Local Ordinances and Local Control
How did local government get so far off the mark?
Twenty years ago if you asked a construction professional if they preferred statewide or local control of housing regulation the answer would have been resoundingly “local control.” Local governments were partners in the housing development process, working with the private sector to create livable and affordable communities. State government was seen as too big, too intrusive and unable to craft solutions that work for the type of individual needs each community was encountering.
Today if you ask the same building and construction professionals this question, they would take a long, deep breath and likely tell you “I’m not sure anymore.” Consider for a moment the kind of regional government policies and ordinances they have seen over that period:
- Regionally, Metro imposed requirements for stream buffers and riparian corridors on local governments and then asked those local governments to self-identify which of those areas was environmentally significant. This resulted in the removal of additional developable land from an already short changed 20-year supply.
- Metro successfully sought public funding for the purchase of thousands of acres of land (in the name of preservation) and removed them from urban growth boundary inventory for development. Shockingly, they have also purchased land OUTSIDE the urban growth boundary for preservation and developed these areas for recreational use. Unfortunately, the bonds don’t include maintenance funds so staffing and maintaining these areas is not realistic.
- Metro’s process for adding land to the urban growth boundary changes each cycle and dozens of meetings, millions of dollars in staff and local government expense and never seems to lead to a suitable amount of viable land being included for growth.
It’s not just our regional government either. Consider for a moment how our local governments are spending their money and time:
- The City of Portland spent years developing a tree ordinance that somehow manages to be both complicated and overly broad. The policy is so out of whack with neighboring jurisdictions it has become a legitimate impediment to development.
- The City of Portland is so bad with money management it has admittedly lost millions of dollars trying to implement new software for its development department and defends spending more than $500 per square foot constructing affordable housing for residents making less than median income.
- A developer working in Portland is often forced to hire a contract permitting service that specializes JUST IN WORKING WITH CITY OF PORTLAND STAFF because the process is so time consuming and expensive.
- Cities like West Linn, Lake Oswego and Oregon City are on a growing list of places any builder not building a custom-built home avoids because the cost and time it will take to get through their process just isn’t worth it anymore. Affordability doesn’t exist in these communities.
- Not to be outdone, cities like Beaverton, Hillsboro and Wilsonville have become increasingly hostile to development and bureaucratic in their approach. Communities that were once lauded for their practical approach have drastically changed their philosophy on construction and growth, especially regarding housing development.
With local government demonstrating a shocking inability to be efficient or responsible in the housing crisis, the building industry has been forced to turn to the State of Oregon and the legislature to fix local problems. It took the legislature to fix Metro’s most recent mess, the Urban Growth Reserve Process. If not for State Legislators working with private industry, it’s likely the issue would still be tied up in court impacting the availability of land for years to come.
What needs to change for local government to become accountable for its actions and its spending again? Affordable Oregon suggests the following for starters:
- Locally elected and appointed officials are being victimized by the staff in their given jurisdiction. Staff is at a distinct advantage to push an agenda on electeds who in most jurisdictions are volunteers with little experience in construction but want to serve. Staff writes and implements the code for each jurisdiction and spoon feeds their electeds only what they want them to hear. Eager to please, these officials often end up parroting what staff recommends because they have no clear picture that an alternative exists.
- The adversarial attitude of local government staff needs to be corralled. The building industry is simply trying to do its job and provide affordable housing to the masses. Industry understands that regulation must exist to protect the public; that doesn’t mean it needs to be wielded like a hammer or that you must relish the opportunity to make a project more difficult. For some, this attitude won’t change until they are exposed to public scrutiny. It’s too bad it has come to that.
- Local officials are either not interested in solving our affordable housing problem or are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issue. Ultimately, it will take local officials who have the courage to stand up to their jurisdictional staff and require changes to the development process that get more homes to the market quicker.
- Stop punishing all development interests for bad actors. Building housing is a business. There will be good people and bad people. Don’t adopt new policy just because one guy is an idiot. Let’s work together to create more opportunity.
- For those who cannot adopt an attitude more conducive to creating affordable housing, it’s time for you to leave office or move on. Local governments who cannot grasp the importance of creating affordable housing may need local ordinances preventing them from implementing poorly constructed regulation. It’s time to try something different because this isn’t working.
If you are interested in working with Affordable Oregon to create more affordable housing, become a member today.