What others say: Tiny houses and big decisions

  • By The Oregonian editorial
  • Friday, May 11, 2018 9:24am
  • Opinion

After years of temporary waivers, Portland City Council voted recently to permanently nix fees that homeowners had faced if they built a “tiny home” or “accessory dwelling unit” in their backyard.

The fees, which can total as much as $15,000, are intended to cover the additional pressure on local parks, roads and utilities that additional housing can bring. And as city leaders had hoped, waiving the fees has fueled an ADU construction boom in recent years. As Commissioner Chloe Eudaly shared last week, 50 tiny homes were built in 2012 when the waiver began compared to 500 built annually in recent years.

But apparently, that incentive isn’t enough. City commissioners are frustrated that since they opened the floodgates, they can’t control where the water’s going. So last week they voted 4-1 to mandate exactly who can stay in those reduced-cost homes. And it won’t be anyone booking though Airbnb or other short-term rental companies.

Instead of simply lowering the hefty fee for everyone interested in building ADUs, city leaders are requiring Portlanders to make a choice.

If they want the full range of rental options for their tiny home, they must pay the full fee. If they want the five-figure break, they’ll have to rent the home to a long-term tenant. And don’t get any ideas. If homeowners get caught offering up short-term rentals over the next decade, they could face the full fee plus an additional 50 percent as punishment.

It’s tough to imagine another scenario in which the city would mandate which customers a local business owner can serve. And yet that’s exactly what they’ve done. Someone who builds an ADU and seeks to rent it — either for short-term visitors or long-term tenants — becomes a landlord. They’re running a business and it’s reasonable that a business owner should seek to recoup their costs for construction, insurance and maintenance.

ADU builders say the new rule likely will slow business a bit, as short-term rentals have allowed some owners to pay down the cost of construction, which can range from $50,000 to $100,000. Kol Peterson, an ADU consultant, told the Portland Tribune last week that may be the case, ultimately the permanent waiver brings more certainty that will help.

But in a city with a housing crisis, can we afford this practice of taking three steps forward and two steps back? Public officials here like to say some version of “we can’t build ourselves out of this mess.” To some extent, that’s true. Across the state, leaders must seek solutions on a variety of fronts, from providing rental assistance that keeps people in their homes to creating full-service permanent housing for our chronically homeless.

But there is no way Portland can make a dent in this crisis without construction. We need private developers building. We need the city spending the housing bond dollars to build deeply affordable housing. And yes, we do need citizens willing to help out, perhaps by building an ADU in their backyard.

In fact, Multnomah County tried in recent years to encourage that with a pilot program that could provide housing for homeless families. About 800 Portlanders signed up to help. But as county officials looked for potential sites, they found that restrictions with some of Portland’s zoning and construction policies, such as a fee associated with cutting down backyard trees, made those sites too complicated for the pilot.

Perhaps, as city leaders look for ways to encourage Portlanders to help solve our housing crisis, they can focus on lifting some restrictions — even temporarily — instead of creating more.

— The Oregonian/OregonLive,

May 9

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