Oregon’s unique growth rules have preserved open space but also led to new fights
Anyeley Hallovà chairs the commission that oversees Oregon's growth management system. She's passionate about developing compact neighborhoods that provide equitable and affordable housing — and that help combat climate change. But not everyone is happy about moving in this direction.
OPB senior political reporter Jeff Mapes spent more than a year researching, reporting and producing “Growing Oregon,” a six-part podcast and web series looking at the evolution of Oregon’s unique approach to growth and the impact it has on our lives today. Here’s the story behind the story. You can find the full series here, or through the OPB Politics Now feed on your favorite podcast app. This is Part 6.
Anyeley Hallovà and I are walking in her inner Northeast Portland neighborhood on a drizzly spring day.
We stop in front of an old bungalow. She’s periodically stopped by as a second house was under construction in the backyard. She says she’s impressed by how seamlessly the new house was added to the existing property.
“You might not have noticed it if we walked by,” Hallovà says. “It’s set in the back, beautiful architecture, well-scaled has a beautiful garden in front of it.”
She sees a lot more on the walk that pleases her.
She praises a new eight-unit apartment building that is set back from the street so it doesn’t overwhelm the single-family homes on either side. She even defends an old apartment building that’s seen better days.
“The deal is, the more supply we have, the more affordability. It frees up older buildings to essentially start reducing their pricing because they have competition from new buildings.”
Hallovà seems to see opportunity everywhere she looks. It doesn’t matter if it’s a backyard or a weedy empty lot. She wants to grow more homes in existing neighborhoods — lots of them. She imagines denser urban areas less divided by race and income.
“A big focus of what I’m interested in,” she says, “is how do we unlock the potential of a lot of the vacant land in our cities.”
Hallovà has a big stake in how cities — and the state — grow. She chairs the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission, which oversees the state’s growth system. She’s the panel’s first Black member, and she’s passionate about providing housing — including for marginalized Oregonians.
“Just like we were a leader in thinking about preserving farmland forestland,” she tells me, “I believe that in the future, we’re going to be a leader in housing equity.”
In previous stories, I’ve chronicled the history of Oregon’s land-use system, and how it affects the state we live in today. In the last installment, I’ll talk about where the system is headed.
When Gov. Tom McCall oversaw the creation of the revolutionary system of state growth controls a half-century ago, he promised to fight for the landscapes that he feared the state was in danger of losing to sprawling development.
However, publicly at least, he didn’t focus on how keeping development off so much of Oregon’s land would change lives within the cities and suburbs. Over time, Oregonians have learned that living more compactly changes the look and feel of cities. There are more apartments and smaller lots for single-family homes. And there are more determined efforts to revamp Oregon’s existing communities to squeeze in more housing.
In her new position, Hallovà is also facing another urgent problem: Oregon faces a huge housing shortage that is among the worst in the nation.
A lot of that shortage is unrelated to our growth system.
But state leaders do have to make big decisions about Oregon’s land controls. Do they make it easier to grab cheaper land for housing outside the growth boundaries? Do they work even harder to pack more homes of all kinds in existing communities?
A modern McCall in spirit
Climate change and gigantic housing shortages weren’t problems that Tom McCall faced. But it’s easy to see Hallovà as the 21st Century embodiment of the McCall way.
Both had roots on the East Coast but came to love Oregon’s natural beauty.
And both looked to the way we lived — to our physical surroundings — as they responded to the crises of their time. For McCall, it meant protecting Oregon’s farmland and other open spaces. For Hallovà, it means transforming cities.
And she learned some of it at Disney World.
Hallovà grew up in Florida and frequently visited there. Her favorite attraction was an upbeat tour through a high-tech farm of the future at Disney’s Epcot Park.
Years later, she said in a lecture that “visiting Epcot as a kid and watching Star Trek gave me my interest in…the city of the future and in thinking about the environment.”
