The Astoria Planning Commission on Tuesday voted to recommend development code changes that will allow property owners to build and rent out tiny homes and other accessory dwelling units on their land.
Drafted by Community Development Director Kevin Cronin, the amendments are meant to create more housing options by removing restrictions on development.
Astoria, like the rest of Clatsop County, has a housing shortage that experts have started labeling a crisis.
One of the City Council’s goals last year was to promote housing that Astorians can afford. Cronin said that encouraging accessory dwelling units — which include attached and detached structures, such as garages and converted spaces, such as basements — is a modest step toward addressing the scarcity.
The code currently allows these units “in certain zones under strict conditions,” Cronin wrote in a staff report. Since the units were added to the code in 2004, six permits have been sought, and only one unit has been built.
In response to community concerns expressed at a Planning Commission public hearing in September and discussed last week at a work session, Cronin added several provisions:
• Only one accessory dwelling unit will be allowed per property.
• The new units created after Jan. 1 cannot be used for short-term homestay or vacation lodging, like Airbnb rentals, only for permanent housing.
• The units must have one off-street parking space, in addition to the two off-street spaces required for the primary residence. But if on-street parking is available on a city street, built to a city standard identified in the Transportation System Plan, an on-street parking credit may be given for the unit instead.
• The height of a new detached unit shall not exceed 20 feet, or 80 percent, of the height of the main dwelling, whichever is less.
• The location of the entrance to a detached unit can be anywhere if the unit is built behind the main dwelling. In cases where the new unit is in front of the main dwelling, the entrance cannot face the street.
In addition, one year after the changes take effect, city staff will bring a report to the commission showing whether the amendments have been effective, and where they may need adjustments.
With these code revisions, “we’re not trying to solve the housing problem,” Commissioner Daryl Moore said. “We’re trying to take a little bite out of the housing problem by maybe adding a few options.”
The recommendation will head to the City Council for final approval.
Some people who spoke in favor of accessory dwelling units at the public hearing pointed to the harm caused by the housing crunch.
Kevin Leahy, executive director of Clatsop Economic Development Resources, said the North Coast is “seeing the impact on recruitment in our community, of some of the larger employers not attracting talent because they can’t find a home.”
If Astoria wants young entrepreneurs to move into town and help stimulate economic growth, he said, the city needs the housing stock to support them, their families and employees.
Nicole Williams, CEO of Clatsop Care Health District, said the district is having trouble recruiting nursing staff for its care facilities, in part, because of the housing scarcity.
“This has been a real struggle for us,” she said.
The health district recently shifted to a new food service management company but had to delay the contract, Williams said, because the company “could not find permanent places to live for their managers that they were transitioning to the area.”
The district has also lost caregivers because of rent spikes.
Last month, a number of residents said they worried the code changes would lead to new dwelling units cluttering up neighborhoods and spoiling their historic character.
Rachel Jensen, president of the Lower Columbia Preservation Society, spoke approvingly of the code changes while offering qualifications.
The city should approach accessory dwelling units “in a way that does not undermine the spirit of the city’s comprehensive plan and the historic preservation ordinance, and does not negatively affect the character and livability of our historic neighborhoods,” she said.
Though the society supports the prohibition on using the dwelling units as homestays, she said the text is inadequately written. It is conceivable, Jensen pointed out, that an owner could stay in the accessory dwelling unit while renting out the main building for short-term vacationers.
Linda Oldenkamp, a 40-year resident, cautioned that detached accessory dwelling units, over the long run, could have “extreme detrimental effects on the livability and historic character of our neighborhoods.”
“They probably would not be noticeable in a year,” she said, “but, year after year after year, they will be very noticeable.”
If dwelling units proliferate, deteriorate and become unsightly, she said, surrounding property values may drop, which is not fair to the neighbors who have spent years investing in their homes.
She suggested the Planning Commission look to the other housing-creation strategies outlined in the city’s 2015 affordable housing study — for example, setting up an ad hoc housing task force to devise gradual solutions that don’t put the onus on neighborhoods.
“Let us do this right, so that our city provides both affordable housing and protects its historic homes and neighborhoods,” she said. “We can do both. We must do both.”
Commission President Dave Pearson disagreed.
“I do believe this is compatible with the historic character of Astoria,” he said. “Nothing here supersedes the good work of the Historic Landmarks Commission. Nothing here supersedes the work of design review. All that still stays in place.”
With respect to historic preservation, Moore said, “Of course that’s important — essential, even, to the character of Astoria.
“But,” he continued, “where this proposal would allow (a detached ADU), you could, today, build a garage, or a shed for your garden tools. So I don’t necessarily see that allowing detached ADUs is going to create a huge problem in changing the character where that problem may have already existed, just in a slightly different form.”
Given that so few accessory dwelling units have been pursued, he said, “I can’t imagine that this is going to create huge demands and we’re going to see structures going up all over the place, especially in the more dense urban core here, where you’re just not likely to have the footprint to support another structure on your lot.”
When it comes to solving the housing problem, Cronin said, “there are no easy choices here. There is very little low-hanging fruit that we can bite off. We have a tough task ahead of us to try to solve this problem.”