A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

More affordable housing in Albany? Fat chance

Written May 17th, 2021 by Hasso Hering

Traditional new housing in the Takena Estates subdivision in West Albany, as seen last week.

As far as planning projects go, the Albany City Council has made “housing affordability” its top priority. But no matter what the planning division comes up with, don’t expect housing to become less expensive or more “affordable” to more people any time soon.

Albany had about 21,000 households last year, according to the Census Bureau. Just under 60 percent owned the places where they lived, and 40 percent were renters. A city-commissioned study of housing needs found that more than 50 percent of renters spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent. And for a quarter of all renters, housing took more than half their income.

Demand for housing will stay strong. Albany is projected to add between 16,800 and 23,300 new residents over the next 20 years, requiring between 6,750 and 9,400 additional housing units.

If Albany wants to make housing less expensive, it has to increase the supply of housing at a rate greater than the demand is growing. How likely is that? Not very.

The legislature has mandated the end of single-family zoning and is requiring cities to allow so-called “middle housing” in all residential zones. But Oregon’s land use regulations remain in effect, and they are a Byzantine thicket of complicated provisions, some of which contradict each other but give rise to appeals and lengthy delays.

Remember the multiple housing project at Fourth and Calapooia in Albany. The applicants were dragged through a couple of years of process in the interest of historic preservation, only to have their project appealed to the Land Use Board of Appeals. Just now, this month, has this board sent the case back to the city for more process.

The simple way to make housing less expensive is to dismantle the factors that add to the expense. That would mean repealing many zoning districts with their development standards including use and height restrictions. It would mean dropping system development fees that add tens of thousands of dollars to the price of a house. (But then who would pay for the additions to streets, utilities and parks that growth demands?)

Oregon has done other things that make housing scarce and thus more expensive. How about the rent control law passed by the 2019 legislature? How about the law banning no-cause evictions? And now we have the Covid-emergency edict extending a moratorium on evictions for unpaid rent. With all that, why would developers rush to build more places to rent?

The Albany council can’t do anything about the causes that make housing so expensive in this state. They can talk about it, and they will, but that’s about it. (hh)

20 responses to “More affordable housing in Albany? Fat chance”

  1. Delfina says:

    Check out the price of lumber these days. The forest fires and the pandemic have raised the cost of lumber considerably.

    • HowlingCicada says:

      Correct (either tripled or quadrupled depending on whose math is least screwed-up). Also, many other raw materials, and labor cost. Most of that increase will be temporary. “This time it’s different” will prove false just like in 2005, our previous unsustainable boom time.

      Add to that the inevitable increase in mortgage rates which will force prices down, because prices are whatever the market will bear and the vast majority of sales are of existing houses, where new-building costs are mostly irrelevant.

      All in all, now is a really bad time to buy.

    • Patrick John Quinn says:

      I do not totally agree with you on this, I truly believe greed has the majority of cause of this inflated lumber prices, just like the gas shortage of 1973…Pure greed. I believe they use a different terminology to make it sound less onerous, “supply and demand.” just my opinion.

  2. HowlingCicada says:

    This ragtag neighborhood, mostly without sidewalks, is one of my Albany favorites, or at least it would be if it had fewer cars and RVs. So, now we have “traditional new housing” at twice the cost, half the charm, and sidewalks that will seldom be used.

    What new housing has anyone seen the last 30 years that isn’t either “traditional” or overblown McMansion? Something has gone wrong. To preserve my sanity I should stop trying to figure it out.

  3. Jacko Johnny Jaques JJ Hartman says:

    The author opines: “The Albany council can’t do anything about the causes that make housing so expensive in this state. They can talk about it, and they will, but that’s about it.”

    What precisely is the author griping about. For decades, the author has complained about government overreach and excessive government interference and government rules destroying the nation.

    Yet in the instance of affordable housing, the author seems frustrated that the government (City Council) can only talk. The City cannot make any progress toward the affordability issue.

    So which is it? Is the City government overly intrusive, or is the City government ineffective, unable to accomplish much of anything? The author seems to want it both ways, as long as City government agrees with the author.

    • Nathaniel says:

      Progress toward affordable housing would be cutting regulations and zoning rules. Have you ever tried to build something in Albany? (Or in most towns in Oregon to be fair) Two years of delays and meetings and fees, 6 months of actual construction.

  4. thomas earl cordier says:

    And talking about it is all they should do. The push for “affordable” housing stems from
    an equity view of the way things should be (equal outcomes). The free market should determine the price of housing. Poor education, a poor work ethic, poor life choices limit ones ability to afford desired housing. The City has no responsibility here. The City is not damaged at all due to lack of “affordable” housing.

