New laws in Oregon address affordable housing and fire rebuilding


OREGON NEWS: Oregon legislature passed several changes to Oregon laws that change land use practices across the state. Land use experts see the trend for the state to tell cities what to do.

Wildfire in September 2020 swept through Santiam Canyon, wrecking homes, businesses, and vehicles. (Amanda Loman / Salem reporter)

SALEM – Two years after major laws were passed requiring many cities to allow maisonettes wherever single-family homes could be built, Oregon legislators returned to local governments with more housing-related enactments in 2021.

With some of the more than two dozen land use laws passed in the 2021 session, cities are no longer required to allow affordable housing on non-residential land, approve emergency shelters for the homeless, and no longer limit the number of roommates who can share a house.

Land use experts say these changes are part of a trend caused by the ongoing housing crisis in Oregon. State legislators are no longer satisfied with leaving decisions about housing construction to local governments.

“We’re seeing more laws telling local governments to allow more housing in more places,” said Palmer Mason, senior policy advisor with the State Department of Land Conservation and Development.

The League of Oregon Cities, which opposed the 2019 semi-detached house approval law, took a neutral or supportive position on this year’s changes. Ariel Nelson, the league’s lobbyist on housing, said cities had an important role to play in drafting or amending bills.

For example, an earlier version of a new law guaranteed that affordable housing developments on residential lots could be up to 10 meters higher than market-priced apartments – until the league pointed out that there were no fire trucks in a small town with ladders tall enough to to reach that height. The law now allows local governments to reduce the extra feet that fire safety provides for affordable housing.

“The lawmakers who tabled these bills and the lawyers who worked on it came to us in collaboration and said, ‘Here’s the problem. Here’s what we think we can do about it. What do you think? We want this to be something that you can support, ‘”Nelson said.

Starting in January, religious groups and nonprofits will have fewer barriers to building affordable housing on non-home land. Legislation, promoted by Senate President Peter Courtney, requires cities and counties to allow such developments on some non-residential properties without costly and time-consuming zoning or conditional use permits.

During a committee hearing earlier this year, Courtney described his proposal as a way to help cities avoid lengthy battles with neighborhood associations. In his experience, local governments often want to create housing, especially affordable housing, but neighborhood groups make this difficult, he said.

“When you say we need more housing, and we need more housing, especially affordable housing, there are now barriers that make it impossible for a city, a nonprofit or even a developer,” said Courtney.

Meanwhile, House spokeswoman Tina Kotek cited legislation requiring cities and counties to approve requests for shelter for the homeless, provided they do not pose an “unreasonable risk” to public health or safety.

Gwenn Wysling, executive director of central Oregon’s largest homeless shelter, wrote to a House committee that the bill, coupled with a $ 65 million federal grant, would have allowed her organization to open a warm shelter. Homeless lawyers in Bend try to find shelter each year when temperatures drop, with limited success.

“With the current funding from Project Turnkey, the Bethlehem Inn would likely provide shelter during this severe winter storm,” Wysling wrote in February. “Instead, we spend valuable time and resources requesting conditional use and are now faced with a long and drawn-out wait.”

Forest fires destroyed more than 4,100 homes last September and the bootleg fire wiped out at least 160 more this summer. Several new land use laws address last year’s fires or aim to prepare for future loss of property due to fires or other natural disasters.

A measure allows anyone whose home was damaged or destroyed by fire in August or September 2020 to rebuild according to the 2008 building codes or the date of completion of the home, whichever comes later.

Dave Hunnicutt, president of the Oregon Property Owners Association, said he had asked State Representative Brian Clem, D-Salem, to come up with the bill to help clarify some residents’ problems with rebuilding. Cities and counties have a patchwork of laws on non-compliant structures or buildings that were built to meet standards but no longer do so. The aim is to eventually repair these faulty buildings or replace them with ones that meet the updated regulations.

Hunnicutt said some fire-destroyed buildings may be closer to a property line than is currently allowed as kickback requirements have changed over the years. In the case of older properties, it may even be questionable whether the property was legally created decades ago.

The new law addresses the problems of homeowners who lost their property in the fires last fall, but Hunnicutt said lawmakers should still work on a more permanent solution to ensure anyone who loses a home in a natural disaster can restore it.

“If you’ve lost your home due to a natural disaster, I find it pretty callous and cruel for the state to step in and essentially let you begin the land use permit process,” he said. “There has to be a firm policy so that we don’t have to go in after every single natural disaster and do something.”

Two other measures were aimed at providing temporary housing for the thousands of Oregonians displaced by fire. Residents whose houses burned down would be allowed to stay in mobile homes on their property for up to two years during the reconstruction.

The other instructs cities to approve RV park applications to replace a destroyed park and to change zoning to allow new RV parks when a natural disaster has caused a local housing shortage. The Almeda fire destroyed more than 1,000 RVs in 18 parks when it broke through Talent and Phoenix last year.

In many cities, the number of people allowed to live in a house differs depending on whether the residents are related. There will be no such restriction on January 1st.

State Representative Julie Fahey, D-West Eugene, has enacted a law to prevent cities from setting different occupancy limits for families and unrelated roommates. Instead, occupancy limits in all homes would be based solely on health and safety standards to prevent homes from becoming slums.

“Maybe it has very little impact – it was a small bill, it was very brief – but if it can take some of that demand off while we focus on increasing supply, I think that’s a good thing,” said Fahey.

Proponents of Fahey’s legislation, including advocacy group 1000 Friends of Oregon, said it would help alleviate housing discrimination. The group’s assistant director Mary Kyle McCurdy wrote that marital status occupancy restrictions are more likely to exclude renters, immigrants, low-income Oregonians, and students from homes they might otherwise live in.

A second law requires all homeowner associations that create and enforce rules for a neighborhood to remove all discriminatory language from their administrative documents by December 31, 2022, including occupancy restrictions based on whether the residents of a home are related.

Homeowners’ associations would also need to remove any language that restricts property based on race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status, disability or source of income of the owner.

It follows a 2018 law designed to make it easier to remove obsolete and unconstitutional race-based restrictions from title deeds. In the early 1900s, many house deeds in Oregon cities contained language prohibiting the sale or occupation of property by people of Asian or African descent.

Fahey found such a phrase in her house deed and introduced the 2018 Act that simplified the process of repealing these agreements and eliminating court fees. These restrictions were made unenforceable by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, but activists rallied to lift them completely.

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