She may not have been a farmer like another creator of Oregon’s growth system, Hector Macpherson. He was a dairyman and state senator from the Willamette Valley who was a chief sponsor of the system’s founding legislation. But she shared his interest in agriculture and in how people live on the land.
You can also thank her father for that. He was a water engineer from Ghana. When she was 10, her family moved to Nigeria for two years while he opened a water pump factory.
“I was sort of this American kid from Florida who got shocked by this reality of lack of water and of people living on the margin,” she said.
After that, she said, “I wanted to feed the world. I was concerned about hunger and environmental issues.”
In college, she got hooked on how to help people live sustainably. She earned degrees in environmental systems technology, city planning and landscape architecture — from, in order, Cornell, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard.
Hallovà wound up as a partner at a development firm in Portland. She worked on several innovative housing and commercial projects. And she became an expert on mass timber. That’s the building material lauded as greener than steel and concrete.
“We’re actually going to be in a great competition,” she said, over just which states are going to win the economic competition to become the biggest suppliers of mass timber.
That helped bring Hallovà to the attention of the governor’s office. She joined the Land Conservation and Development Commission in 2018. For years, the commission has been embroiled in many high-profile fights over such things as expanding urban growth boundaries and defining the rules over what’s permissible on farmlands.
The result has been a system that has certainly limited urban sprawl. The agency under the commission, the Department of Land Conservation and Development, says that the vast majority of the state’s farm and forest lands have been protected from sprawl since the controls took effect. Since the 1990s, the Willamette Valley — where most Oregonians live — has added more than one million new residents. But more than three-quarters of the valley’s farmland is still in production.
Several experts around the county have told me that Oregon’s growth controls are unique — and uniquely powerful.
“It’s had a lot of staying power in ways that other states’ programs have not,” said Rebecca Lewis, a land use expert at the University of Oregon.
Oregon’s system has certainly surprised many outsiders. I keep thinking of an oral history from veteran homebuilders lobbyist Fred Van Natta in 2015, a few years before he died. He complained that the boundaries had become an iron ring driving up housing costs. And he recalled driving with local homebuilders and some Texas developers through the Willamette Valley.
The out-of-state developers, looking for homebuilding opportunities in new markets, marveled at all the open farmland near cities.
“They said, these are wonderful subdivision sites,” Van Natta recalled. “And one of the [Oregon] homebuilders in the car says, ‘You can’t build there.’”
The Texas developer replied, “What do you mean, we can’t build there? That’s perfect land for subdivisions.”
Told about Oregon’s land-use laws, Van Natta said the developer replied, “You mean Oregonians are a bunch of communists.”
Perhaps needless to say, the Texans decided not to open up shop in Oregon.
The housing dilemma
In recent years, the state planning bureaucracy hasn’t gone in the direction those Texas developers would have liked.
But Oregon’s growth management system is now focused more deeply on housing.
Planners need to figure out how to fit everyone in, and they’re under heightened pressure to help Oregon dig out of that deep housing shortage.
Last year, a state-financed report estimated that the state is 111,000 homes short of demand. That’s how much less housing has been built in Oregon than what the state needs — particularly to keep prices in check.
By some measures, Oregon has one of the worst housing shortages in the country. Oregon is not alone, though. The lack of housing supply is a national problem in growing states, particularly so on the West Coast.
Housing production never returned to previous levels after the 2008 financial meltdown that led to a severe recession. And many communities, perhaps most notably in California, have fought hard to fight new housing they fear will increase traffic congestion and hurt the character of their neighborhoods.
There have been Not-In-My-Backyard sentiments in Oregon. But the Land Conservation and Development Commission — and the agency it oversees — is focusing on implementing several new initiatives aimed at boosting the housing stock, largely within the current urban growth boundaries.
Among them is a 2019 law passed by the Legislature that made Oregon the first state to abolish exclusive single-family zoning in much of the state. New rules allow a variety of “middle housing” units in those neighborhoods, including cottage clusters, townhouses and two, three or four-unit buildings.
