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Housing Affordability Plans Won’t Work; Focus Instead on Civic Pride

May 10th, 2019 by dk

Eugene cannot remedy its affordable housing shortage for one simple reason. We won’t allow it. The only sure solutions — rent controls or endless subsidies — give government more control than we will surrender.

If affordability was all that mattered, a simple solution would be obvious. Start storing toxic waste downtown. Cheap housing would appear overnight, along with a few high-paying government jobs for people willing to wear hazmat suits. Simple isn’t always good.

Fortunately, city officials can encourage a broad spectrum of housing options by doing less than they are doing now. Loosening regulations slowly and watching how builders and buyers respond could go a long way toward promoting the sustainable infill that we say we desire.

The question then becomes, “How can we be sure market forces don’t move too quickly, upsetting what current residents value about their neighborhood’s character?” It’s a fair question, but, again, most easy answers invite heavy-handed government controls.

We’re back to the same conundrum. How do we guarantee citizens a wide array of housing choices without giving government officials Soviet-style authority to do the choosing for us?

It seems we have only two choices in this funhouse of residential economics — the roller coaster of market-driven pricing, or the merry-go-round of competing ideals. Either one will make your stomach churn if you can’t step away and clear your head for a while. Ready to try something completely different?

Here it comes: participatory budgeting projects.

These projects can create wonderfully unique points of neighborhood pride. If people want to stay where they are, market forces won’t tempt them to sell to higher bidders. Gentrification slows or stops completely. Neighborhoods become more resilient. I’ve seen it work in Rennes, France’s largest college town.

It could work like this. City leaders devote one-tenth of one percent of its general fund to participatory budgeting projects. That pot of money, $344,000, would be spread across Eugene’s 23 neighborhood association boundaries.

Each neighborhood would receive $15,000. How will residents spend that money to improve local livability and enhance neighborhood character? Proposals would come from residents, and it could be for anything at all.

A panel would vet each proposal, reviewing budget constraints, legal liabilities, and verifying technical qualifications. That’s the extent of government oversight, except to arrange a street fair where each neighborhood chooses which project they want funded.

This is done by giving every resident a bag of beans to be used in the voting. They can give a few beans to every project or they can give all their beans to the one they like best. A simple kitchen scale weighs the results at the end of the fair, and the funded project proceeds.

A neighborhood in Rennes loves its notable birdsong at dusk and dawn, so residents funded a birdhouse, outfitted with a microphone inside and a solar-powered speaker. Now everybody can hear baby birds nesting in the area, reminding residents every day why they wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

We want affordability without sacrificing desirability. Each neighborhood has a unique story. Let them tell it. Participatory budgeting projects simply amplify those stories.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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