It feels like a long time since I last posted a blog. Council was out of session for Spring Break; and I followed that break with a week in Washington, DC for the City’s annual “United Front” lobbying trip. We returned to meetings this week in a hybrid format for the first time and with a loaded agenda. There is a lot to report, but I am going to focus on the two work sessions on Middle Housing and Building Electrification.
Monday’s work session on Middle Housing was an opportunity for staff to return with more information and clarification on questions asked at the previous session. They reflect concerns we are hearing from the public primarily about affordability, density, building heights, parking, solar protection, and tree coverage.
As a reminder, the state statute addresses availability and diversity of housing types; it doesn’t mandate or include affordability requirements. The elements of the proposed code that elicit the most concern are the elements that the Planning Commission has proposed in order to encourage or incentivize affordability. The call to implement the minimum state requirements will not result in any measures to promote more affordability.
Parking requirements, for example, match the State’s minimum requirements. They are relaxed IF the Middle Housing is near a transit corridor, has small units, or income qualified units (e.g. affordable.) This is an incentive – it is not a requirement, but an option.
Similarly building heights are a source of concern. The proposed increased height allowance of 35 feet matches the State’s model code in all middle housing types except in duplexes where the model code matches the state minimum of 30 feet while the Planning Commission draft raises permissible height to 35 feet. Again, this is intended to enable greater design flexibility to allow for a third floor.
Solar protections and tree canopy requirements are already protected in Eugene’s code and are the same for Middle Housing as they are for single family residential.
Finally, I will say that we cannot meet our housing needs without increasing housing forms that provide more compact, denser housing. The value of middle housing types is that they are not giant apartment buildings and can match the footprint and scale of existing single-family houses. And the proposed code includes thoughtful, surgical elements to encourage that more of those units can be more affordable.
This leads me to our second work session on building electrification. As a reminder, Council approved two motions in November 2021. The first directed the Manager to return with information about code changes the city could make to require all new residential, commercial, and industrial buildings to be fully electric. Leading up to this meeting, we have a received a lot of emails, and 81 people signed up to testify at Monday night’s public forum. There is both urgency to act quickly and decisively to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels; and fear that the Council’s action will literally turn off the gas.
The staff report provided valuable insights: amending the code to ban natural gas in new construction could be a relatively simple and straightforward change as long as the City’s code changes stay within our purview. If we consider more specific code language, the City might move into code changes that come under the authority of the State's Building Codes Division. It was clear from staff that this will be an iterative process with the State. I will add here that I have been appointed to the State’s Task Force on Resilient Efficient Buildings, which was formed to “identify and evaluate policies related to building codes and building decarbonization for new and existing buildings that would enable the state to meet the greenhouse gas emission reduction goals set forth in ORS 468A.20...” The Task Force met for the first-time last week, and I will bring our priorities and our concerns to the table in those meetings.
Second, the staff provided building permit data for natural gas infrastructure. In 2021, 83 percent of permits for one and two-family dwellings installed gas whereas only 12 percent of multifamily housing did. For the 10-year period, 2010-2020, 20 percent of commercial buildings installed gas.
And third, staff provided information on the measures adopted in other communities, predominantly in California. Most of them restricted gas in residential and commercial, but not industrial construction, and provided a range of exceptions. In particular, Council noted the exception for “Infeasibility” in recognition that a solely electric option was either not available or adequate.
Councilors in general discussed the relative merit and ease of restricting gas in new residential construction compared to the broader category of commercial construction. Council approved a motion directing the Manager to return before July 31 with more clarifying information and answers to the questions that were posed on Wednesday.
I will sum up this week of work sessions this way: change is hard. Our goal in creating the opportunity for more Middle Housing and in reducing our consumption of fossil fuels is to move the default setting in our community. We are not planning for a continuation of the community of the past – in housing constraints or energy use. We are planning for the City we need to become to meet the dual challenges of climate change and population growth. Those changes are in homes, businesses, and neighborhoods. People are understandably concerned – but we must do this work deliberatively and steadily, because the need for action is urgent.