The commission is also working on a companion law that requires cities to show how they can boost the supply of more affordable housing.
“Cities now have to say, what is our housing need by price point,” said Hallovà, “and what housing production strategies are we going to use to achieve that.”
At the same time, she said, cities must show how they can do so without causing gentrification that displaces lower-income residents.
That’s not all. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order in 2020 calling on state agencies to find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon. She was acting in response to Republicans blocking the passage of a sweeping climate bill.
For its part, the Department of Land Conservation and Development produced an ambitious plan to create what it calls “climate-friendly areas” in metropolitan Portland and in urban areas encompassing Salem, Corvallis, Albany, Eugene, Bend, Grants Pass and Medford.
The plan, which was approved this summer, calls for climate-friendly areas within these cities that could be an urbanist’s dream.
Planners are seeking a mixture of housing that could average around 900 square feet in size. There would be plenty of buildings in the four- to seven-story range. These areas would be easy to get around on bike, scooter and foot — and have good transit service.
More broadly, the commission rolled back parking minimum rules in these cities. The idea is to reduce costs for new housing while freeing up more space.
For Hallovà, all of these initiatives are coming together — just maybe — to produce real change.
“These are things we should have been doing all along,” she said, “but obviously the need is more dire now.”
In many ways, Hallovà is trying to fulfill that housing goal Oregon set for itself back in 1974. That’s the goal that said communities had to provide room for a range of housing that fits all income levels.
Hallovà and I talk about this as we stand on the busy corner of Northeast Alberta Street and North Williams Avenue. In recent decades, the gentrification of the historically Black neighborhood has been the dominant narrative. Hallovà agrees with those concerns. But she also has an optimistic take as we stroll around her community.
“I like it because you have a little bit of everything,” she says. She points to a nearby vacant lot slated to be filled by a subsidized housing apartment building. Further south is a cluster of market-rate apartments along the one-way twins of Williams and Vancouver streets. In between are a variety of smaller apartments, duplexes and single-family homes.
“So you kind of got a little bit of all the uses that you might see in a city,” she says, “but also within close proximity and working well, I would say.”
She says that change in established neighborhoods — particularly the more upscale ones — will be gradual. Besides, she adds, Oregon is a different state now. It needs a broader range of housing for a more diverse population — whether you’re talking about age, income or family size.
That includes people once excluded or marginalized in Oregon. Only ever so slowly has Oregon shed its abysmal record of how it treated people who came here who weren’t white.
This state was founded by white settlers who explicitly barred black people. The Ku Klux Klan was a powerful force here in the 1920s.
Many communities were known as “sundown towns” — towns that made it clear the presence of non-whites wouldn’t be tolerated after nightfall.
Even when Tom McCall was governor, the state was about 97% non-Hispanic white. But Oregon is changing.
The 2020 Census found people of color now make up about 28% of Oregon’s population.
The new development rules reflect this changing reality. They’re supposed to fight gentrification and produce more equitable communities. Hallovà says these issues can’t be ignored any longer.
“It’s shocking how supposedly progressive and forward-thinking we are in this state,” she says, “yet if you look at the numbers, the social inequity is drastic … So obviously we’re not fulfilling our promise to everyone.”
Hallovà's personal journey took a big turn just after the Covid pandemic hit in 2020. That summer, she and her family — she’s married with two kids — took an RV tour of the American West. She listened to the audio version of The Color of Law, which put a new focus on the racist home-lending policies by the federal government during America’s housing boom following World War II.
She talked about her experience listening to the book while rolling through the American landscape as she introduced the book’s author, Richard Rothstein, at an Oregon housing forum.
“To be honest, I came out of that experience very mad,” she said. “Mad that I hadn’t been taught this history — but also very empowered to spread the word and seek change.”
Hallovà said she was so affected by the book that she decided to shift her work in real estate development so it focused on addressing racial equity issues.
