By editorial board • 

Single-family crucial in affordable housing drive

Commendably, McMinnville’s well-publicized struggles with homelessness have led the city to make affordable housing one of its most urgent and heartfelt priorities. Not so commendably, some elements of local government seem to be taking an overly narrow and compartmentalized view of both the problem and solution.

The city is exploring ways to reduce barriers and increase incentives for multi-family complexes targeting homeless and low-income elements, and for tiny houses enjoying a trendy boomlet. All well and good, but periodic introduction of a homeless shelter or subsidized housing project won’t make much of a dent, nor is siting of the occasional tiny house in a back or side yard.

The rubber meets the road with the injection of affordable single-family housing into the mix. After all, that dominates local housing stock and the dreams of most Americans, particularly aspiring working-class families.

So, what was the planning commission thinking when it unanimously demanded more parking space, more open space, larger lots and lower densities in a new development proposed on McMinnville’s burgeoning west side? That sounds like a recipe for turning $200,000 houses into $300,000 houses and $300,000 houses into $500,000 houses, freezing out all but the most affluent among us.

The plan calls for two-car garages, two-car driveways and two-car street parking per house — six spaces in all. It’s curious to see why we would demand more barren asphalt, unless we are trying to create an auto-centric community where cars rate more than people.

Open space is nice, but it comes at a price. Ironically, the city was poised to break ground on a new adjacent park, but the unexpected planning commission rebuff, flying in the face of an approving staff recommendation, may force a year’s delay.

Smaller lots and higher densities represent the only realistic means of making single-family housing more affordable. The cost of labor and materials is fixed, but builders can cut land costs by reducing lot sizes, thus offering homes at a lower price point.

The lower-income strata may not be able to afford new construction in the outer rings of the community. But working families who can will be vacating suitable existing residences in the process, including manufactured homes, apartment units, duplexes and smaller, older inner-city residences.

Affordable single-family housing may not be vital in Lake Oswego or West Linn, but it most certainly is in McMinnville, where means are more modest. While it may not serve to directly move lower-income elements into new housing, it will do so through the domino effect.

Housing inventory is at or near an all-time low in the Willamette Valley.

An Oregon Business Journal story estimates pent-up demand in Yamhill County at 1,994 units or 8.3 percent. That’s almost double the 4.3 percent projected in Multnomah County, where Portland is caught in the acknowledged grip of a housing crisis.

Here’s hoping the city council will see the bigger picture. Here’s hoping it will strike a blow for affordable housing by approving this project at a density making economic sense for both builder and buyer.

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