Oregon & the Progressive Kitchen Sink Approach to Housing

By Henry Kraemer (@HenryKraemer)

Oregon wrapped up its legislative session last month with a flurry of activity, making up for the lost time stolen by Republican state senators in their weeklong walkout over carbon pricing legislation. In their final days of legislating with a restored quorum, Democrats passed a torrent of progressive bills – ranging from guaranteed paid family leave to drivers license access for undocumented people. 

In that wave of accomplishments, Oregon blazed a new path forward on progressive housing policy that should be replicated by states and localities across the country – a multipronged approach protecting tenants, funding affordable housing, tackling the housing shortage, and ending exclusionary zoning. As progressives continue to seek a unifying approach to the housing crisis, Oregon shows a way: Reject the lure of silver bullets and embrace the kitchen sink.

In Oregon, as across the United States, the chronic sickness within our housing system has manifested in manifold painful symptoms. A housing shortage that pits too many families fighting over too few homes. An imbalance of power between tenants and property owners that makes renters prey to the whims and greedy impulses of landlords. Exclusionary zoning and other vestiges of the redlining era that gives people of color and low-income communities less access to good schools and clean air. Parasitic financial speculation that undermines affordable housing. Systematic disinvestment in subsidized, supportive housing by the federal government. 

Instead of seeking a single, facile solution to these intersecting crises, Oregon Democrats – led by House Speaker Tina Kotek, State Senator Shemia Fagan, and State Representative Alissa Keny-Guyer, among others – treated the crisis like a crisis and made use of (nearly) every tool available. 

The left flank loves big, comprehensive solutions – Medicare for All, Free College, End Student Debt, Job Guarantee, the list goes on – and for good reason. They are easy to understand and communicate, popular and durable once enacted, and less susceptible to the prejudices of a given technocrat. But, like climate change, the $22 trillion American real estate system is too sprawling, and the crisis it created has too many tendrils to be tackled in a single thrust. Controlling rents will not address the desperation and constriction born of the housing shortage. Reforming zoning will not provide housing for truly low-income families or give much-needed security to renters. Injecting even many billions of dollars into affordable housing will not provide enough homes to meet the full need. None of those will adequately unmake real estate speculation.

Recognizing the breadth of the crisis, we celebrate Oregon’s approach to throwing everything and the kitchen sink at it.

To combat a recent epidemic of rent spikes and no-cause evictions – and innoculate against them in the future – Oregon passed a first-of-its-kind statewide requirement that tenants cannot be evicted without just cause, nor can they be evicted-by-rent-increase (through a cap on price hikes over 7% plus inflation). While this ceiling on rent increases is unquestionably too high to act as robust rent stabilization, it marks the first time any state has exerted control over rent increases for the vast majority of its housing (rentals are exempted for their first 15 years of operation to avoid discouraging new building). By setting a precedent for statewide limitations on rent increases, it should make ratcheting down the ceiling on those increases much easier.

To stanch the massive shortage of homes and start to dismantle historically racist exclusionary zoning, Oregon passed a law requiring cities above 10,000 people to allow at least two homes per lot and cities above 25,000 allow middle housing like triplexes, fourplexes, and cottage clusters in every residential neighborhood. This marks the first time any state has summarily ended exclusionary zoning within its borders. Plexes that can house 2-to-4 families provide the lowest cost housing in the United States, potentially opening up economical housing for working-class and middle-class families without using subsidies more urgently needed by families nearer the poverty line.

By adopting robust statewide protections for renters and legalizing workforce housing in the same session, Oregon shows that not only is it possible to safeguard current tenants and create more space for newcomers but also that these strategies are mutually beneficial and reinforcing. In addition to the individual benefits of each policy, tenant protections mitigate the possible displacement effects of new development, while expanding the universe of legal housing options undermines the charge that tenant protections will discourage new construction.

Both reforms succeeded in large part due to a strategy of good-faith communication and reciprocally supportive advocacy between between urbanists, affordable housing providers, tenant activists, and environmental justice advocates, and a progressive community that recognizes the importance of housing as a political issue. Rather than opposing one another – as has happened in other states where policies have run aground – Oregon’s housing advocates stepped up for one another and won critical victories. It was strong enough together to defeat the opposition of affluent property owners when each group might have failed alone.

On top of these two groundbreaking reforms, Oregon Democrats went even further this session – supporting communities to adopt plans to meet their growing housing needs, making it harder to move affordable housing to the private market, helping affordable housing provider nonprofits acquire mobile home parks to preserve them, and putting $350 million toward building and preserving affordable housing (a drop in the bucket compared to the need, but still a significant boost).

Spend much time on housing Twitter and you will find dogmatic zealots arguing for a one-size-fits-all approach to housing. Neoliberal market urbanists reject renter protections by contending that unfettered growth in new market-rate housing will solve every problem. NIMBYs and their allies (witting or unwitting) insist against evidence that there is no housing shortage and panacea comes from freezing the housing market in amber. Oregon Democrats like Kotek and Fagan recognize that both of these dogmas ignore the real suffering families are experiencing, in service of an ideological vision. Instead, Oregon Democrats recognized that suffering and leapt to action to do whatever they could to help – exactly what we would expect from leaders who care about working people.

There is more work to do in Oregon. At a minimum, we need statewide tenant screening and security deposit regulations, stronger rent stabilization and/or more meaningful stabilization options for localities, and a lot more money for affordable housing, supportive housing, and emergency relief. Likely much more than that.

But in 2019, Oregon showed what inspired, ambitious progressives can and must do in the face of the housing crisis. Grab the kitchen sink, and solve the problem with every tool you have. Other states, and even the federal government should do likewise.

Henry Kraemer (@HenryKraemer) is a writer and activist focused on housing, social democratic urbanism, and voting rights. He previously spearheaded the creation of America’s first automatic voter registration law in Oregon and its expansion across the country. He lives in Portland and works a day-job in renewable energy.

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