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Fixing Bend’s housing crisis

Welcome to Bend YIMBY, a group dedicated to fixing Bend’s housing crisis.

The problem:

  • There is a rental vacancy rate near 1% – even if you have the money, a good job and good references, it can be tough to find a place to live.
  • The prices are going up to the point where people like teachers, police and firefighters are getting priced out.

Here are some topics we’ll be covering:

Street Grids and Traffic

Something that comes up a lot in discussions about housing in Bend is traffic and congestion, especially talking about the east side of town.

If you look at how cities used to be built, with a fine grained grid, it turns out that that’s probably the best strategy.

Grids have been used in cities for thousands of years: the Romans used them and they probably weren’t the first.

The older areas of Bend have a nice grid, where if one intersection is blocked off, you can easily detour around it.  It’s never that far between two points on the grid, and travel is mostly predictable.

Compare and contrast with the east side, which has more cul-de-sac and arterial development, where a few big roads get all the traffic, and many roads don’t go anywhere.  This might be nice for the people who get no traffic, but it has a high cost in terms of resilience and adaptability, two qualities in high demand for a rapidly growing city.

Here are two adjacent properties – neighboring houses – where the drive to get from one to the other is 1.5 miles!

No wonder traffic can be problematic in that area and will get worse as it grows – you have to drive on a major road just to get to a neighboring house!

Unfortunately, I do not know if there are any good solutions to this conundrum – you can’t go back and impose a grid on areas like that at this point, because it’s all built out and people live in those houses.

The best we can do is go back to a sensible, flexible, adaptable design that has served humanity well for thousands of years for our future development.

Further reading: “Everyone knows we have a traffic problem

1947

Bend got its first zoning code in 1947.  You can find that code, along with a map, here: https://www.bendoregon.gov/home/showdocument?id=4197

I find this interesting because most central areas of town were built prior to these regulations coming into force.  Things like

  • Parking minimums
  • Setbacks (how far from the street a building needs to be)
  • Lot Coverage
  • Mixed use

Parking Minimums

Currently, the City of Bend specifies parking minimums for both housing and businesses.   Why bother, though?  Why not leave it up to the market?  If a single guy in an apartment can get by with a bike, walking and the occasional ride from a car sharing service like Uber or Lyft, and doesn’t need a car, why should he have to pay for a parking spot?  In the other hand, if a family needs some guaranteed (not on street) parking, they’re not going to buy a house without it.  Why not just let people figure it out?  This is how things used to be, and it seemed to be ok.

Setbacks

This is the minimum distance from the street that a building must be.  Downtown, we have buildings like the O’Kane building – which was built in 1916.  You can see how it butts right up against he sidewalk – and yet there is still room for a few tables in front of the restaurant!

 

It’s natural for buildings further outside of a downtown area to be more carefree with space – it’s not at a premium there.  But it’s also natural for a town to evolve to better utilize space where it’s most expensive.  That’s what they were doing in that building in 1916.  In 2017, though, zoning has codified the part of town where buildings are allowed to have no setbacks. It’s a very small portion of town.  You can’t build that way anywhere else without getting special permission to do so.

Setbacks often end up as wasted space that no one uses for anything.

Look at the fenced off group of stunted bushes in front of the Bank of America building on Newport and Wall.  They add little to nothing to the aesthetics, and don’t even add much green – the tree just to the right, which occupies a tiny bit of sidewalk is much nicer in terms of greenery and aesthetics.  Why not make the building bigger and utilize the space?

Lot Coverage

Also known as “Floor-Area Ratio” this is the ratio of floors in the building to the total area of the lot.  For instance the O’Kane building covers the entire lot, and has two floors to boot!  It is illegal to build like that in most of Bend.  As with setbacks, it’s natural to evolve to a more intense use of land as a city evolves, but we have restricted that natural evolution – it’s only possible if developers ask for exceptions, or ask to change the zoning.  This process has the potential to be long, drawn out, and expensive.

Mixed Use

There is nothing more traditional than ground floor retail, with offices and housing on the floors above.  It’s a pattern seen throughout the world.  The O’Kane building, once again, built 100 years ago, is a perfect example – it has ground floor retail, with office space above, and was originally built with living space for the owner of the building (Hugh O’Kane was an “undocumented immigrant” who came to the US as a stowaway).  This development pattern is great – it’s flexible, and puts the people who are willing to live there in very close proximity to the things they need on a day to day basis.

It is, sadly, illegal to build for mixed use throughout much of Bend – or many other cities in the US for that matter.

Conclusion

Zoning was introduced for a reason, way back when, in big cities, for real reasons like keeping smelly factories away from schools and people’s homes, but we’ve taken the concept entirely too far.  There’s something to be learned from our past.

Affordable Housing Action!

Bend’s City Council recently received some recommendations to increase the supply of market-rate affordable housing.  The list of ideas was generated by the Bend 2030 group over the period of several months, and contains a lot of sensible suggestions:

http://bend2030.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/reduced-size-FINAL-Bend-Collaborative-Housing-Workgroup-Recommendations.pdf

They won’t magically make Bend affordable to all overnight, but they put in place a variety of policies that will certainly help, and are worth supporting.

Please take a moment and write in support of the proposals:

  • Tell them your story, why this matters to you
  • If any of the ideas jump out at you in particular, tell them what you like about them
  • As always, keep it polite and friendly!

