As cities around the state grapple with what’s been called “Oregon’s housing crisis,” Cottage Grove does not stand among them with any special immunity. Low vacancy rates and scarcity of choice have burdened home-seekers, reaching unbearable levels for many in a community with a high demand for affordable housing.
In a Jan. 28 City Council meeting, efforts to address the issue passed an vital milepost when councilors adopted new housing policies into the city’s Comprehensive Plan, effectively updating policies that had been in place since about 1980.
Though a housing analysis had been done back in 2006, the nearly 40-year-old policies were replaced last week upon the recommendations given in a Housing Needs Analysis authored by ECONorthwest, a Eugene-based economic consulting firm.
The report took inventory of housing and development potential, identified demographic and socioeconomic trends and presented a 20-year plan to meet the city’s housing needs. Adopting the recommended policies into the Comprehensive Plan represents a forward move for Cottage Grove.
“Why that matters is that any decision you make regarding your development code or any applications that come before the city council have to be based upon the Comprehensive Plan,” said City Planner Amanda Ferguson. “And so every time you return to bring in a new subdivision or change the direction of the city as far as how it deals with affordable housing … any of those decisions have to be made within the context of the Comprehensive Plan. And if your Comprehensive Plan is 40 years out of date, then you’re not looking at it in the current context of the community.”
Five policies were adopted, each with its own sub-objectives. The topics included monitoring land availability, finding opportunities for development, supporting affordable housing, coordinating infrastructure planning and identifying funding sources.
The Housing Needs Analysis also highlighted salient issues to be addressed. It was reported, for instance, that 47 percent of Cottage Grove’s households are considered cost burdened, which is defined as a household paying at least 30 percent of income toward housing costs. By contrast, 40 percent of Lane County households are cost burdened while the statewide estimate is 37 percent.
A dearth of apartments and an estimated vacancy rate of under two percent in Cottage Grove are often cited as reasons individuals and families rent or mortgage above their means. As such, the analysis also emphasized a need for low- and middle-income housing development.
The city’s options for addressing these development needs are limited, though, and mostly involve removing barriers within code or increasing incentives for organizations and developers.
Cottage Grove, on the lookout for partnerships, has recently found one in the Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation (NEDCO), a Eugene-based nonprofit focused on community revitalization and development. As early as June, NEDCO is planning to start work on a seven-unit single-family home land trust at the corner of 8th Street and Arthur Avenue, the land itself to be owned by the nonprofit.
In ECONorthwest’s 20-year plan, the report also suggested building an average of 69 dwelling units annually to meet the projected need of 1,379 more units by 2038, a number likely unachievable if single-family detached homes continue as a development trend. The report states that as of 2016, these homes make up about 75 percent of the city’s housing index.
Currently, 15 one-bedroom apartment units are under construction on the site of PeaceHealth’s old hospital at M Street and Birch Avenue. Such projects are seen as necessary to meet the report’s recommendation.
The analysis also identified 391 acres of unconstrained buildable land within the urban growth boundary. To effectively utilize the land, a strategy was needed.
The Department of Land Conservation and Development (DLCD), through the Oregon Housing Planning Project, has awarded the city with a grant to begin work on strategy implementation.
Cottage Grove’s update to the Comprehensive Plan enabled the city to apply directly for this phase of the process, partnering again with ECONorthwest.
Because there is a six-month deadline on implementing a new strategy, the city chose to make use of its time with consultants by focusing on three of the city’s newly-adopted objectives.
“We have some motivation and some movement right now, so we wanted to take that momentum and be able to utilize it for these policies,” said Ferguson.
First among the policy focuses is land availability.
“We are specifically looking at partnering with the school district to identify how we can utilize some of the surplus lands and how they can help meet our housing needs,” said Ferguson.
The old Harrison Elementary School as well as a large tract of land adjacent to the high school have been highlighted as potential sites, though discussions are still underway regarding eventual ownership.
Infrastructure planning to support residential development is another focus.
“We are also looking at what the implications would be for an urban renewal district,” said Ferguson.
The possibility of an urban renewal district has been floated as a way to fund the restoration of Main Street as well as other projects. How housing could be wrapped into these plans is a question the city needs to address moving forward.
Funding sources to pay for affordable housing also made the list of policy focuses.
“I think what became clear in the document was that we need housing for all different types of affordability,” said Ferguson. “We’re looking at different types, so not just providing single-family lots or single-family homes.”
Funding options include a Multi-Unit Property Tax Exemption, a tool which Eugene has used to encourage growth in its downtown area by allowing property tax exemptions to new multi-family units (five or more units) for up to 10 years.
“We’re already moving forward and looking at those specific things,” Ferguson said.
A report on the implementation strategies for the three policies is expected by the end of June, when the contract with DLCD expires. In the meantime, the analytical framework for addressing housing will guide the city's future.
“The analysis gives us a 20-year plan, but in 10 years we’ll come back and revisit these numbers and readjust,” said Ferguson. “This gives us a situational awareness.”