Bill would allow apartment buildings in residential areas near major transit lines, including most of Portland

Recently built apartments on Southeast Division Street in Portland, shown in 2014.

Senate President Peter Courtney is doubling down on a statewide density push with a proposal that would allow apartment development across most of Portland as well as stretches of other large cities.

The Salem Democrat is sponsoring Senate Bill 10, which would require cities to allow dense development along major transit routes, including all rail and frequent-service bus lines. He said the bill would help increase the supply of rental housing, promoting affordable rents and encourage the use of public transit.

“If the only apartment you can afford is two towns over and a 70-minute car ride to work, I don’t think we’ve solved the problem,” Courtney said Monday. “Senate Bill 10 is about building housing where people want to live.”

The bill as written, however, faces resistance from city and regional planners who say its broad-brush approach undermines their ability to tailor development regulations to a particular neighborhood’s circumstances. It appeared unlikely to advance in its current form but could be reformulated by a work group convened by Courtney’s staff.

Within the Portland area, the bill would permit high-density development — on the order of mid-rise apartment buildings — within a quarter-mile of major transit lines and medium-density development — small apartments buildings and townhouses — within a half-mile. It would also allow dense mid-rise development near all light-rail stations.

Most of the residential areas within Portland’s boundaries fall within one of those categories, particularly east of the Willamette River, according to a map prepared by the city.

Outside of the Portland area, the bill calls for less density — more low-rise apartments and townhouses. It wouldn’t apply to cities with fewer than 10,000 residents outside of metro Portland. And most cities aren’t blanketed with frequent-service transit like Portland, so the impact would be less dramatic.

Courtney acknowledged at the outset his proposal had put him at odds with city planners and neighborhood groups who would testify to oppose the bill.

“I don’t intend to simply allow rampant development or building anywhere and everywhere, because there are fragile communities within our neighborhoods, and they have to be protected as well," Courtney told a Senate committee. "I’m just trying to find a way to build more housing that’s affordable and accessible at a time when we desperately need it.”

Cities raised concerns about tying transit service so directly to land-use planning. Eric Chambers, a lobbyist for the city of Gresham warned that the bill would effectively turn transit agencies into urban planners — transit decisions about where to run bus service would govern a community’s growth and development.

“While we often partner with our transit agency as we consider community growth, the agencies themselves are not equipped to drive urban planning and zoning, nor is it consistent with their missions,” Chambers wrote.

A Portland planning official said that without flexibility, the proposal could be “disruptive to Portland’s neighborhoods” and could serve to displace lower-income households.

“The bill mandates dramatic density requirements and does not reflect the complexities of redeveloping a builtā€out city like Portland,” wrote Joe Zehnder, the interim director of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

Metro, the regional government and planning agency for the Portland area, expressed similar concerns, and a lobbyist for TriMet said it would make it more difficult to build support for transit investments because of the possible land-use implications.

The bill also faces opposition from homeowners who said it would dramatically change their neighborhood for the worse. Other residents of the Portland metro area, however, offered written testimony in favor of the bill, saying it would advance the environmental goal of reducing driving and provide cheaper housing.

Lawmakers are already considering House Bill 2001, a proposal from Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, that would effectively abolish single-family zoning in large cities by allowing duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in any residential zone. Similarly to Senate Bill 10, the House bill seeks to add to the stock of rental housing in a bid to keep rents from climbing at the pace of recent years.

Both bills, if approved, could be undercut by private land-use restrictions. Covenants recorded on property deeds when the neighborhoods were developed — even some from a century ago — sometimes prohibit the construction of anything other than single-family houses.

Some of Oregon’s most exclusive neighborhoods could dodge state’s bid to ban single-family zoning

The bill would allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in most single-family neighborhoods, but it could be undercut by restrictive deed covenants, some dating back a hundred years.

Courtney proposed a separate bill, Senate Bill 8, which would require people who challenge locally approved affordable housing projects to the state land-use board to pay the developer’s legal fees if the challenge is rejected. He said that would discourage delay tactics, which he likened to frivolous lawsuits.

That bill had the support of Oregon’s housing authorities, who say those challenges can add costs to affordable housing projects. But other groups said it would only throw up an obstacle to public participation in land-use decisions.

“People should have reasonable access to their local officials and the Land Use Board of Appeals,” said Peggy Lynch of the League of Women Voters of Oregon.

— Elliot Njus

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