    • HowlingCicada says:

      “Equal outcomes” is a strawman argument used by conservatives to downplay massively unequal opportunities. The biggest contributor to unequal opportunity is the huge disparity in generational wealth between different identifiable groups. For one of several causes, see:

      Born-poor individuals within those groups have done well and are heralded as shining examples of American opportunity, as they should be. Statistically, the picture is far worse, and very damaging to the whole country.

    • Cheryl P says:

      “The push for “affordable” housing stems from an equity view of the way things should be (equal outcomes).”

      No, it stems from a lot of greed. The average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in Albany, according to Zumper.com, is $1023, an 8% increase from the previous year. Now I make a fairly decent living, but that’s 38.3% of my net (after taxes). I also pay for health insurance…which has doubled since ObamaCare, which would put my housing cost at 46.4%. Fortunately for me, my landlord isn’t greedy so my current cost is 29.1% (after tax and insurance). 29.1% vs 46.4% is a significant amount.

      “Poor education, a poor work ethic, poor life choices limit ones ability to afford desired housing.”

      That’s some serious male bovine excrement! We all have to start somewhere. When I graduated high school, minimum wage was $2.65. Because of training I received (no longer taught), I was able to get a job for $3.25/hour and in a few months, I had saved up enough to get my first apartment. You can’t do that today. Even if a person makes $15.00/hour, after taxes their housing costs for a 1-bdrm would be 49.2%.

      Everyone, regardless of income level, should be able to afford basic housing. A single person making minimum wage should be able to obtain basic housing…it’s the whole purpose behind ‘minimum wage’, to provide for the basics of life…housing, clothing and food.

      We have a ‘housing crisis’…NOT because of “poor education, a poor work ethic, poor life choices”, but because the cost of housing that skyrocketed. I saw an ad the other day for 40-year old 2-bdrm, 1 bath single-wide trailer…rent was $1300…plus all utilities, AND first, last, deposit and application fee.

  5. Abe Cee says:

    Who defines what is “affordable”? A family of four with income of $150k has one definition. A family of four with income of $50k has another. And that doesn’t factor in the thinking that some people seem to have that a minimum wage job should provide all the things that higher paying jobs provide.

  6. Steve Reynolds says:

    That about sums it up HH, most people are moving to Oregon to get away from the high density issues and sprawl down south and they have a lot of money to do it, most housing transactions are now done in cash… When I listen to the Albany’s affordability calls, they spend hours on end defining the most mundane detail of the type of development for a particular zone, it is kind of amusing because the state is ultimately going to take over planning and this is just a feel good exercise on the local level, the state is going to do whatever it wants. Salem likes to treat Oregon like it’s one big city in one of these large metropolitan state, it’s the closest they can get to being like a Los Angeles, Chicago or New York, Oregon’s population is only about half of some of the major cities south of us, Salem needs to count everyone as one entity to feel like they belong in the big blue club. It occurred to me on the last planning call, that the one question that seems most relevant has never been asked, like HH pointed out, what is “affordable housing”? The lowest end housing in Albany runs about $250 to $300K which is about half of what it runs down in comparable areas in the state south of us. I also hear the planning commission members talk about how a development type in the new system is very doable at say $200k to develop a cluster unit on a small lot (lot price not included), I guess that’s affordable now? I would be curious to know what is the City of Albany’s definition of “affordable housing” on a cost basis? It’s affordable to people coming in from out of state .Should we just say we have housing under $300k available, it’s affordable look how many can afford it. .

    We won’t even get into the ramifications of trying to fund city services and costs on the back of housing, unfunded mandates from the state, and price controls on the side of the equation that collects to pay for the city services but no price controls on the expense side of the city service, what that does to the affordability equation? But the old saying still stands, you want to stop something…tax it.

  7. Birdieken says:

    The only way to get affordable housing is for the government to subsidized or socialize it. If you want affordable housing stop taxing home ownership! Housing seems to be one of the last American freedoms within a capitalist society, the freedom to choose where to live. You get what you earn, life isn’t fair and freedom isn’t free.

  8. Bob Woods says:

    Developers build to address the housing segment they want, and what those buyers can afford. Right now, the market is HOT and prices are zooming up because of demand. We built a retirement house to downsize and moved in June of 2019. It’s value on Zillow today has increase by 24%.

    That’s the market at work. It doesn’t have anything to do with govt requirements, it’s just demand. Probably because a lot of people think interest rates will skyrocket.

    But I’m old enough to remember the 80’s when people were paying 14% on a new mortgage. We’re a LONG way from that.

