This was a challenging week for Council and for many of our constituents because of tension around Middle Housing.
Before we launched into the week’s round of Middle Housing conversations, however, Council’s Monday work session offered a presentation and update about jail services. This is another worrisome issue. Our Municipal Court, ably led by Judge Gill, has persevered through all of the challenges posed by the pandemic to ensure that people who are arrested and jailed receive fair and timely court attention. The court is now able to schedule in person court appearances for offenders, and has expanded into a new space in the courthouse where people can be diverted to Community Court, meet with service providers and arrange for community service alternatives to fines.
However, we continue to struggle with a serious deficiency in jail beds to house offenders of more serious crimes, and often people who need mental and substance use services are incarcerated because there is no safe alternative. As you probably know, the City does not have a jail but contracts with Lane County and with Springfield. Neither jurisdiction at this time is able to expand their services, which still fall below pre-pandemic levels.
It is fair to say that all Councilors recognize the implications of this shortage. It is one more level of our challenge in holding people accountable for their actions and we seek to work with our partners to build a stronger, diversified system to ensure that people are treated fairly, appropriately with respect to their condition, and face consequences that can help reduce repeat offenses. Jail is part of this; mental health treatment is another critical piece; and our investment in the Community Safety Initiative is also part of the solution. It is clear that Council is seeking a deeper conversation about accountability as we continue to face both unruly and/or criminal behavior in our neighborhoods.
Speaking of neighborhoods, the Middle Housing deliberation has fired up neighborhoods, particularly in South Eugene and downtown; and precipitated a deluge of testimony. We hosted one of the largest-ever public hearings two weeks ago; and this week expected a large number of folks to testify at the public forum. Adding to peoples’ concerns about the draft code was the frustration of the Zoom technology.
We are moving into a fully hybrid format for public forums and this week initiated the first phase of that. As with all changes, this one hit an unexpected bump and a number of folks who tried to sign up were not able to navigate through the more complicated Zoom requirement. Staff has now fixed it and will provide better trouble-shooting instructions next time.
On Wednesday, Council moved through a list of motions to adjust the draft code for Middle Housing that will be reflected next week in the draft ordinance. First up was a motion to approve only the State Minimum code in lieu of the Planning Commission’s proposal. I broke the tie to oppose this motion. I do not believe the minimum code moves far enough to enable Middle Housing to be built in our community, and that the reduced lot sizes and incentives to reduce costs to support more affordable units included in the Planning Commission’s code are critical code adjustments.
Following that vote, Councilors worked their way through a series of motions regarding parking, building height, lot coverage, and Short-Term Rentals. Their votes reflected their attention to public input. The allowance for reduced parking was restricted to a narrow band along EmX routes and the incentive was removed for smaller units. It was retained for income qualified units where again I broke the tie. I believe it is important that nonprofit housing providers have the flexibility to design housing that will best serve their residents and have the option of reducing their costs by eliminating parking requirements.
Councilors reduced the allowable building height to match the State’s minimum of 30 feet that is also the limit for single family residential.
Councilors unanimously turned down the motion to reduce allowable lot coverage from 75 percent to 50 percent after staff shared a slide that indicated that only lots larger than 9000 square feet would really be impacted by the reduction. Smaller lots cannot really cover more than about 65 percent of a lot after they allow for setbacks.
On Short-Term Rentals, Councilors decided not to address this in the Middle Housing Code. We will return with a full work session on this issue, which requires more discussion and community engagement.
These votes gave direction to staff for crafting the final ordinance. The record is open and people can still submit testimony. We expect to vote on the ordinance on May 18; but if necessary, can vote on May 23. The clock is running out and anything other than a minor adjustment will be hard to incorporate.