Affordable Housing in Oregon Is About To Catch a Big Break From Parking Mandates

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“For sure, we would have had more homes,” recalled Valliere, if they hadn’t been forced to build more parking than needed.

The following year, Hillsboro amended its zoning code to avoid making the same mistake in the future, adding a carve-out for affordable housing near transit at nearly the same ratio REACH had initially requested. But these mandates are still on the books in many cities across Oregon, preventing more people like Cabantan from finding the affordable housing they need.

High Parking Requirements Increase Barriers to Housing Construction

In towns with excessively high parking requirements, it can be rare for affordable housing to be sited there at all. Catholic Charities of Oregon’s Good Shepherd Village housing development, proposed in 2021, which will provide 143 affordable homes for residents of Happy Valley, was the city’s first ever subsidized housing project. One reason? In Happy Valley even a studio apartment needs 1.25 parking spots, and requirements increase from there.

All in all, Happy Valley’s code required Good Shepherd to provide a whopping 1.7 spaces per household. The code does allow affordable housing to request exceptions but doesn’t specify any particular amounts, leaving developers subject to the discretion of city officials and unpredictable council votes. Late-breaking changes to parking or other major design elements can send a finished site plan on a long, costly trip back to the drawing board, explained Julia Metz, who navigated the permitting process for Catholic Charities. “The lack of clarity creates risk for a developer,” she said. “Risk in and of itself can cause someone to not even consider developing in a certain jurisdiction.”

Despite presenting parking studies from three comparable affordable housing projects in nearby Beaverton, which showed a peak demand of 0.68 parking spaces per home, Catholic Charities offered to build 1.5. It was a political calculus on their part, as they needed to request several zoning changes to make the project cost feasible. They had no way to guess what might work; after all, no other affordable housing developer had bothered to try.

State Intervention Would Accelerate Parking Reform 

Oregon is on the verge of freeing nearly all its future affordable housing projects from all of this.

This July, the Land Conservation and Development Commission will be voting to permanently adopt a new set of rules under the “Climate Friendly and Equitable Communities” initiative. Beginning in January 2023, affordable projects like Orchards and Good Shepherd would get to choose their own parking ratios. So would single-room occupancies and homeless shelters, as well as all small homes and those close to relatively frequent transit.

Nearly every city within Oregon’s eight largest metro areas will fall under the state’s new planning rules, putting affordable home builders back in charge of determining their own parking needs. So far, 12 organizations that develop affordable housing and provide supportive services have written in support of the rules.

“The parking requirements drive everything else in the design,” said Nick Sauvie of ROSE Community Development, one of the signatories. “Ultimately, requiring a bunch of parking reduces the amount of housing that can be put on the site.”

Any intervention that accelerates housing construction is badly needed. One in four Oregonians spend more than half of their income on rent. According to State Chief Economist Josh Lehner, half of the state’s current housing shortage—54,000 of the 111,000 units—is needed among those earning less than half the area median income (AMI), or about $40,000 per year. Oregon Housing and Community Services estimates that to meet demand for housing at that price point, construction of regulated affordable housing would need to triple for the next 20 years.

Optimism that changes in land use regulations can play a significant role in that growth might best be found at the intersection of SE 91st Ave and SE Reedway in Portland. First opened in 2004, Reedway Place provided 24 affordable homes for the neighborhood—with the same number of parking spots—exactly what Portland had required. “We had a pretty nasty NIMBY battle,” Sauvie remembered. “The parking complaint was a big deal.”

Since then, Sauvie has seen attitudes change as neighbors have gotten more used to multifamily and mixed-use development. Zoning codes have changed, too. In 2016, Portland waived parking requirements entirely for all residential buildings near transit that included subsidized housing. Two years later and just across the street, ROSE Community Development was able to provide homes for another 64 low-income families. The building, named after Woody Guthrie, could include 40 more homes (and just five more parking spaces) than Reedway Place, thanks to the code changes.

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