Yesterday Salem Reporter published a piece on home-building in and around Salem, "Salem needs more housing. But the building industry has its own problems."
Its observations about the supply of labor and lumber were interesting. Hopefully they were accurate. When it turned to the supply of land, it was not accurate and presented the claims of builders as if they were a factual description the land supply and associated regulations.
Builders in the Salem area also say that there is a lack of suitable land to build new housing. The Oregon Legislature and local governments have sought to encourage denser “infill” development in existing neighborhoods. But builders say there are limits to the approach.
“I think it has some validity,” said Ryan Bloedel, co-owner of Bloedel Custom Homes. “But it’s not a solution to the larger problem, in my opinion.”
He said it’s more difficult to get an economy of scale with smaller infill development than open lots. The biggest issue the industry faces is a lack of lots, he said.
Oregon’s unique land-use laws require communities to designate where housing can be built. In Salem, most of that remaining buildable land is expensive.
The city of Salem’s most recent housing needs analysis shows that most of the vacant and buildable lands are in west and south Salem, which tend to have more hills. About 70% of the city’s land zoned for a home is on a slope, according to the analysis. About half the land designated for housing complexes such as apartments is on a slope.
At a minimum there are several claims here that really required a closer look with a both-sides balancing. Even better would have been not just to present competing interpretations and claims in a neutral way, but to try to determine what was true or closest to true.
|Surplus, rather than hills, is the theme|
The HNA says we have too much land zoned for single detached housing, and not enough for multi-family housing. Its focus is not on the "slope" of land. Inside, the analysis of the HNA discounts sloped land and assigns a deduction in developable capacity for the slopes. So its analysis accounts for hills.
Salem Reporter does not represent the HNA fairly, and uncritically accepts the spin offered by builders.
More generally, the piece does not examine the implied commitment to exclusionary, lawn-and-driveway zoning and development.
Criticism of the land supply hinges on a big assumption. There might not be enough land for homes if all the homes, the only homes, are single-detached housing on big lots. The company name of one of the people quote is significant. "Custom" housing is increasingly luxury housing, and the article should be more explicit about that.
The piece also doesn't factor in our autoism, the ways the big homes on big lots totally depends on cars and roads and gas, and whether we can in the future afford far-flung housing with longer commutes.
Even if some individuals can afford that kind of house, whole communities can no longer uncritically accept this as a norm. If we want to prioritize housing for everybody who wants it, we are are nearly certain have to make smaller homes and attached homes the norms rather than the big single houses of the 20th century.
The piece should at least be more explicit about the particular configuration of housing it purports to analyze, and not make the mistake of universalizing it.
There remains an opportunity to look at these factors of labor, lumber, and land in the context of Our Salem and a Climate Action Plan, as we look to the future, and not a retrospective look back at 20th century norms. The factors of labor, lumber, and land are very real constraints, and there is certainly more to say about them. But as they are presented here, the positions are ideologically motivated and not necessarily true or most accurate. The problem the builders have with land supply might just be their own problem, and not a problem the rest of us need to try to solve.