Affordable housing touches on just about everything a city government does. That’s why it’s so complicated.
Which brings me to last week’s city council meeting. Your city council attended an hour and a half work session on homelessness. City employees outlined the history of the problem and how it’s growing here in Hillsboro. The chief of police talked about how officers are approaching the issue. A couple of homeless individuals told heart breaking stories of falling through the cracks in our society.
It was a comprehensive overview of the problem, from a variety of perspectives. And it was followed by a great example of why it’s so hard to do anything about it.
City Council voted on what is essentially low-hanging-fruit: an ordinance lowering the parking requirements for affordable housing projects. Such projects would be required to have one parking spot per unit, as opposed to the existing standard of 1.5 parking spots per unit for multifamily housing. Projects near public transit stops would have an even lower requirement: 0.85 spots per unit. The idea is that parking makes up a significant chunk of the cost of housing, so you can reduce the cost of affordable housing projects by lowering the per-apartment parking requirement.
The vast majority of ordinances that make it to the agenda pass without any discussion or votes against. Not this one.
Councillor Fred Nachtigal was visibly upset at the prospect, citing a concern about overflow parking.
“The notion that there is going to be anyone living in a unit who doesn’t have a car is extraordinarily optimistic in our society,” said Nachtigal. “It’s part of American culture to own a car, it’s a status symbol. And that’s continued, I believe, in people of my generation.”
Ultimately it didn’t matter: the ordinance passed first reading 4-2, with Nachtigal and Councillor Darell Lumaco being the only two votes against. There will be a vote for second reading during the next city council meeting on September 2, and it’s overwhelmingly likely to pass1.
But I still think this is worth talking about, because it touches on why even relatively progressive cities have such a hard time dealing with the issue of affordable housing.
Personally, as someone who gets around almost entirely on bicycle, I find Nachtigal’s arguments to be completely out of touch. I’ve never, while biking around town, thought that what Hillsboro really needs is more parking lots. Also, a lot of people who need affordable housing options can’t afford their own vehicles.
But let’s put those points aside, shall we?
Nachtigal’s argument is that reducing the parking requirement for affordable housing could result in less available on-street parking for nearby residents, which is a downside. Some people might need to walk further from their car to wherever it is they want to be.
Yes: that’s inconvenient. But every potential way for the city to encourage affordable housing has some sort of downside. City officials said as much.
“This is one of the relatively few policy tools…that the city has to support affordable housing,” said Chris Hartye, Senior Project Manager for the city. “Staff recognizes a few potential tradeoffs, but thinks the increase in housing supply will have a larger impact.”
The top local reason for homelessness, according to this year’s Hillsboro Point in Time Count, is that people “can’t afford rent.” The city, in attempting to implement one of the most straightforward ways to offset housing costs, couldn’t avoid controversy. I doubt things will get easier as we move onto the other tools Hillsboro is considering, like tax abatement (Less Funding For Schools!), land donations (That Should Have Been a Park!), and using city money to fund projects (Our Taxes Are High Enough!).
There’s no magic bullet here. Anything you do to offer affordable housing and offset homelessness is going to have an impact on something else. The issue is just too big for that not to be true. The problem is going to get a lot worse for the disadvantaged in our city if leaders, and residents, aren’t willing to face that.