The Forgotten Answer to the Affordable Housing Crisis – Eugene Weekly
Melissa McReynolds reclines in a fluffy black folding chair in her upstairs apartment at 10th and C streets in Springfield. Behind her, a mountain bike hangs vertically on the wall, freeing up valuable space in the compact living room. Her orange and black tortoiseshell cat, Ava, crouches under McReynolds’ chair, green eyes fixated on something outside. McReynolds smiles and follows Ava’s gaze out the rain-streaked window.
“I just love the view,” she says. “When the weather’s nice you can see Spencer Butte.”
Aside from its unusual color scheme — half baby blue, half white, with a yellow front door and slidable, rustic wood shutters — the four-bedroom house in Springfield demands no more attention than the adjacent houses. To its right, a sloping wooden fence separates the property from the neighbors’ squat, sand-colored bungalow. A high school lies directly across the street.
C Street Co-op was developed by Eugene architecture firm Cultivate Inc., and by local nonprofit affordable housing developer Square One Villages. Its subsidized funding and communal ownership structure makes it affordable to people making below-average income who otherwise couldn’t afford to live in a desirable neighborhood like C Street’s. And by giving residents partial ownership of the property, they can tap into its appreciation value, meaning they can sell their unit for more than they bought it for when they decide to move out.
McReynolds lives in a smaller, two-story house in the backyard — sea-green with the same bright yellow door.
McReynolds, a 53-year old caretaker at a retirement community and lifelong American Red Cross volunteer, has lived in the Eugene-Springfield area since 2017. She moved from Nebraska with a close friend as a way to celebrate her father’s recovery from a severe mental illness.
“I was at a great point in my life,” McReynolds says. “I just felt really free to do something exciting and perfect.”
While she loves the area’s weirdness and the warmth of its people, she’s had some bad luck with renting. Her last place was a single bedroom in a private house. She shared a bathroom and a kitchen with her roommate, who was also her landlord.
After multiple rent raises, she received an eviction notice. Her landlord-roommate had run into some personal troubles, causing him to become volatile towards McReynolds and leading to conflicts between the two. She’d been evicted before, but still shuddered at the thought of house hunting in today’s competitive market. And having just had a double mastectomy for breast cancer, she was short on cash, too.
“There just aren’t any places available,” McReynolds says. “And if you do find a place that’s available, it’s probably not affordable.”
But now she doesn’t have to worry about rising rents or eviction notices. Her home on C Street is a limited-equity cooperative (LEC), which means residents aren’t renters — they’re owners. Each of the six units has a private bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchenette, and each of its residents pays a set monthly fee to share ownership of the co-op and take on maintenance responsibilities.
Amid rising rents and an increasingly competitive housing market, the C Street Co-op offers an overlooked affordable housing model that could alter perceptions of what it means to be a homeowner. If implemented on a large scale, co-ops like C Street could provide a gateway to homeownership and wealth accumulation to people stuck at the bottom of the housing ladder, whose wages cannot keep up with rising rents.
McReynolds and the five other C Street residents share a backyard and have the freedom to landscape and renovate as they please, as long as they all agree on the details. After a $10,000 buy-in paid at move-in, each resident pays $788 a month. This covers all housing costs, including utilities, mortgage, insurance and maintenance. The six residents make up the co-op’s board and make collective decisions about everything from paying bills to security, landscaping and parking spaces.
C Street is the only affordable limited-equity co-op of its kind in the Eugene-Springfield area. But elsewhere in the country, LECs are a tried and true method for creating affordable homeownership opportunities in competitive housing markets.
According to the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) — a New York City-based co-op support group — the first housing co-ops in the U.S. were built in New York in the mid-late 1800s, and their development through the early 1900s was largely tied to labor unions and European immigrants. Now, there remains a higher concentration of co-ops on the East Coast than the West Coast, which UHAB executive director Andrew Reicher says is a result of historical and demographic differences between the two regions.
“It’s got a longer history here,” he says over the phone from New York. “And there was a demographic population that was more disposed to it. There were unions that supported them, and there were a lot of political and cultural groups that were trying out cooperatives.”
Cultural factors might also play a role in communal living’s compatibility with an urban, East Coast lifestyle. People in the West tend to place a higher value on living in single-family homes than East-Coasters, who are often more open to apartment living, Reicher says. But as cities grow and housing markets become more competitive nationwide, there are a growing number of reasons to build more co-ops in every city.
Beyond the economic benefits, co-ops could offer advantages to their communities that rental housing can’t. People who live in rentals tend to move more frequently than people who own their homes, Reicher says, so more co-ops would mean more homeowners who intend to support their community and remain there for a long time.
