Gov. Tina Kotek has staked her political future and legacy on delivering on one promise: improving the state’s housing and homelessness crisis.
And there is one bill this session she hopes will help her make good on the promise: Senate Bill 1537.
“I feel like I’m chief architect, chief cheerleader and just like, “Hey, can we get this done?” the governor told members of the Senate Committee on Housing and Development on Thursday.
In the past year, Kotek visited all of Oregon’s 36 counties and said it didn’t matter where she went, everyone talked about housing.
“Ontario. Silverton. Grants Pass. Stories were a little different, but a lot of similarities: I want to live in this community, I want to work in this community. I don’t have a place to live,” the governor testified.
The bill Kotek is proposing comes with a hefty price tag: about $500 million in state funds to pay for land, infrastructure development and expanding utility services. Kotek is proposing a new state agency, the Housing Accountability and Production Office, that would help developers and local governments navigate state housing laws.
But the most controversial piece of the legislation would allow cities a one-time chance to bypass state land use laws to bring in either 150 or 75 acres of land for housing as long as it meets certain criteria, including at least 30% being set aside for affordable housing.
A similar bill failed last legislative session with many members of Kotek’s own party refusing to support the measure.
Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, testified her district was “woefully short on housing” before the 2020 Labor Day fires wiped out an additional 2,500 homes in Phoenix and Talent. Marsh said she considered herself a passionate environmentalist.
“From my perspective, we approach any changes to our land-use system with extreme caution,” Marsh told lawmakers on Thursday. “However, we undermine the long-term viability of the land-use system if we reflexively reject modifications. If our land use system cannot accommodate modest change it will calcify and it will fracture over time.”
While most testimony agreed with the overall goal of increasing affordable housing, many people urged lawmakers to reconsider granting cities the ability to bypass the normal processes for expanding the urban growth boundary.
“These very land use guidelines have provided the necessary framework for protecting our state’s invaluable natural resources - our water, forests and farmlands - a distinction that sets Oregon apart from other states,” Paul Lipscomb, the president of the Oregon Land and Water Alliance wrote to lawmakers, urging them to strike the urban growth boundary provision from the bill.
David Suttle, an architect who lives in Northeast Portland and rides his bike into the Pearl District every day for work, said he wholeheartedly agrees the state needs more housing.
“But building suburban tract homes on farmland is not a solution to our homeless crisis,” Suttle wrote to lawmakers. “In addition to destroying farmland forever, suburban sprawl increases energy consumption, pollution, and global warming, as people must travel greater distances to access basic goods and services.”
Suttle, along with many other people, noted the state has thousands of acres already available and undeveloped within existing urban growth boundaries.
“Our local farmland is a treasure that we cannot squander under the pressure of tract home developers, many of whom are not even Oregon residents,” he wrote.
Jenny Pakula, CEO of the Oregon Realtors Association, which represents 18,000 real estate professionals in the state, said her members have worked with some buyers for years who cannot find a home, or the home is dozens of miles away from where they work.
“The answer to our crisis is more homes of all types,” Pakula wrote in favor of the bill. “Oregon needs more apartments, we need more duplexes and triplexes, and we need more townhomes, condos, and single family homes that Oregonians can purchase.”
Kotek told lawmakers the scope of the challenge required a “full menu of solutions.”
She also nodded to the failure of her first attempt to pass similar legislation.
“This is how public policy should work,” she said, after the bill died in 2023. “People didn’t walk away. They sat down and worked it out.”
The bill is “bold and balanced. It’s comprehensive,” Kotek said. “It will provide the spark to jumpstart the building of new housing we need to see across the state.”