To create affordable housing, we must legalize it | Housing Hub

Justine Gonzalez-Berg
Posted 8/5/21

I used to live in uptown Port Townsend and enjoy the pleasures of walking to the farmers market, patronizing coffee shops daily, and running into friends. 

Even at that time our household of …

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To create affordable housing, we must legalize it | Housing Hub


I used to live in uptown Port Townsend and enjoy the pleasures of walking to the farmers market, patronizing coffee shops daily, and running into friends. 

Even at that time our household of working young people was unique. I rarely saw kids playing in the streets, parents pushing strollers, or teens getting into good trouble. 

Mostly, I got to know which homes were always dark, which gardens were always lovely, and which neighbors were hand-feeding the deer. It made me wonder, what would it take to have intergenerational, diverse, and vibrant communities in the neighborhoods that are the most walkable, bikeable, and have the best access to goods and services? 

The most basic answer is this: We will need to legalize a greater variety of housing types. 

Most of Port Townsend is R-II zoning, which allows only for single family, detached homes and requires a minimum of 5,000 square feet of land per home (the typical lot size). To build a duplex in R-II requires a 10,000-square-foot lot, even though it’s legal to build a single-family home with the same footprint on a 5,000-square-foot lot. Not only does this not allow for the more efficient use of space and affordability created by duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and other smaller housing units, it also incentivizes the building of larger and larger single-family homes. 

Single-family zoning is being criticized nationwide for many reasons. Designating part of a city for only detached homes automatically excludes people based on wealth. This economic exclusion has, of course, significant racial implications. 

In addition, single-family sprawl leads to car-dependent lifestyles and increased encroachment on natural habitats. Conversely, a mix of housing types leads to greater affordability, reduces inequality, and is climate and habitat friendly. 

The golf course puts our options into perspective. Some Port Townsendites feel that developing the golf course will be affordable housing’s saving grace. Others feel developing it would be a theft of green space from future generations. 

If we recognize that new housing needs to go somewhere, Port Townsend has a choice: Either change the code to allow more types of housing in every neighborhood, or support the development of our remaining green spaces. The threat of not choosing either is to live in an ever older, wealthier, whiter, and more exclusive community with fewer businesses, fewer services, and less vitality. 

Port Townsend can change its zoning code to allow more types of housing. 

Other related changes could include reducing minimum lot size requirements, reducing or eliminating off-street parking requirements, and enacting density bonuses. Cities around the country are taking these steps. Oregon’s state legislature recently banned single family zoning nearly statewide. A key barrier is the time and community engagement that is required. These are significant processes for city staff and electeds to undertake, and city residents need to make it clear that housing diversity is a priority. 

Three years after living in uptown, I, and four of the five housemates I lived with there, now live in the county, which means we don’t have the same voice when it comes to advocating for Port Townsend zoning code changes. 

Yet these changes, or lack thereof, will impact whether our children can grow up here, whether our favorite businesses can stay afloat, and whether the town, on which the entire county relies, will remain viable enough to keep us here. 

(Justine Gonzalez-Berg is the Director of Housing Solutions Network and a volunteer board member of Olympic Housing Trust.) 


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  • forsho

    Very clear and well-expressed thoughts. The future is Walkable and the way we get there is to reinvigorate Uptown, with higher population density which can be reached in ways other than simply filling every lot with ADUs. The words, "...household of working young people" really resonate. It's being done in cities everywhere in North America, and I personally enjoyed the experience while in my twenties for a number of years. We can't simply build our way out of the current dilemma, nor expect young working people to have the available savings or inclination to buy existing single-family homes, or to build from scratch in town. The alternative, of living at some distance in the county, and commuting, is NOT an alternative, and it only taxes the whole community by encouraging what as become a rush-hour of single-occupancy vehicles leaving town at 5 pm.

    Let's re-inhabit Uptown.

    Friday, August 6, 2021 Report this

  • Lisertoo

    I am very sympathetic to the author's aims, but am wary of simple solutions. In the 1980's, the neighborhood I lived in in Seattle, Ballard, was rezoned to allow multi-family housing in what had been a traditional single-family neighborhood. In the rush to take advantage of the new market for multi-unit buildings, developers tore down dozens of historic homes, including many of historic significance. A group of neighbors and I engaged in a six-year campaign to modify the zoning to limit the size and shape of multi-family buildings, establish a design review process, and protect some surviving blocks of single-family homes. Since then, the City has continued work on standards for accessory dwelling units (ADU's) to make sure that they integrate successfully in urban neighborhoods.

    The take-home message is that density can be successfully added to single-family neighborhoods, but the community needs to be as concerned about the nature and quality of new construction as about its density. Upzoning is probably part of the solution but further tools - historic preservation, design review, and others - are needed to produce the vibrant, attractive, and inclusionary neighborhoods that the author champions.

    Saturday, August 7, 2021 Report this