YIMBY Reading

Here’s a list of various articles and books that are good references to learn about what’s driving the housing crisis, and how to fix it.

Books:

Other Groups:

  • Strong Towns – focused on building good, financially sustainable places.
  • Market Urbanism – leans very libertarian, but they have some good discussions and some interesting articles shared.
  • SFYIMBY – these are the people fighting for more housing “in the trenches”, in the Bay Area, which is a significant source of people moving to Bend.  They’re well worth supporting!
  • http://yimby.wiki/wiki/Main_Page – YIMBY wiki with lots of links.

Oregon legislative roundup

There are several bills making their way through the Oregon legislative process which are relevant to housing costs.  This will likely be a controversial post, as I think both ‘sides’ are saying some things that make sense – and some that don’t.  If you have an opinion, jump in and discuss it on our new Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/BendYIMBY/

One bill would disallow no-cause evictions, and allow cities to pass rent-control bills:

http://www.opb.org/news/article/oregon-no-cause-eviction-bill/

These might seem like good ideas at first as they’d help people who are getting hit by the sharp end of the housing crisis.  Beyond the short term, though, they don’t help, as landlords who have less control over their property are that much more likely to get out of the rental business altogether and simply sell the property.  These provisions would also likely provide fewer incentives for people to jump in and build new housing or renovate and rent out a house. So while they may help a few people now, they may well be counterproductive, which means that renters in the future may pay for them.  For instance, landlords could very well get a lot pickier about who they rent to if it becomes significantly more difficult to ask people to leave.

See this Paul Krugman article about rent control.

Some say that there are loopholes and exceptions and so on – but doesn’t that just make things more complex (more lawyers?) and make these previsions weaker?

Ultimately, the only way to fix the housing crisis is to add enough supply – which can also mean building up, or infill, not just building out – rather than band-aid solutions that don’t address the root cause of the crisis: too many people chasing after too few places to live.  Much of economics is more complicated than simple “supply and demand”, but it’s a pretty good place to start.  Look at how adding lots of apartments helped stabilize rent prices in Denver:

http://www.curbed.com/2017/1/25/14342828/denver-rents-affordable-housing-apartments

Another proposal sounds more interesting: removing the mortgage interest deduction above a certain threshold.

http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2017/04/there_are_far_more_effective_h.html

As above, appearances can be deceiving: what at first glance sounds like something that might help people to own homes mostly accrues to wealthier people (they own more expensive homes).  Removing this large government subsidy would likely lower the price of housing, as a significant amount of “easy money” would be removed from the system for things like vacation homes.

In the case of a house purchased to rent out, some of the price increase might be passed on to renters, so the bill may be worth modifying from that point of view, or at least considering future ramifications.  But given Oregon’s budget woes, subsidies that mostly accrue to people wealthy enough to own vacation homes could likely be dispensed with.

Incremental Development

When people complain about “big developers” and the changes they make in a town, they often mistake the development that takes place as the result of a “free market”.

Nothing could be further from the truth: with all the zoning and planning codes in most towns – Bend included – land use is one of the most regulated sectors in the economy.  With the exception of single family housing built within very prescribed limits (you must have two parking spots in your driveway!) it’s often a difficult process to build townhouses or a taller building, or open a retail business in an area not zoned for it.  There are applications and meetings and reviews and potentially appeals if some of the neighbors disapprove.

In a truly free market, you’d be able to build whatever you wanted on your land.  Of course, most of us accept that since what you build on your land affects the people around you, there should be some limits.  However, in the US, these limits have gotten completely out of hand, and rather than stopping a noxious factory in the middle of a quiet neighborhood, people are now fighting tooth and nail over, say, apartment buildings.

Perversely, this has the effect that rather than see a few apartments here, a townhouse there, and a corner store or barber stop at a busier intersection in a residential neighborhood, the hurdle to development is so high that you’d better have a lot of time and money to dedicate to it.  This means it’s not worthwhile for a smaller development that won’t change much, but only for bigger developers with deep pockets, and fewer connections to the area in question.

So instead of some apartments like this:

That are right next to shops, and single family homes, and a mix of other uses, we get things like this:

Which is certainly better than having only single family homes, but this massive block of apartments that is walled off on two sides by busy streets is not the kind of area that can grow or adapt as the city around it changes.

In many places, a mix of housing that includes both single family homes and owner-occupied apartments is the norm, and works pretty well.  Indeed, once upon a time, Bend was like that: it only got its first zoning regulations in 1947.  Rather than having an area that is ‘only renters’ or ‘all single family homes’, you have some apartments that are rented, and many that are owned, creating a healthy mix of people.

Back in the present, “planning” and regulation that attempt to corral certain uses in certain portions of a town seem to have left us with “big chunks” of development: big box stores, blocks of apartments, and large areas of single family homes that are so far away from other uses that they make a car almost a requirement.

It’s possible that, absent quite so many rules and regulations and attempts to specify exactly what can go where, we’d have more incremental, human-scale development that would allow our cities and neighborhoods to adapt in a more natural way.

Here’s a great Strong Towns video about the same concept:

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2015/12/16/incremental-development

Update: Also, a timely article about the same subject:

America Needs Small Apartment Buildings. Nobody Builds Them