College of Design Faculty Tackle Affordable Housing Crisis in Oregon

Kaarin Knudson at Better Housing Together eventCollege of Design Instructor Kaarin Knudson opens the 'ADU: Small is Beautiful' event May 14 at Civic Winery in downtown Eugene.

On the evening of April 8, College of Design Instructor Kaarin Knudson, on behalf of Better Housing Together, spoke to the Eugene City Council. She was at the public forum to advocate for a construction excise tax for affordable housing, a tax on building construction that would fund public subsidies to build new affordable housing.

“The next two years is the time to follow-through on recommendations to remove barriers to affordability and to steer our housing market toward our community’s needs,” Knudson told the city councilors. “To see different outcomes, we need to try new things. We need new partners, and it’s going to take a concerted effort on multiple fronts to accomplish more equitable and environmentally responsible outcomes.”

Later that evening, the city council approved a .33 percent tax that will go into effect July 1, and increase to .5 percent in July 2020. The Register-Guard called it “the most significant policy move to date by elected leaders to attract more publicly subsidized housing.”

Identifying a Crisis

This is the kind of public engagement and advocacy that Knudson wants to propagate through Better Housing Together, a local coalition of community members, nonprofits, architects, developers and other partners she helped found in 2017 to help address the affordable housing crisis in Eugene. The City of Eugene awarded Better Housing Together the 2018 Eugene Community Award. Associate Professor of Architecture Peter Keyes and PPPM’s Sustainable Cities Institute Research Associate Rob Zako are also on the coalition’s steering committee.

Through the coalition, Knudson and Keyes are partnering with the community to effect change, both in policy and urban and residential design. They are also bringing the issue to their students to investigate.

Kaarin Knudson and Peter KeyesSAE and PPPM Instructor Kaarin Knudson and Associate Professor of Architecture Peter Keyes.

According to data from the National Association of Realtors, Eugene has the second tightest housing market in the U.S., taking a backseat only to Seattle. Of all the housing in Eugene, only .6 percent is for sale. Since 1999, housing prices in Lane County have risen 78 percent, while rent costs have increased 48 percent, yet there has been only a 28 percent rise in wages. Sixty percent of Eugene residents spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and almost 70 percent of Eugene households cannot afford to purchase a home.

“Eugene has one of the biggest discrepancies between what people can afford to pay for housing and what they have to pay for housing,” Keyes explained.

Keyes and Knudson say one of the coalition’s largest accomplishments thus far is raising awareness that there is indeed a crisis now.

“If you’re like me; if you’re older and you bought your house 20 years ago, you don’t know there is a housing crisis in Eugene. You’re housing secure, you bought it at a reasonable price, and it’s not a problem,” said Keyes.

The Missing Middle

For the rest, Knudson and Keyes explained, it’s partly a problem of the “Missing Middle,” a term coined by the Berkeley-based architect and urban planner Daniel Parolek, whom Better Housing Together hosted at a community event two springs ago.

Missing Middle Housing

The Missing Middle is defined as the range of housing options that fit between detached single-family homes and mid-rise apartment buildings—think duplexes, townhomes, bungalow courts, row houses, and small courtyard apartments. Most households need smaller units than the detached single-family homes on big lots that dominate the residential building market, Keyes said.

“There’s a mismatch between the types of housing we need and the types we build,” Keyes said.

It’s not that Eugene, or Seattle, or Portland (ranked eighth on the list of cities with least affordable housing) have no examples of those middle housing options, it’s that due to a change in the zoning ordinances, those types of dwellings became very difficult to build after the 1940s.

“During the era when single-use zoning ordinances were being widely adopted across the country, the thinking was that housing ownership was largely for white families, and multifamily housing was for people of color and low-income families,” explained Knudson, who teaches architecture and urban design.

Many have pointed out, like the Seattle newspaper The Stranger and the San Francisco Chronicle, that policy that makes it nearly impossible to build Missing Middle housing is discriminatory to minorities and low-income populations.

“The absence of housing options that are affordable and resilient, allowing households with lower levels of income and different family types to weather life’s changes and challenges is a huge part of the carving out of the middle class that has happened in the U.S. over the last several decades,” Knudson said.

Keyes and Knudson say the State of Oregon has had to step in with new housing legislation because many cities have dragged their feet on addressing affordable housing. In 2017, Oregon passed SB1051 to allow legal accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on all single-family-zoned properties in cities across Oregon. ADUs, essentially mother-in-law or secondary apartments, provide greater density of housing within the Urban Growth Boundary while also providing more affordable housing options. However, the city of Eugene has yet to remove the red tape around building ADUs, which should now require a simple permit application.

“It may be technically possible to build ADUs in Eugene, but the complexity of the process makes it really difficult”, Keyes said.

In the Classroom

While Better Housing Together is advocating the city comply with SB1051, Keyes is taking the issue to his students, encouraging them to start imagining communities where ADUs and middle housing are common and well-designed.

Architecture student presentationArchitecture alum Cameron Ewing presents his 'Golden Girls' project for Keyes' architecture studio (left); ADU design by architecture student Elizabeth Vergillo (center) and Vergillo presenting designs at 'ADU: Small is Beautiful'

In the past two years, Keyes has taught two architecture studios where undergraduate and graduate architecture students, who were embedded in 15 different Eugene and Springfield neighborhoods, analyzed sites that could potentially work for Missing Middle projects. Students chose to design housing units for a wide range of household types, including very low-income single people, low-income families, and senior couples.

For Knudson’s upcoming design studio, she is asking her students to focus on inclusive urban design and architecture, which parallels the Better Housing Together goals for the coming year. The coalition will be partnering with the NAACP on outreach, as well as reaching out to the renter demographic, a population that rarely gets to provide feedback about their housing needs.

“The equity component in this work is really important,” Knudson said. “We do not do a good job as a community of engaging underrepresented voices continually in planning processes. The discontinuity is disempowering, especially when so many in the community are renters, people of color, or low-income residents. We’re hoping to be able to work with our partners and deepen that engagement and build advocacy.”

Affordable Housing: Small is Beautiful

On May 14, Better Housing Together hosted the downtown event “ADU: Smaller is Beautiful,” with speakers Allison Bryan (MArch ’07), architect of El Nido, an award-winning 800 square-foot cottage featured on the 2019 AIA Home Tour; Amanda Petretti (MArch ’07), architect of the “STUGA” cottages, a suite of permit-ready modular designs featured at the International Builders Show; Kol Peterson, author of Backdoor Revolution: A Definitive Guide to ADU Developmentand national expert on ADU design and construction; and PPPM Pro Tem Instructor Richie Weinman, who worked in the City of Eugene Development Department and built one of the only legal ADUs in Eugene in 2018.

Knudson says this will be the first of a series of similar outreach events rounding out 2019.

“In this next year the focus is on connecting the dots between design, community need, and the political will to support more housing options,” Knudson said.

“We want to start saying, ‘If we do this, this is who it could serve, this is how it could work in neighborhoods, and this is how much of our crisis we think it could start to solve’,” Keyes added.

Better Housing Together eventSCI's Rob Zako (left) and Knudson (center) with 'ADU: Small is Beautiful' speakers; Speaker Allison Bryan (MArch '07) presents an ADU her architecture firm built in Portland.