She started a new business, Adre. And she’s now working with other Black-owned firms to develop a long-vacant plot of land near Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. The land once was in the heart of the Black community of lower Albina before it was razed by urban renewal in the 1970s.
After this plot of land lay unused for several decades, Legacy Health agreed to donate it and work with the city to begin rebuilding a small part of the community.
Hallovà said one of her major goals for the project is to develop affordable homes that people can buy. It’s a key way, she added, for people who have been marginalized to become “economically resilient and independent — independent in the sense of allowing them to create generational wealth through real estate ownership.”
A new kind of suburbia
I also wanted to see how the new policies championed by Hallovà are affecting the suburbs.
So I went to the literal end of the Oregon Trail — Oregon City. The pioneer city along the Willamette River south of Portland is going through its own changes. And plenty of residents don’t share Hallovà's views about changing neighborhoods.
I drove up Karla Laws’ street in Oregon City on a sunny weekend afternoon. She was outside talking with neighbors and waved to me. But I had to drive a few more blocks to find a parking space.
After I hiked back with my radio gear, she gestured down her car-lined street.
“See how busy we are just with residents on a Sunday,” she said, noting that many of her neighbors have to park some or all of their cars on the street. There’s much more competition for parking spots on weekdays when a nearby office building is open.
Laws worried that parking is going to be an even bigger concern as more dense housing is allowed in her single-family neighborhood. Like many of her neighbors, she lives in a historic house on a street that is so narrow that parking is only allowed on one side of the street.
If duplexes and triplexes start popping up, Laws said they’ll generate more additional cars than they will parking spaces or driveways. And she fears this new housing will detract from the city’s historic feel.
“What is livability,” she asked, “if we’re not following some type of guidelines or criteria for people to live comfortably?”
At the same time, Laws said she isn’t opposed to growth.
“We need to change, “she said. “We need to offer opportunity.”
What Laws said she doesn’t like is the threat of losing Oregon City’s character.
“I came to Oregon City because I wanted a small-town feel,” she said, not “necessarily even a suburb of Portland but its own entity.”
Of course, Oregon is only a dozen miles from downtown Portland. And it’s now a prime spot for development as the Metro region grows. That’s been true ever since the early 2000s when several hundred acres just outside the city were placed inside the urban growth boundary.
Once that happened, Oregon City in a sense became as urban as Portland. The system is designed to work that way. If you’re inside the boundary, it’s supposed to be easy to build new homes and businesses — even if it’s a farm.
The reality has been messier. Oregon City and many other cities had allowed voters to go to the ballot to block annexations sought by developers who need municipal services. That’s one reason land on the outskirts of Oregon City has been slow to develop. In 2016, the Legislature shut down those citizen votes.
Developers still complain about how long it takes to get building permits, and how those delays drive up costs. But builders are making headway in Oregon City. The 37,000-population city has numerous projects in the work. There’s a big apartment complex going up near Clackamas Community College. New houses and apartments are sprouting on smaller lots. I even saw three stylish — if unorthodox — homes made out of cargo containers.
A Tigard firm, Summit Development Group, is proposing to build a large mixed-use development over an old landfill on the north side of the city. It would have about 500 multi-family units, a commercial district and a public plaza.
Rachel Lyles Smith, who recently left the post of mayor, said many newer residents like what they see. They are upbeat about the pleasant neighborhoods and the increasingly lively restaurant and arts scene. Oregon City’s historic downtown is also on the upswing — complete with a large food cart pod.
But Smith added that many longtime residents are “unhappy about us being within the Metro’s urban growth boundary and don’t want to see Oregon City growing at the rate in which it is growing.”
Smith said she supports Oregon’s land use system. But she did get frustrated at some of the new state housing mandates.
“We want our communities to maintain their uniqueness,” she said. “If we all just wanted to be a rubber stamp of the next city over, then what’s the point of having our own jurisdictions?”
The uncertain future
Oregon City isn’t unique. Every growing city in Oregon feels like it’s going through a transition.
