Lawmakers killed Gov. Kotek’s plan to change land use rules for new housing

SALEM, Ore. (KGW) — Despite a legislative session riven by Senate Republicans’ six-week walkout, Gov. Tina Kotek was able to claim victory on the bulk of her priorities this year, measures to address homelessness and affordable housing chief among them.

But one major piece evaded her grasp. House Bill 3414, which would have adjusted land use rules both within and beyond Oregon’s urban growth boundaries in order to facilitate housing construction, went down in the Senate on the very last day of the session.

The bill is dead — and it was Kotek’s fellow Democrats who killed it.

In a statement largely covering her legislative accomplishments at session’s end on Sunday, Kotek had this brief bit to say about that:

“The legislature missed a critical opportunity to address housing production by failing to pass House Bill 3414.”

Kotek declared a state of emergency for homelessness on her first day in office, and got lawmakers to quickly pass $155 million in funding for the hardest-hit areas to address unsheltered homelessness.

The legislature passed another $316 million to maintain some of that momentum over the next two years, intended to rehouse 750 households, keep another 11,700 households from becoming homeless, maintain shelter operations, create new permanent supportive housing and adding some 700 new shelter beds.

Finally, the legislature approved $650 million in bonding to build and preserve affordable housing. But that’s where, according to Kotek, HB 3414 would have come in clutch.

The land grab

With Oregon in the middle of an affordable housing crisis, the solution of simply building more housing is certainly the most clear-cut. But it’s not exactly simple either. There’s still the issue of infrastructure. Housing requires roads, sidewalks, electricity and water — not to mention the land to put it all on.

Kotek’s goal has been to add 36,000 housing units in Oregon each year. HB 3414 would have permitted adjustments in local building codes in order to allow for new development. It also would have set up a new statewide office, a “Housing Accountability Production Office,” to ensure cities work with developers to get housing built.

But perhaps the most controversial part of the bill is that it would have allowed cities to quickly expand their urban growth boundaries by up to 150 acres.

Historically, expanding urban growth boundaries has not been a popular proposition in Oregon. Urban growth boundaries, instituted in 1973 by Gov. Tom McCall, are what restrict Oregon’s cities from creeping into the agricultural and natural areas that surround them.

When lawmakers were crafting a bill to draw in semiconductor manufacturing earlier this year, the issue of finding suitable land became the biggest sticking point. When the semiconductor bill passed, many people were upset about the power it handed Kotek to make some limited changes to urban growth boundaries in order to facilitate development of these high-tech production plants.

HB 3414 went through a number of updates and amendments as the legislative session careened to a conclusion. While it did have bipartisan support, it failed in the Senate by a single vote.

Republicans, with the exception of five conservative senators who still haven’t returned from the walkout, joined with a couple of Democrats in voting for HB 3414. Too many other Democrats voted against it.

Assuming they were of a mind to support it, those five missing senators very well could have made the difference in getting the bill across the finish line.

When Kotek spoke to the press on Wednesday, she explained some of the background behind what happened.

“One of the pieces of the agreement for Senate Republicans and Independents to come back was to make a good faith effort to pass 3414 with the land supply portion,” Kotek said. “I made a commitment personally to be part of trying to pass it. So I worked in the last 72 hours to talk to members, to try to get their votes — and on the day of the floor, I thought we would pass the bill. We didn’t, that happens. That doesn’t mean we aren’t coming back on the topic. So I upheld my side of the bargain, which was to try and get it done, and we need to continue the conversation.”

Kotek said that in order to address Oregon’s housing crisis, the status quo simply won’t work. Things need to be done differently in order to streamline development. For instance, cities can already apply to expand their urban growth boundaries, but it’s a long process that HB 3414 would have expedited.

For and against

The Story spoke to Home Forward, Portland’s housing authority. They have a hand in building affordable housing throughout Multnomah County and say that local building codes have slowed them down.

“There’s one specific development that we’ve been working on for three-plus years and it ended up costing significantly more money and taking significantly longer than anticipated due to the denial of very reasonable adjustment requests to the local jurisdiction’s land use requirements,” said Christina Dirks, director of policy and planning with Home Forward. “The real cost here is that homeless folks and renters at risk of homelessness were denied access for over a year and a half in this specific example that would’ve been avoided if a law like HB 3414 had been in place.”

But leaders from several Oregon cities opposed the bill. They said that they aren’t getting enough support from the state when it comes to putting infrastructure in place.

As an organization, the League of Oregon Cities was officially neutral on HB 3414. However, they represent hundreds of cities across the state, and many of those local governments are facing major barriers when it comes to figuring out how to add housing, not all of them related to the availability of land.

“We have a number of infrastructure systems that need updating, need improving, there are new updated federal and state requirements for storm water management, environmental impacts,” said Ariel Nelson, lobbyist with the League. “There are new directions and new policies that see support coming down from the state legislature and the executive branch encouraging more walkable, bikeable communities, more increased investment in transit … all of this is very expensive, and we need increased partnership from the state to make it happen.

“There are also cities who do lack available land. Not every city is in that position, not every city has physically (the) room to grow based on their geography,” Nelson continued. “A number of cities are also facing site constraints, whether that be flood plains or wetlands mitigation — which can be really costly and kind of slow down development — whether that’s the terrain, very steep slopes that make it difficult to build housing … Our communities on the coast are having to manage what it looks like to provide additional housing and serve their communities in tsunami inundation zones. so there’s a wide range of barriers across the state, infrastructure and capacity are the top across the board for all cities.”

Representatives for the League said that local government needs a seat at the table to talk about their needs when legislation like this comes back — and as Kotek indicated, it’s likely to come back in some form.

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