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Portland housing expert dazzles Corvallis committees

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A pair of Corvallis committees looking at housing issues got a jolt of adrenaline Wednesday night.

The Housing and Community Development Advisory Board and the Housing Development Task Force brought in Portland-based housing expert Eli Spevak, who wowed the two committees plus the residents in attendance with a one-hour presentation on … well, just about everything that comes under the housing umbrella.

Spevak, who played a role in the development of the CoHo Ecovillage project in Corvallis, discussed zoning and land-use, accessory dwelling units (ADUs), cooperative living, how to use the building code creatively, small home concepts, sustainability, affordable housing — and housing for those who cannot afford any.

The crowd and the committees applauded at the end of his show, something that doesn’t occur often at public meetings in town.

“I liked seeing your examples of stuff done creatively,” said Jim Moorefield, executive director of Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services. “Those are places I would want to live.”

Resident Karyle Butcher asked why Corvallis already wasn’t doing projects such as the ones Spevak shepherded through.

“It’s like Portland is somehow fluid and that Corvallis is rigid,” Butcher said. “You always hear that there is an old Corvallis that says ‘we can’t do that.’ Well, what are we going to do?”

Ward 8 Councilor Frank Hann, a member of the Housing Development Task Force, noted that the group has “put a lot of ideas on the table. We’re not throwing anything away.”

Interim Community Development Director Kent Weiss, who serves as the city liaison to the task force, added that the group has dug “only two or three inches down. Once all of the public outreach is accomplished eventually we’ll get to eight inches down.”

Planning Division Manager Kevin Young, who was in the audience along with other city planners, noted that many of the concepts Spevak brought up comply with the code in Corvallis, but developers often go in another direction.

Which brought into the open a major difference between Portland and Corvallis. Demand for student housing here leads developers to build large units in which students can be charged by the bedroom rather than affordable housing or "starter" homes.

Among the obervations/suggestions Spevak put forward:

• According to Census data households are getting smaller and smaller and yet the average house size has ballooned. The average household has declined from 3.8 persons in 1950 to 2.6 in 2008. And during that time houses have gone from an average of 983 square feet to 2,500.

• Portland housing is so expensive because if you have one lot and one front door that house is going to have to cost a lot. Conversely,  he showed photos of projects that turned that concept upside down.

• The building of ADUs (small houses on lots that already have a larger house) skyrocketed in Portland once the city waived the systems development charges that it used to impose.

• Increase density around parks. “Who doesn’t want to live near a park?” Spevak asked, while displaying zoning maps that showed a series of Portland parks surrounded by land zoned for single-family homes. Packing more people into a small amount of land would be less of an issue given the nearby green space, Spevak said.

Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9542. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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