“Co-ops turn into communities,” he says. “The people are homeowners, they’re on a board of directors, they have the agency to do things that care for their building and promote their community.”
UHAB estimates there are around 160,000 LEC units in the U.S. today. During the 1960s and 1970s, when a surplus of federal affordable housing money led to a boom in LEC development, there were nearly twice as many LEC units, Reicher says.
But the affordability restrictions that came with this federal money expired after a few decades, allowing residents to put their co-ops on the housing market and effectively removing the limits that kept them affordable. Once this happens, per-unit costs are free to increase and fluctuate with those of the surrounding properties.
“One of the important features of limited equity co-ops is that they’re permanently affordable,” Reicher says. “You can solve the affordable housing problem once and expect it to be affordable for generations.”
To keep C Street affordable and avoid the risk of residents voting to put the property on the housing market, Square One Villages owns the land through a community land trust, which allows the company to maintain control of its value. This way it can remain affordable over time, even as the surrounding neighborhood becomes more expensive.
“We’re effectively removing this housing from the market,” says Square One project manager Andrew Heben.
Square One only allows C Street’s resale value to increase by 3 percent per year. Residents who decide to move out can still make money when they sell, but the real estate will remain far cheaper than the surrounding properties.
America’s affordable housing crisis is deepening. Rents are rising faster than income, creating a widening gap between what renters can afford to pay and the cost of market-rate rentals. According to census data compiled by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, median renter household income increased 3.4 percent from 2001 to 2019, while median rents rose 15 percent.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines a household as housing cost-burdened if more than 30 percent of household income is spent on housing costs, limiting the money available for other basic necessities like food, clothing and transportation.
HUD defines low-income households as those whose total household income is 80 percent or less than an area’s median household income (AMI), and very low-income households as those that earn less than 50 percent AMI. In Eugene, the area median income is $50,962, while in Springfield, the area median income is $47,695, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The C Street Co-op is targeted to people who make 60 to 80 percent AMI, or $28,617 to $38,156 in Springfield.
According to a 2021 report put together by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, about half of Oregon’s low-income renters — the co-op’s target demographic — are housing cost-burdened.
While there are no easy solutions, housing researcher Jenny Schuetz says much of the problem stems from low housing supply.
“Larger cities where there are really strong job markets haven’t quite been keeping up with housing demand,” Schuetz says. “There’s just a need for a lot more housing to accommodate population growth.”
The majority of buildable land in the Eugene-Springfield area is reserved for single-family homes — the kind of house typical in residential neighborhoods. Zoning laws restrict the development of middle housing — housing types that increase neighborhood density and are typically more accessible to low and middle-income renters, like duplexes, triplexes, cottage clusters and rowhomes. This limits the area’s overall supply of available housing and keeps the majority of the city’s land accessible only to those who can afford single-family homes.
Schuetz, who works for the Washington, D.C., think tank Brookings Institution, says that restrictive zoning has led to a housing shortage in many areas, allowing the wealthy to take control of the housing market. Wealthy families who move to an urban area — who in Lane County, tend to be California transplants — can pay more than lower-income families for existing properties that might otherwise sell for less.
The wealthy families win the bidding war, leading to neighborhoods filled with people who can afford to pay higher housing costs and allowing developers to charge more for new developments. The end result, Schuetz says, is lower-income people being forced out of the housing market entirely.
“If the market isn’t building enough new housing, middle and upper-income households are still going to live someplace, they’re just going to compete for the older existing housing,” Schuetz says. “And if there isn’t new supply for them, they’re going to out-compete everybody else and jack up the price.”
In 2019, the Oregon Legislature passed House Bill 2001, making it the first state to effectively end single-family zoning in middle-sized and large cities. The legislation won’t take effect in Eugene until the middle of 2022, at which point developers will be allowed to build multi-unit housing in neighborhoods that previously only allowed single-family homes. It will increase neighborhood density and housing supply in the coming decades, but there’s uncertainty as to whether it will actually lead to more affordable housing options for low-income people.
“Poor people everywhere earn incomes too low to afford market-rate housing,” Schuetz says. “So zoning reform is not a substitute for, say, increasing the number of housing vouchers and subsidies for low-income households.”
Dylan Lamar, the C Street Co-op architect and project manager, says there’s more to it than greater supply and better subsidies. Think of housing as a spectrum: On one end, the wealthiest own single-family homes in residential neighborhoods, while those on the opposite end rent theirs from landlords.
