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Housing strategy must be grounded in reality

If public policy could be cobbled from Post-It notes, McMinnville’s housing strategy for the next 50 years could be summarized in three words: Build more houses.

At an open house Tuesday, planners delivered a broad overview of their efforts. Then citizens were asked to identify challenges the city faces and offer solutions.

Writing their thoughts of Post-It notes, people overwhelmingly said McMinnville needs to develop more housing, particularly affordable housing.

Unfortunately, a master’s degree in urban planning doesn’t come with a magic wand.

The stone-cold fact is that demand outstrips supply when it comes to buildable local land. When new housing is introduced, market forces inevitably push prices upward.

To be fair, it’s difficult to reduce a cogent analysis of housing problems and solutions to a Post-It note. But telling planners McMinnville needs more affordable homes is like saying the Titanic needed more lifeboats.

Good idea. A little late and somewhat obvious, but a good idea. Now, how do you propose we go about it?

City officials have been doing their best to accommodate affordable housing in available nooks and crannies. They eased restrictions on mother-in-law apartments and other accessory dwelling units, as well as rentals tucked into commercial businesses.

Yet as planners continue to take inventory of buildable land, the data looks bleak. There are still vacant lots in the city, but they are scattered and often isolated. Any viable housing strategy needs to accept the reality that the amount of buildable land is depressingly finite.

McMinnville’s urban growth boundary is a belt that has grown too tight as the city’s population has bulged. It must be adjusted.

It is designed to loosen a notch or two every few years as the need arises. But it has been about 20 years since the last significant adjustment.

Yes, this is a difficult reality to accept.

Urban growth boundaries exist for a reason. They keep urban areas from overrunning and possibly spoiling the countryside. Oregonians enjoy breathtaking natural surroundings and have an almost autonomic revulsion to sprawl. But they can’t remain fixed in place indefinitely.

Affordable housing is a need throughout the region, particularly in the Portland metro area. Legislators are trying to address the shortage with bills limiting rent hikes, no-cause evictions and such. But legislation, whether at the local or state level, can only go so far.

Telling local officials to somehow invent more affordable housing is futile.

City officials do not develop subdivisions or build houses. They create laws and policies that occasionally protect renters, but mostly either encourage or impede development.

Those renters, fairly or unfairly, may well be hurt more by market forces than they are helped by legislation.

What policymakers need to do is accept the reality of such forces, if not the cruelty at times, and respond accordingly. Adjusting the urban growth boundary may not be a comfortable response, but at least it doesn’t rely on magic wands conjured up only in people’s imaginations.

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