Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
The state’s new upzoning bill would be historic. But Oregon has long been a pioneer in tight land-use controls that promote dense urban development.
On Sunday, Oregon lawmakers gave their final approval to House Bill 2001, which would eliminate single-family zoning around the state. In cities with more than 25,000 residents, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and “cottage clusters” would be allowed on parcels that are currently reserved for single-family houses; in cities of least 10,000, duplexes would be allowed in single-family zones.
Democratic Governor Kate Brown is expected to sign off on the law, which would affect areas that are home to some 2.8 million people. Oregon would then become the first state to ban the century-old practice of reserving land for a single type of residential development, putting it at the head of a nationwide surge in “upzoning.” Pushed by members in the “Yes In My Backyard” (YIMBY) movement and other pro-housing forces, several other urban areas have been similarly seeking zoning reforms to create denser, greener, and more affordable residential units in the face of chronic housing shortages.
But what may be a novel land-use practice in most states is more familiar territory in Oregon. The Beaver State is a pioneer of policies that seek to nudge urban development upwards, rather than outwards. “This is a long time coming,” said Mary Kyle McCurdy, the deputy director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, a land-use policy watchdog group that supported HB 2001.
Portland’s sprawl-fighting “urban growth boundary,” which separates the city from farms and forestlands, is perhaps the best-known example of the unusually tight grip that state regulators keep on local land use, and it long predates the current YIMBY fever. Every city in Oregon has a UGB, thanks to Senate Bill 100, a 1973 law passed by a Republican governor and Democratic state senate. The boundaries are designed to concentrate growth within established communities. “The purpose is making sure urban sprawl doesn’t move into farmland,” said Ethan Seltzer, a professor emeritus of urban planning and policy at Portland State University.
To ensure that cities are meeting their populations’ needs, metropolitan and state regulators regularly assess whether the urban boundaries can accommodate some 20 years of growth. And cities and towns must follow other rules handed down from state legislators in Salem, including a requirement to zone for a variety of housing types. In Portland’s metropolitan area, cities are required to meet a minimum density level. By state law, housing is supposed to be made for all income levels.
When it passed in 1973, SB 100 had support from environmentalists and home builders alike. And its principles have held onto their broad appeal: The state’s land-use program has survived three referendum challenges over the years. Although developers have often pushed for expanding the urban boundaries—and they have indeed expanded, several times—builders have also found that keeping construction close to existing urban infrastructure lowers their costs and keeps returns high. In today’s Portland, housing demand (and prices) within the UGB far exceeds that of the periphery. From an economic standpoint, “it’s very clear why we’d want not to expand the urban growth boundary,” said Joe Cortright, a Portland-based urban economist and the director of City Observatory.
But the state’s land-use laws weren’t addressing the acute urban housing shortages that have challenged Oregon’s cities over the past decade, particularly their low-income residents. Nor did it address the exclusionary roots of single-family zoning codes, or the patterns of racial segregation that persist as a result. Other parts of the country are considering and passing upzoning laws for many of the same reasons: Minneapolis became the first to end single-family zoning at the municipal level in December, and Seattle followed in March by eliminating single-family zoning in 27 neighborhoods. Charlotte has also held hearings debating the issue. Some efforts have faced concerted opposition: A state-level upzoning bill stalled in California’s senate earlier this year after a previous attempt in 2018.
But Oregon’s version passed quickly. Representative Tina Kotek, the Democratic speaker of Oregon’s house and the bill’s chief sponsor, introduced HB 2001 in February. “This is about choice,” Kotek said at that time. “This is about allowing for different opportunities in neighborhoods that are currently extremely limited.” Four months later, at the close of a legislative session that included Republican senators staging a walkout over a cap-and-trade bill, HB 2001 passed with a 17-9 vote. “We all have an affordable housing crisis in our areas,” said Representative Jack Zika, a cosponsor of the bill and one of four Republicans who supported it. “This is not a silver bullet, but will address some of the things that all our constituents need.”
Opponents of the bill disagreed. The Oregon League of Cities came out against HB 2001 for further wresting away local land-use controls. Kevin Hoar, the spokesperson for the Oregon Republican Party, recently told Oregon Public Radio that he believes the state should make it easier to expand the urban growth boundary, rather than revise zoning codes. “Should the state be deciding what the American dream, or the Oregonian dream is? Or should homebuyers, home sellers and the localities that zone them be deciding that?” Hoar said. And while the libertarian-leaning Reason magazine praised HB 2001 for removing government restrictions on housing development, it also noted that without peeling back UGBs, Oregon’s land-use reforms are still “a decidedly mixed bag” from its political standpoint.
Outwardly, the bipartisan coalition that backed Oregon’s upzoning bill appear to be akin to the unlikely political bedfellows aligning around housing at the national level. Last week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order establishing a commission to examine regulations that limit new housing construction, including restrictive zoning. On the presidential campaign trail, several Democratic candidates have proposed policies to revise restrictive zoning codes, too. But their ideas also include renter protections, expanded subsidies for public housing, and other government interventions that the deregulation-oriented White House commission is assuredly not being tasked to develop.
And any extrapolations made about Oregon’s new zoning codes—that they herald the rise of political coalitions in favor of broader land-use deregulations, for example—are shaky, Cortright and others warned. Oregon’s housing politics reflect a culture of tight land-use laws; it isn’t loosening them, like the White House seems interested in doing.* Locally, “there is still some tension within different groups about these issues, but there is also a longstanding agreement,” Cortright said. “It’s not a microcosm of some national political realignment.”
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article inaccurately characterized Cortright’s quote, suggesting that HB 2001 did not signal the potential to build a broader national movement behind upzoning.