Expanding the growth boundary won’t help our housing crisis: Guest opinion

The author argues that it’s more affordable to build housing within the urban growth boundary, as was done with these apartments along North Vancouver Avenue. Developing land outside of the boundary, he writes, "would be expensive, cost substantially more than developing within the boundary and it would take a long time." (Kristyna Wentz-Graff/2015)

By James A. Zehren

In his recent commentary in The Oregonian/OregonLive ("It’s time to face the truth about our housing crisis," Feb. 28), Rep. Richard Vial advocated a solution to our affordable housing crisis that is a throwback to the 1990s. And it is as simplistic and wrong-headed now as it was 30 years ago.

Citizens of the Portland region have never supported making major expansions to our urban growth boundary and Metro presidents and councilors have acted accordingly. This regional community has believed that the urban growth boundary has helped secure our quality of life.

Rep Vial either is unaware of, or dishonors, this political reality.

Vial’s error is that expanding the boundary would increase, rather than decrease, housing costs. This is because the high cost of infrastructure (roads, streets, sewer and water lines, parks, schools, etc.) for developing greenfield land outside of the existing UGB would be expensive, cost substantially more than developing within the boundary and it would take a long time.

Various national studies have well established that infrastructure is more expensive for greenfield land. Closer to home, a 2013 study by 1000 Friends of Oregon drew on studies of infrastructure costs in the United States when infill "quality growth" was built rather than "land-extensive" sprawl. The "More Extensive Is More Expensive" study reported that in nine urban areas, including Austin and Sacramento, savings ranged from 21 percent to 73 percent, depending on the type of infrastructure.

In another detailed study of the Portland metro area in 2014, Metro staff found that the infrastructure cost per unit were lower for denser central city locations and higher for less dense areas. The biggest cost difference was transportation. For instance, the cost for transit services was $2,000 per housing unit in Portland compared to $28,000 per unit in Damascus. For bridges, the cost was $7,000 in Portland versus $24,000 in Damascus.

In urban growth boundary expansion areas, local governments have been unable to pay infrastructure costs and developers have been unable to make projects "pencil out" without subsidies.

In Washington County, infrastructure costs are now shared among the county, cities and developers. However, that’s required system development charges and taxes that reach $40,000 per housing unit.

In the City of Portland, from 2001 through 2016, 49 percent of multi-family units built were within a quarter-mile of Portland Streetcar tracks. Of those, 6,660 were regulated affordable. In 2016, 3,130 units of all types were built and another 5,600 were pending, 650 of which were affordable, within the quarter-mile corridor.

Across the region, in the 40 years ending in 2016, 67,000 homes were planned for urban growth boundary expansion areas. But only 5,400 were built. While in 2014, in the City of Portland alone, 5,452 infill units were built or permitted.

The obvious conclusion is that expanding our urban growth boundary to solve our housing crisis would be simple, clear and wrong. It would be a colossal mistake that would increase new housing costs and diminish our quality of life.

James A Zehren is a Portland attorney and the president of Smart Equitable Approaches to Regional Issues (SEARI). He was a ten-year member of the Metro Policy Advisory Committee and chair of Metro’s Greenspaces Policy Advisory Committee.

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