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“Exclusionary Zoning Fuels the Housing Crisis”
by Dylan Lamar
Published in the Register Guard, February 24, 2019
It’s an uncomfortable reality: Eugene’s housing crisis is generating an economic windfall for current homeowners, while posing significant hardship for younger generations and working-class families. Home prices are increasing — 8 percent on average annually in Eugene over the last four years — and it’s hard for many homeowners to conceptualize just how inaccessible home ownership has become. The median home price is $315,000. For newer construction, it’s $449,000. There are few paths to ownership or affordable rent — and a few aggressive voices refusing to acknowledge that exclusionary zoning policies fuel the problem.
Over the past 90 years, single-family homes and suburban development have come to symbolize the American Dream. Yet the single-use zoning that created them is mired in a history of socioeconomic segregation, and this is a challenge we need to address.
The original purpose of zoning was to separate “incompatible” activities — which in early 20th-century America included the mixing of classes and races. When the Supreme Court struck down explicit “whites only” zoning 100 years ago, minimum lot size restrictions became the mechanism for segregation — ensuring the cost of land excluded those of lesser means (read more in Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law”).
Seventy years ago, Senator Joseph McCarthy further radicalized opinions, promulgating the segregation of single- from multi-family housing, including “missing-middle” housing such as townhouses and multiplexes. For as long as most of us have been alive, single-family zoning has suppressed and segregated our housing options.
Historically, a diversity of housing types, affordable at many income levels, was fundamental to the creation of America’s middle class. Traditional townhouses and quadplexes can still be found as an integral part of older, walkable neighborhoods throughout the country — but such housing was later saddled with parking lots and prohibited from exclusive single-family zones after mid-century. The low housing density that resulted meant cars became necessary to get anywhere and sprawl ensued.
But more diverse and abundant housing can actually make our neighborhoods better. Today’s smaller families need smaller home ownership opportunities. To simply re-legalize traditional “missing-middle” housing and allow townhouse lot sizes, for example, would help us safeguard home ownership opportunities. More moderate density would support neighborhood stores, improving walkability and support climate protection goals, both through less driving and the inherent efficiency of small-footprint, shared-wall housing.
The urban growth boundary is often blamed for escalating housing costs. Yet the freely sprawling suburbs of California, where hour-long commutes are common, exhibit a high social and environmental cost — and housing is still expensive. The urban growth boundary is one step toward ensuring a more integrated, sustainable Eugene. Addressing exclusionary zoning is a critical next step. Otherwise, continuing sprawl-based zoning within the urban growth boundary is a recipe for housing inequity and evermore segregated, high-density apartments. We can do better.
There are those few voices who seem opposed to all actions. They oppose even community-led cohousing projects. Yet increasingly we see organizations such as Better Housing Together bringing diverse community stakeholders together, calling for a more reasoned response. Outside Eugene, significant housing reform efforts are underway: Portland and Minneapolis recently re-legalized 3- and 4-unit homes in typical neighborhoods. Statewide legislation to re-legalize missing middle housing is under review this session in HB 2001.
The City of Eugene has spent over a year examining the housing crisis, but still seems unwilling to diagnose the situation. They need to hear from residents who are priced out. They need to hear from homeowners who support equity and sustainability, and who want actions — not just plans.
Contact your city councilor and ask what they’re doing to support housing for the working middle-class. Ask if they’re listening to the majority of Eugene residents who don’t own their home. Ask why the majority of the city’s residential land area remains exclusive to single-family homes that only the wealthy can afford. Ask if they oppose quality housing options that would serve most of their constituents.
If they do support housing equality and access, ask them to demonstrate that commitment with action. Email them at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dylan Lamar is an architect, certified Passive House consultant and homeowner in Ward 1 of Eugene. He is also an aspiring local developer of missing-middle housing.