Oregonians worry new zoning law may change neighborhoods

Stewart Wershow, president of the Garfield Park Neighborhood Association, stands in front of a house in a zone that will be affected by the new housing law. He is concerned homes like this will be replaced by multifamily housing. (Jasmine Masalmeh)

Stewart Wershow wonders if in a few years, the tree-lined streets of his neighborhood north of Corvallis High School will look totally different.

Corvallis and other Oregon cities are grappling with a new bill requiring cities to allow duplexes, triplexes and other forms of denser housing in single-family neighborhoods.

Proponents of House Bill 2001 said places such as Corvallis, which has the smallest percentage of affordable housing of any Oregon city, could particularly benefit. The bill aims to increase the supply of affordable homes by allowing more kinds of houses in more neighborhoods.

But residents such as Wershow, president of his neighborhood association, say that won’t necessarily solve the housing shortage. They also worry about more traffic, noise and strain on city services.

“There are unintended consequences for what you do,” Wershow said.

The bill, passed in June, affects cities of 10,000 people or more. Gov. Kate Brown is expected to sign it into law this summer, making Oregon the first state in the nation to effectively eliminate single-family housing zones.

Smaller cities between 10,000 and 25,000 people will have to allow duplexes in zones that were previously set aside just for single-family homes. Larger cities have to start allowing “middle housing” such as duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, townhouses and cottage clusters.

The bill’s goal is to provide people with limited affordable housing options more opportunities. Karen Rockwell, executive director of Benton Habitat for Humanity, thinks that in Corvallis, it will.

Oregon State University students fill a lot of housing in Corvallis, Rockwell said. The city also has a significant aging population with nowhere to downsize.

Rockwell said she thinks the law will make it easier for a diverse group of people to find housing.

“When it comes to housing affordability, I’m a passionate advocate,” she said. “Communities that are eclectic and dense are healthy communities. The bill is a much-needed tool to help people live today.”

But others such as Wershow believe that the character of neighborhoods across the state could change, as property owners may now demolish single-family homes and replace them with something bigger.

“I’m opposed to this bill because it can have negative effects on established neighborhoods without mandating affordability,” Wershow said.

Many people don’t understand how the law affects them and their homes, Wershow said. He also thinks lawmakers didn’t get enough public input.

There should be a balance between state goals and the needs of local areas, Wershow said.

Corvallis homeowner Colleen Kitchen said she supports the law because it will create more freedom for owners to choose what happens to their property.

Kitchen and her husband own a property on Grant Street that was zoned single-family but will now be eligible for a duplex or other middle housing.

She said she and her husband plan to fix up the home rather than replace it with a duplex or triplex, but they might also add an accessory dwelling unit, such as a small apartment.

Regardless, Kitchen said, she believes that tighter spaces make for a tighter community.

“I want a neighborhood that facilitates interacting with neighbors,” she said.

Larger cities such as Corvallis, which has a population of about 59,000, must change their codes to allow middle housing by 2022.

Paul Bilotta, community development director for the city of Corvallis, said he doesn’t expect to see rules for implementing the law established until the end of 2020.

Until then, he said, factors such as the cost to put in new sewer and water systems to handle higher neighborhood populations will remain unknowns.

Corvallis already has a little experience with middle housing, Bilotta said. Before 2006, neighborhoods were almost all single-family homes.

While 47% of the city is still zoned for single families, Corvallis changed its zoning rules in 2006 to allow new construction in certain areas to have up to fiveplexes.

Bilotta declined to give an opinion on the bill as a city official, but said its impact would be noticeable.

“It affects things all down the line,” he said.

— Jasmine Masalmeh, Tualatin High School