Ed Sullivan sees big changes coming in Oregon’s urban form. He is a semi-retired land use lawyer who has been involved with the growth management system since the beginning. He’s probably written more academic papers than anyone about Oregon’s system.
In recent years, he’s been a strong proponent of doing what it takes to increase Oregon’s stock of affordable housing. And he argued that’s best done by sticking largely inside urban growth boundaries where services and jobs are closer.
“To me, the average person is not going to be able to afford a single-family home,” particularly in the Portland area, said Sullivan. “So we’re going to have to just really look within ourselves and decide that we’re going to have to build more densely and that people are going to have to be satisfied with condos or smaller houses.”
Sullivan described it as a vision for the future that is “more like Europe, and that’s not a bad thing.”
That bothers people like Dave Hunnicutt. He leads the Oregon Property Owners Association. The group was once known as Oregonians in Action and was a prime backer of the property rights initiatives that once threatened the growth management system.
“I think it’s poor public policy,” Hunnicutt said, “for a bunch of unelected planners and political appointees of the governor to tell people we don’t care how you want to live — this is how you’re going to live.”
In recent years, Hunnicutt has been pushing legislation to make it easier for cities to expand their urban growth boundaries. He said more single-family housing that average people could afford could be sited just outside existing urban growth boundaries because land costs are cheaper.
Most Americans tell pollsters they want a single-family home. But in Oregon, at least, voters have also repeatedly acted to protect the state’s open spaces.
Oregon is also in the middle of an emerging national debate over housing and zoning.
Like so many other things, it’s become partisan.
Democrats want to push states to produce more affordable housing — and combat climate change in the process.
Republicans, like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, are calling this an attack on traditional suburbs.
“They want to get you out of your pickup truck,” he said in a recent Fox News appearance, “out of your SUV, out your home in the suburbs, where you can have a backyard with your kids.”
Hallovà said she understands the average American’s desire for a single-family home. But she said it’s not that simple.
There’s this kind of delicate balance between what people want and the future of our viability as a human race,” she said. “That’s being a little dramatic. But, you know, we’re dealing with climate change issues too, right?”
If nothing else, listening to this debate has given me a new eye for my own surroundings.
My wife and I live in a Northeast Portland neighborhood where many houses are now selling for more than $1 million. We could never afford to live here if we were a young couple moving to Portland.
But when we moved to the city in the 1980s, we paid less than $70,000 for our first single-family house.
Then we rode the real estate market up. This is one reason why many homeowners my age care less about increasing the housing supply and more about protecting the value of their own homes.
Our current house is a 1970s infill home on the lower slope of a steep ridge. It was once somebody else’s back hillside.
Next door to me is an empty backyard for another ridgetop homeowner. It’s covered in trees, bushes, ivy and blackberry vines.
One day, I was on our deck interviewing Robin McArthur. She is Hallovà's predecessor as the LCDC chair. She’s been working with Oregon’s growth system for decades.
I told her the empty hillside next door would be a good site for more housing. But we also enjoy this bit of nature.
“Yes, it would be pleasant for you to keep your view,” McArthur replied. “But it’s pretty unpleasant for the person that can’t find housing in your neighborhood and needs housing.”
She has a point. When our house was built, it screwed up someone else’s nice view. But I’m sure glad that my house is here.
I think of my walk with Hallovà. It was mid-day. The side streets in her neighborhood were quiet, the trees dripping from the intermittent rain. We talked about how neighborhood change isn’t easy. But in Oregon, she said, there is one consistent thing.
“One of the reasons we love Oregon so much,” she said, “is that clear access from where you live to the mountains, to the ocean — and not the sprawl, right? I think everybody enjoys the benefits of that. I think not everybody understands why it is that way. And it’s really there because of our land use system.”
As I listened, I could imagine Tom McCall — all 6-foot-5 of him — standing there saying, “See, this is what I was talking about.’”
The Growing Oregon audio story is available through the OPB Politics Now podcast feed.
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