Salem needs more affordable housing.

That simple fact was true last year when the state and local economy was humming along. It remains true now, even as our attentions are consumed by the coronavirus pandemic and widespread national protests over the killing of black civilians by police officers.

The median home price in Salem has increased by almost a third over the last decade, and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimates the city needs to add 136 units a year to meet the projected need in 2030. 

The City Council has an opportunity to take a modest step toward addressing the issue by revamping its rules on “accessory dwelling units,” colloquially known as in-law apartments.

A proposed ordinance before the council would make it easier for residents to build smaller apartments or additions on their homes. The units serve a dual purpose, helping homeowners keep up with their mortgages while creating affordable housing for everyone from restaurant workers to retired seniors.

Importantly, the proposal would make sure the units remain affordable. Rates would be capped at 25 percent below fair market rent, which would be $1,286 for a studio, $1,425 for a one-bedroom, and $1,733 for a two-bedroom, according to the city’s planning department.

There’s no denying the need is real, and immediate.

“Most of us are one setback away from endangering our housing,” Forest Avenue resident Rosa Ordaz said while speaking in favor of the proposal at a council meeting last month. “We can barely make it. This will really set the tone for what kind of city we want to be and who we value as part of our community.”

Because it would change city zoning, the proposal needs a yes from at least eight members of the 11-person council. There has been some call for the City Council to do nothing to address the housing problem -- or many other city issues -- while COVID-19 dominates our daily lives. 

It is an argument that makes little sense.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a historic crisis. But it’s not the only one facing the city. To not address the shortage of affordable housing in an aggressive, forward-thinking manner is to tell residents like Ordaz that their challenges don’t matter. 

Salem is better than that, and the council can prove it by voting in favor of the proposed changes. 



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