Planning Commission discusses city housing issue

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local
The Planning Commission discussed housing at its Wednesday, Oct. 19, work session, sandwiching it around a regular meeting that saw the annexation of a piece of property.
According to Community Director Kelly Hart, to address a housing shortage “crisis,” Oregon requires cities with populations at or above 10,000 people to develop and implement production strategies to encourage more development — a process Lebanon will have to undergo again in eight years.
Portland consulting firm Cascadia Partners has researched and developed ideas for the city, with the Planning Commission responsible for identifying the best strategies.
Cascadia Senior Associate Rachel Cotton said that the company’s research included gathering information and input from local developers.
“Single-family housing is needed,” she explained. “The city is not producing it at the rate needed to meet the demand, so most of the strategies you’re reviewing are intended to incentivize more single-family housing for ownership. And it’s for the growth that’s anticipated; it’s not to attract additional people.”
The report acknowledged Lebanon’s “significant progress” in development for low- to upper-income households since 2019 but outlined a major housing need for very- and extremely-low-income households. However, Cascadia partner Jamin Kimmel said the latter was harder to incentivize for developers because the profit wasn’t high enough to make it worthwhile.
Lebanon’s codes already offer incentives for different development types, he said, but added that the report offered other strategies as well, such as reducing minimum lot sizes to encourage smaller single-family homes, allowing more cottages in a cluster-housing project, changing multifamily standards to allow for more units (four-story apartments, less open space areas) and providing more flexibility for housing in commercial zones.
Commissioner David McClain pointed out the report contained an example of how more units on a property could reduce minimum rents from $1,800 to $1,400. However, he continued, the market sets rent prices, numbers no one can anticipate for the future. Also, with 10 low-income apartment complexes already in the city, he didn’t know if more would solve the problem.
McClain added that previous planning commissioners had discussed at length the codes they set, and there were reasons behind the current standards.
“To me, I think we’re setting ourselves up for slums,” he said. “When you start packing people into a small area like cattle, you develop all kinds of social problems.”
There was plenty of information in the report to digest, he continued, and more time was needed to process it all. However, he added, an “absolute no-go would be to lower our parking standards,” because Lebanon didn’t have bus stops on every corner and cars would clog the neighborhood blocks.
“And these three- and four-story apartment buildings, my goodness,” he said. “If I had to throw a baby on one hip and a bag of groceries on the other and climb four flights of stairs, I think I’d be calling 911 by the time I got to the top. Personally, I think anything over one story should have an elevator.”
McClain also opposed reducing the system development charge as an incentive.
“I think there’s an SDC on every door, not unit or building,” he said. “If a developer wants to come in here and build a three- or four-story apartment complex, he’s got one thing in mind. His goal is to make as much money as he can in as short a time as possible.”
McClain added that when he looks at such a job as a contractor, he first determines how much he wants to make on it.
“So giving developers a break doesn’t necessarily equate to lower rent or lower house prices, because, again, I think the market’s going to set that,” he said.
Commissioner Dave Workman agreed with that sentiment in terms of giving developers a break on property taxes. He also asked how the decision regarding the need for more low-income housing was made.
“Low-income people are living here now and they’re living in some place,” he said. “What tells us we need more low-income housing and how does that quantify?”
Hart explained that a 2019 housing needs analysis, which the city accepted this summer, revealed that the existing low-income community lived in situations where they technically couldn’t afford their homes, bunking with other households or living in multi-family units, unable to buy. Based on current residents’ income and Lebanon’s projected growth, the city was expected to provide a certain number of affordable housing units to service them.
“We also have a responsibility to accept the fact that there’s going to be growth in our community and that we need to anticipate and provide services for our existing community as well as the projected growth,” she said.
McClain said the “old strategy” to lower housing costs was to build more apartments and let the market adjust itself. However, she added, it hasn’t worked.
Marcellus Angellford, who is new to the commission as an alternate, expressed concern about unforeseen or unexpected consequences if smaller lot sizes were allowed.
Chair Don Robertson responded by explaining that the commission rejected a similar proposal to decrease lot sizes and increase density earlier in the 2000s because it believed that the plan was not reflective of Lebanon.
“I’m reluctant to do a lot of code changes not knowing if the market is going to support it,” Robertson said, adding that the city already had zero lot lines and allowable townhouses, but developers had never taken advantage of those options.
Commissioner Tina Breshears, who is also Habitat for Humanity’s executive director, noted that she took advantage of the former option because her job was to build affordable homes for low-income families.
Development centers around market demand, Hart said, describing a period that saw a dearth of apartment construction until changing regional dynamics (the recent expansion of the medical college, for example) elicited a spurt of such growth. That, however, had changed, she noted.
“The market itself is telling us now that things are slowing down,” she said. “The market itself is telling us now that the number of apartment units and apartment development is slowing down. In comparison to what we’ve seen in the last couple of years, we’ve seen far less proposals for apartments this year and far more proposals for subdivisions this year.”
The market went through cycles, she explained, and she understood the community’s weariness with apartment construction. She added that the market hasn’t been building townhomes because of their poor selling history, which could be attributed to an unwillingness to share walls with a neighbor. The smaller-lot strategy provided opportunities for townhome-sized buildings that didn’t have such problems.
Hart continued that the work session was just the beginning of a months-long conversation, and that the commission needed to offer feedback on any strategies they “absolutely hate.”
“I know that we all want to see single-family homes, our traditional developments,” she said. “I think we have to recognize that – based on the population we have, based on the population progression – everybody needs a place to live, and we have residents here in Lebanon that are living in a way that’s unaffordable to them. So is there a service we can provide in the city that is going to make a more affordable option for them?”
Angellford said he liked the strategies that simplified the standards for developing infill lots and repurpose commercial space. Workman said more discussion of strategies was needed before removing any of them.
“There are a lot of residents that need housing,” Robertson said. “The demand is off the chart. I’m really torn. We’d like to provide that housing, but at the same time, do we want to compromise the character of the city?”
Breshears put community land trusts on the table (which Hart said would be discussed later) and noted that some of the strategies raised more questions. Can fire truck ladders reach four stories? Can they maneuver safely in reduced parking lot sizes? Will more buses and bus stops be needed?
Robertson added that higher density would also affect school capacity and infrastructure.
“All of the proposals we’re putting forward are going to have to be subject to code changes,” Hart said. “We will have to be in contact with the school district (and) our LINX bus drivers. We will have to work through all of that.”
She added that much of the city’s available properties for single-family homes would have to be built around wetlands, as current codes hinder such development.
Kimmell said he would provide data on parking and the number of cars in Lebanon, as well as ideas that focus more on small-town design standards, at a future meeting.
During its regular Oct. 19 meeting, the Planning Commission held a public hearing for and approved the annexation of 2.98 acres of vacant land east of the Santiam River, with frontage on East Grant Street and Berlin Road.
The comprehensive plan designates the site as residential mixed density, and the property is located within the city’s urban growth boundary. City water is available on Grant Street, but no city sewer exists for connection purposes. The owner would be able to develop with a septic system. According to city documents, development for the site is currently being proposed.
Commissioner McClain asked Engineering Services Manager Ron Whitlatch when he thought a sewer line would be installed.
“My guess is we may never see one over there,” Whitlatch replied.