Home Web system The struggle to provide housing for every Oregonian has been led by unlikely activists

The struggle to provide housing for every Oregonian has been led by unlikely activists


OPB senior political reporter Jeff Mapes has spent more than a year researching, reporting and producing “Growing Oregon,” a six-part podcast and web series examining the evolution of the country’s unique approach. Oregon on growth and its impact on our lives today. Here is the story behind the story. In part 1 we visited a time when Oregon’s farms and scenic beauty were under attack. In Part 2, we told how Oregon leaders managed to write the state’s unique and controversial growth limits. This is part 3. Listen to today’s story:

When Governor Tom McCall pushed and prodded the people of Oregon into producing our unique Growth Management System, he focused almost exclusively on protecting the state’s farms, forests, and other scenic wonders. .

He spoke of protecting Oregon from “grabbing the land’s trash.” He argued that nothing is “more precious than the state’s pristine environment.” And, in his distinctive Boston Brahmin accent, he lashed out at sagebrush housing estates and coastal condominiums.

What he didn’t say much was how Oregonians would live within these new urban growth boundaries, designed to keep the state’s countryside from sprawl.

“Originally, this was a growth management effort,” said Ed Sullivan, a retired land-use lawyer who has watched the system evolve from its inception. “It was intended to stop development in inappropriate places.”

Shaping growth-controlled urban and suburban life in Oregon was largely left to others — many of whom were people far less acclaimed or influential than McCall, the state’s most iconic governor.

One was a 1950s housewife-turned-citizen activist named Betty Niven. The other was a land use lawyer named Al Johnson.

As a result of their work, Oregon has developed an idealistic policy to ensure that our urban areas provide room for a wide range of housing that meets the financial needs of all Oregonians. Like any radical principle, it has been an ongoing struggle to make this reality. But Oregon now has the tools to do far more than states that allow communities to adopt zoning that prohibits all but high-end housing.

Pioneering civic activist Betty Niven grew concerned about her Eugene block. She ended up changing the way Oregon handles housing

betty niven

Courtesy of Robin B Johnson

In the early 1980s, seniors living in two high-rise buildings in Eugene were at risk of losing their homes because a new owner wanted to convert the buildings into condominiums.

That’s what legal aid attorney John VanLandingham feared as he opposed condo conversions at a Eugene City Council meeting.

The planning commission had already given its approval, accepting the new owner’s arguments that the city had no right to block conversions. The members of the Council received the same speech.

And then, “out of the blue,” VanLandingham said, “this little white-haired lady” stood up to speak.

Her name was Betty Niven. She said the landlord’s attorney was wrong. The city had the right to pass bylaws protecting the elderly.

“There you go,” VanLandingham said, “she had spoken to the national expert on condo conversions — a Chicago man she knew — and he explained all the pros and cons.”

This was Betty Niven at the height of her civic activism: precise, well-organized, and quick to get to the point. After she spoke… (click for full story)

Journalist-turned-lawyer Al Johnson saw the injustice in housing and pushed Oregon to be better

Al Johnson

Al Johnson

Courtesy of Wild Rivers Coast Alliance

Al Johnson shows me around fast-growing North Eugene, where he lives on the fringes of the city’s urban development.

“It’s a new neighborhood called The Reserve,” he says, laughing at the marketing used by the developers. “Of course, you always try to call things ‘preserve, reserve and enclave.'”

The truth is that much of it doesn’t feel like a country enclave or anything like that. The front lawns are small. The houses are only a few meters apart.

At one point, Johnson shows me a large apartment complex, built on the site of a former golf course. Townhouses and clusters of cottages will cover much of the rest of the route.

All of this isn’t what you once expected to find this far out in the suburbs – and still isn’t in most states. But Oregon’s cities are surrounded by urban growth limits, invisible lines that prevent developers from expanding into the countryside.

These dividing lines have created a different geography in Oregon. And Johnson, a semi-retired land use attorney, has shaped the look of Oregon within these limits of urban growth since… (click for full story)

Next week: Oregon’s growth rules govern where homes and businesses can go. They also govern how we move from place to place. And over the years, developers and environmentalists have repeatedly fought over how many roads we need. One of the toughest and biggest fights took place over Washington County’s Westside Bypass.

The Growing Oregon audio story is available through the OPB Politics Now podcast stream.

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