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The city of Eugene as seen from Skinner's Butte Park. (Connor Cox/Emerald)

Mass demonstrations have spread across the nation over the past month, as people demand structural change and reform. This became a focal point in a recent City of Eugene work session, where the Eugene Planning Commission is attempting to prioritize the community in planning a more equitable future through an often contentious structural issue: housing and zoning.

This is possible through House Bill 2001, also known as HB 2001, which was passed back in 2019 with bipartisan support. The bill offered Oregonians a greater number of housing choices. It addressed something called the missing middle – a type of housing unit that includes duplexes, fourplexes and mansion apartments that can house multiple occupants, according to city documents.

This type of housing can easily be found in older areas of Eugene and Springfield, such as the Washburn and Skinner Butte areas. “Before the 1950s, we had a lot of these types already integrated into our neighborhoods,” Jennifer Knapp, an urban designer for the City of Eugene, said.

As Eugene developed, however, planners shifted toward single unit homes and it became harder and harder for the increasing population to find housing that fit their needs, said Sophie McGinley, assistant planner for the City of Eugene. This worsened when former Oregon Gov. Tom McCall implemented urban growth boundaries in 1972 to limit the expansion of cities.

Although beneficial in stopping urban sprawl that has plagued cities like Atlanta and Nashville, it helped cause “a housing crisis and one of the worst housing markets in the country,” according to McGinley.

“We are categorized as a severely rent burdened community, which means that people are paying for housing well outside their means and that creates an echelon of problems from there,” Knapp said. “There’s just not as many options for people.”

This statewide housing crisis, coupled with a complex history of residential zoning, has excluded low-income communities and communities of color across Oregon, McGinley said.

“To move forward, we must first look back and acknowledge actions in the past that have harmed and excluded members of our community,” said McGinley. “We cannot talk about zoning without talking about race and exclusion.”

Now, Eugene hopes to follow the lead of Minneapolis, where they implemented a similar plan two years ago that allowed middle housing in all lower density zoning areas.

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“It’s important to note that, although we’re adding more flexibility, the single family home isn’t going anywhere,” said McGinley. “Basically this will just allow more people of diverse backgrounds and incomes to live in more places, and that’s something that hasn't been possible in the past with zoning we’ve seen since the 1950s.”

Additionally, the units allowed by HB 2001 could give housing agencies more options for building affordable housing for low-income communities and people experiencing homelessness. However, this will not be an overnight solution. “We’re looking 20 years out in the future,” Knapp said. 

To meet those goals, however, the city planning commission wants more public engagement, said McGinley.

“It can seem like we’re in the ivory tower and doing things behind closed doors, but all the doors are open,” McGinley said. “We just need to make sure people know where they are.” McGinley said that if people speak up now and get involved with the process, it could shape where people can live in Eugene and “the geography of opportunity in our community.” 

“I know lots of people are looking for ways to dismantle systemic racism and there’s some [ways] that are really obvious and then there are others that we’ve just lived with for so long and are normalized or don’t seem like they could be used to perpetuate inequity,” she said.

The process for implementing HB 2001 in Eugene is still being designed by the Rulemaking Advisory Committee and Technical Advisory Committee, but these meetings are open to the public. The committees, which handle codes, minimum standards and rules, are open on Zoom while recordings are posted on their website

If community members are interested, there is still time to affect the process, Lauren Sommers, a lawyer from the City Attorney’s Office, said.

According to McGinley, the city planning commission is partnering with a Portland based non-profit called Healthy Democracy to focus on ways to bring the public to the forefront of planning. It plans to host engagement opportunities on social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit, as well as take advantage of Engage Eugene – the city’s community outreach platform. Information can also be found on the planning commission’s website.

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Nick is a news reporter for the Daily Emerald. Send him story ideas at nrosenberger@dailyemerald.com.