may be expanded through the new comprehensive plan. Also, parking limitations in areas with better transit are lowered and additional density in existing neighborhoods encouraged. All of these proposals are not without controversy, as change is often more feared than embraced.

But Portland is not alone in the region. Many smaller cities, within and beyond the metro area, are in denial of their housing obligations and have failed to take even modest steps to bear their fair share of the region’s housing needs. Some have actually reduced their planned share of higher density housing or smaller lots. And the agencies charged with overseeing these legal obligations, the Land Conservation and Development Commission and Metro, have turned a blind eye and are unable or unwilling to do what they are charged to do. For these agencies, affordable housing is a political inconvenience to be avoided at all costs.

Like most obligations, whether moral or legal, it is more pleasant to talk about, or divert attention to, something else. Just as we prefer to contemplate the beauty and majesty of earthly life and avoid thoughts of those who must live in this world, we prefer not to think of the less well off, blame them for crime and littering and seek to keep them away from us. We might consider whether we have sufficiency and whether our obligations in housing our neighbors impel us to look beyond our yards.

Edward Sullivan is a retired partner in the Portland office of Garvey Schubert Barer. He practiced land use and municipal law for more than 40 years. Contact him at esulliva@gmail.com. Carrie Richter is an owner specializing in land use and municipal law in the Portland office of Garvey Schubert Barer. Contact her at 503-553-3118 or at crichter@gsblaw.com.

About Edward Sullivan and Carrie Richter