Lamar calls renting a form of “wealth-extraction.” Renters are at a constant disadvantage to people who actually own their homes because all of the land’s appreciation value goes to the property owner, while the renter is subject to rising rents as their property becomes more valuable over time. And because land value increases faster than wages, anyone who rents a property long term will inevitably reach a point where they can no longer afford to live there, he says.
“There’s no way most renters can actually afford to save for a down payment and eventually climb the ladder to homeownership, because the cost of homeownership is rising faster than renters can make money,” Lamar says.
Homeowners have an advantage over renters not only because they earn money on their house over time, but because they can become part owners of their community, putting them on an equal footing with their neighbors.
“Having a financial stake in your community makes you an owner of that community,” he says. “It gives you equality with your neighbors, in a way.”
According to Heben, Square One’s project manager, the implementation of HB 2001 offers a unique opportunity to fill neighborhoods with affordable co-ops like C Street and offer more ownership housing opportunities for low-income people.
C Street kept its development costs down by using grants from the city of Springfield and loans from banks and investors, which is part of what makes it affordable. But the main reason, Heben says, is the fact that Cultivate and Square One were able to divide development costs between six units instead of two or four.
To fit six units into a lot zoned for two, Heben and Lamar had to get creative. Under Oregon law, a housing unit is officially defined as a dwelling that has a full kitchen with an oven. Because of this, only one apartment in each of C Street’s two houses gets an oven and a stovetop.
For McReynolds, who’s never been much of a cook, this is nothing more than a minor inconvenience, as Square One provided each unit with a portable electric stovetop. But Heben and Lamar will have to wait until HB 2001 takes effect to make C Street’s model both appealing and functional on a large scale.
“Everyone should have an oven if they want one,” Lamar says. ‘We shouldn’t have second-class housing units.”
Lane County currently allows developers of housing affordable for low-income people to build more units per lot than market rate developers, in what Heben refers to as a “deeper affordability” measure. But if Lane County government wants to encourage more affordable housing, then it should expand these deeper affordability measures as part of its code updates for HB 2001 to allow six or eight units per lot instead of the proposed four, Heben says.
This way, affordable housing developers like Square One could build more units per lot than their market-rate competitors, allowing them to keep prices cheap for residents, even in expensive neighborhoods. “In a sense, it’s a form of subsidy that doesn’t require any financial investment,” Heben says. “It just allows us to spread costs across more units in a given development.”
Developing C Street took a significant amount of time, energy and money. While the project works as intended, Heben says that Square One will only be able to build more affordable co-ops if the city allows them to build at least six to eight-units per project. “Even small projects take a certain amount of time, so I think six to eight is the minimum we’d want to do, in terms of cost-benefit consideration,” Heben says.
The C Street Co-op is part of Square One’s “Revillaging Project,” which, according to its website, aims to “reimagine our neighborhoods as vibrant communities capable of supporting a diversity of housing types.”
C Street Co-op is the newest on a growing list of affordable housing projects developed by Square One. These projects include Emerald Village — a 22-unit, affordable tiny home co-op in Eugene — and Cottage Village — a similar, 13-unit development in rural Cottage Grove.
Both projects use a similar model to serve different segments of the low-income population. Emerald and Cottage Village target people who make less than C Street residents, so building more co-ops in residential neighborhoods could fill out the affordable housing spectrum, adding more options that fit the needs of all income demographics.
“We’re interested in creating different types of housing for different people,” Heben says. “So we see this C Street model as another model we can run in parallel with those.”
On Thursday evenings at 6:30 pm, the co-op residents meet in one of the apartments for the weekly board meeting. As board president, McReynolds takes the meeting minutes and sets the agenda. The board discusses maintenance and utility costs, security issues, future renovations, parking conflicts and, ultimately, makes the final decision as to who gets to move into the co-op should a space open up.
“If anyone does decide to sell and move out, then we really want to make sure our community remains with the same intention we started with,” McReynolds says.
McReynolds has no plans to move anytime soon. If she wanted to, she could sell her C Street apartment and use the money she earns to start saving up for a house of her own. But for her, C Street is the perfect home; equal parts comfort, stability and affordability.
“I might still be living right here in 30 years,” she says. “But I’m up on the second floor, so I’ll probably need one of those lift assists to get up the stairs.”
But the best part, she says, is the sense of community she feels with the other residents. Not to mention the potential to showcase their affordable communal living model to their neighbors and communities elsewhere.
“This opportunity to be a co-op, have these meetings and show others that this is a viable opportunity and option for people — it’s going to be a solution for so many people in the future.”
This story was developed as part of the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Catalyst brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism to spark action and response to Oregon’s most perplexing issues. To learn more visit Journalism.UOregon.edu/Catalyst or follow the project on Twitter @UO_catalyst.