    • Steve Reynolds says:

      “It doesn’t have anything to do with govt requirements”

      Please Bob… I understand you’re pro-government but at least acknowledge reality. All of this was put in place by Governor McCall and this is what Oregonians want to some degree. You move to Oregon because of things like the UGB, water acts that cleaned up the Willamette, the heavy emphasis on preserving protections for forests and wildlife, there’s no doubt these are expensive government programs and severely limit (cheap) supply. The question is how much is too much government? When do we start experiencing overreach or political agendas that have very little to do with Oregon and it’s beauty but actually are being pushed by those for political purpose regardless of damage being inflicted? I can’t tell you how heartbreaking it is to see some of the consequences, the sadness of flying into Portland and seeing what was once a beautiful entrance into the state and now seeing mounds of trash piled up against the green canvas. It’s terrible what’s happening.

      • HowlingCicada says:

        Excellent. More arguments leaning conservative should be like this.

      • Bob Woods says:

        What McCall did was brilliant. It saved agricultural land from leapfrog sprawl, which exponentially increase government costs by extending utilities and services ever farther form the cities.

        The rest of your comment talks about government overreach. Government provides what the citizens want. It’s a representative democracy, and the winning voter have had their say with the officials they elected. That’s not overreach.

        Don’t take what’s happened in Portland as inevitable and irreversible. You need a longer time horizon than 20 months or so.

        The homeless problem is a big driver, and I for one think it’s time for serious discussions on whether involuntary commitment standards for menially ill people are strong enough. It is a really tough issue and I don’t know what the answer is.

  9. Brian McMorris says:

    Good suggestions Hasso. I find myself in agreement with you most of the time. You must be a libertarian because I am. I would note there is no point in bashing developers. They are obligated to work for “maximum profit”. That is how private business works. I have not ever seen a more efficient approach than private enterprise and market forces. The problem, as you go on to point out, is inefficient zoning and permitting with conflicting layers at all levels of government. There is your problem that makes housing so expensive. And you are correct, too, that the only way to drive down housing costs is for supply to exceed demand. No where on the West Coast is that allowed to happen. Instead, all the inefficiencies mentioned limit supply while liberal economic and social policies attract a lot of people creating excess demand. It is government run amuck. The less government the better. Get these “do-gooders” out of the way and problems will solve themselves.

  10. Sharon Konopa says:

    As I have stated for years, if you got rid of every regulation in this state and paved over this whole valley with housing, there is no guarantee what’s built would be affordable. That includes all income levels, as new housing is market driven.

    Hasso makes a very good point and I agree. This is an issue the City Council is wasting their time on. Every state in this nation has the same problem with the lack of affordable housing. This is not just in Albany or Oregon.

    A doable piece for a solution that I have brought up several times is, put the pressure on our federal leaders to majorly modify the HUD housing voucher program. The income eligibility requirements for a tenant needs to be raised to qualify for the rental market they live in. A low wage earner is being priced out of the market. Builders have built loads of apartments the past few years in Albany and more are coming. But a low wage earner can not afford to rent a place and median income workers are priced out of the market to buy a home.

    Local government should not have to subsidize more housing and then more people end up moving here. HUD is the agency to address this problem and it would apply to every state.

  11. Albany YIMBY says:

    The problem we face is that potential future residents can’t vote and won’t show up to planning meetings, while current homeowners, many of them NIMBYs invested in assuring their property values are untouched do show up reliably. They are also disproportionately wealthier, whiter and older. They are effectively gate-keeping access to housing against their own children, and the workers they need in their business or to take care of them as they age.

    HB2001 is a fantastic way to allow for diversity in housing options in Oregon cities, and it just needs to be implemented in a way that is fair and straightforward.

    One example is how Los Angeles is now designing different plans of ADUs that are pre-approved. This would be a good idea to copy. If we want to make sure the city keeps some kind of cohesiveness while streamlining the permitting process, having pre-approved plans would allow for developers and homeowners to think about turning their single-family home to a multi-family home and earn some money in the process.

  12. Rich Kellum says:

    Interesting responses, Sharon and I disagree as we always have about this, the more housing that is built the less pressure on price so people move from where they are to nicer places for the money, that empties a not so nice place for less money…. law of supply and demand.
    Land use planning limited the amount of land that was available so the price went up… period.
    Spotted owl limited the timber cut so the price went up……..Streets used to be built by the city and now it is the builder…….so the price went up
    Fees for government skyrocketed adding directly to the price going up
    Government response to Covid limited who could work and how many in mills etc so the price went up again…
    We now expect a single generation to be in our home most of the time, what used to be a big house with 4 generations in it is now 5 houses=== more demand.
    Accoutrements in houses make it cost a lot more, sometimes because we want it and sometimes because now government demands it… so the price goes up…
    My Grandmothers house had 2 outhouses for when the one toilet inside that was put in in the 1930’s was busy….. now that is illegal
    Poor people lived in tar paper shacks, tents, houses without running water, dirt floors, took a bath once a week, hung their clothes on a line to dry after washing them by hand…
    We have a Welfare system that encourages single mother households, which demands more housing….
    We have done this to ourselves, as I have said many times before: “We are regulating ourselves into oblivion.”


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