To create affordable housing, we must legalize it.

I used to live in uptown Port Townsend and enjoy the pleasures of walking to the Farmers Market, patroing 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. 

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