Pioneering civic activist Betty Niven started worrying about her Eugene block. She ended up changing the way Oregon handles housing

OPB senior political reporter Jeff Mapes spent more than a year researching, reporting and producing “Growing Oregon,” a six-part podcast and web series looking at the evolution of Oregon’s unique approach to growth and the impact it has on our lives today. Here’s the story behind the story. In Part 1 we visited a time when Oregon’s farms and scenic beauty were under attack. In part 2, we told the story of how Oregon leaders managed to write the state’s unique and controversial growth limits. This is part 3.

In the early 1980s, seniors living in two high-rise apartments in Eugene were in danger of losing their homes because a new owner wanted to convert the buildings to condominiums.

That’s what legal aid attorney John VanLandingham feared as he argued against the condo conversions at a Eugene City Council meeting.

The city planning commission had already given its OK, accepting the new owner’s arguments that the city had no right to block the conversions. Council members were getting the same pitch.

And then, “out of the blue,” VanLandingham said, “this little white-haired lady” stood up to talk.

Betty Niven at a party in their honor when the couple moved to the Cascade Manor in Eugene, 1989. Betty’s trademark was a circle pin she always wore to hold her glasses.

Courtesy of Robin B Johnson

Her name was Betty Niven. She said the owner’s attorney was wrong. The city did have the right to adopt regulations protecting the seniors.

“And lo and behold,” said VanLandingham, “she had talked to the national expert on condo conversions – a man from Chicago that she knew – and he explained all the pros and cons of it.”

That was Betty Niven at the height of her civic activism: precise, well-organized and quick to get to the point. After she spoke, the council voted to adopt a moratorium – and to put Niven on the committee that worked out new regulations to help seniors stay in their homes.

“She was never one of those prominent political figures that was out in front of a crowd,” said Terry McDonald, the longtime executive director of a social service nonprofit, St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County. “She was the one that was always steady behind the scenes – listening, cajoling and moving people to a common good.”

Over a period of about three decades, Niven made herself into one of the state’s preeminent housing experts, even if she’s little-remembered today.

Perhaps most importantly, she jumped in to make sure that Oregon’s fledgling growth management system would encourage more affordable forms of housing.

“She was a force of nature for people whose interests might not have been represented in the development of Oregon’s land-use system,” said Andrèe Tremoulet, a Portland planning consultant.

Niven helped ensure that Oregon’s growth management system wasn’t just about protecting lands outside cities. Instead, the system would also try to provide a wide mix of housing inside urban areas so that more people could afford a decent place to live.

Niven was able to do this without ever being elected to anything or even having a paid job. She was, instead, an extraordinary citizen activist – in an era when women were often excluded from the rooms where the big decisions were made.

From local to statewide

Niven had a degree in business administration from the University of Chicago. The school was unusual, having admitted female students ever since its founding in 1890.

However, like many middle-class women of post-World War II America, Niven became a homemaker. She focused on raising her son while her husband, Ivan, taught math at the University of Oregon.

Betty Niven in front of her house on Hilyard in Eugene, with her husband, Ivan Niven, in 1980. Betty was particularly fond of the dogwoods, right.

Betty Niven in front of her house on Hilyard in Eugene, with her husband, Ivan Niven, in 1980. Betty was particularly fond of the dogwoods, right.

Courtesy of Robin B Johnson

Her civic activism started with small steps.

In the late 1950s, she petitioned the Eugene City Council to install sidewalks on her street so her son could safely ride his bike to school.

Dipping her toes into civic life seemed to awaken something in her. Niven was appointed to the Eugene Planning Commission in 1960 and was the only woman on the commission. The official records identified her as “Mrs. Ivan Niven” – not exactly a form of address that suggested her views were important.

But she quickly proved to be indispensable.

When voters defeated measure funding parks, Niven chaired a study group to figure out what to do next. Instead of just letting the usual city insiders call the shots, she insisted on meeting with large numbers of average citizens. Today we would call them focus groups.

Taking what she learned from her citizen forums, she helped rewrite the measure and guide the campaign. This time, voters said yes.

Before long, Niven was pushing the city into more long-range planning. She said that cities ought to have a vision for how they wanted to grow – and not just keep adding roads and homes and businesses in the same patterns as before.

Niven talked about a city with plentiful parks and economically diverse neighborhoods. She wanted limits on suburban sprawl and freeways, which she said could hurt the community’s livability.

During my first 12 years in Eugene, I enjoyed the fruits of other people’s efforts. And now it’s my turn.

Betty Niven, 1964

“Betty Niven really did start doing land-use planning” before the statewide system was created, said VanLandingham. He later served on the city’s planning commission and then as the chair of the state commission overseeing the growth controls.

Niven told the Eugene Register-Guard in 1964 she just wanted to give back to her community: “During my first 12 years in Eugene I enjoyed the fruits of other people’s efforts,” she said. “And now it’s my turn.”

Niven also told the reporter she didn’t regard herself as a great feminist. “I have no reply to persons who ask me what we can do to get more women in government,” she said, “except to say it’s up to the women themselves.”

Niven rejected pleas to run for office and never sought a paid job in government.

“She wanted to have her own opinion and not be held to any particular thing,” said Robin Johnson, who hired the city in 1968 to be an assistant to Niven.

At that point, Niven had taken on the chairmanship of a local housing committee. City officials figured that they were getting so much from Niven that it was worth hiring someone to help her.

A subsidized housing development in south Eugene that Betty Niven fought for was opposed by many neighbors.  The street for the development is now named for her.

A subsidized housing development in south Eugene that Betty Niven fought for was opposed by many neighbors. The street for the development is now named for her.

Jeff Mapes/OPB

She had become passionate about housing affordability. She saw an increasing number of people in her community who were having a hard time finding a decent home.

Under Niven’s leadership, Johnson said, Eugene heavily invested in low-cost housing and worked to spread subsidized homes throughout the city. Niven argued that cities needed to be prodded to diversify their housing stock.

In “arbitrary fashion,” Niven once wrote, “communities have said, ‘Any house style – as long as it’s single family detached.’”

A wonky, revolutionary change

Gradually, Niven became known in housing circles beyond Eugene. She wrote a study praising mobile homes as an underappreciated form of affordable housing – and she wound up on a federal panel setting construction standards for manufactured housing.

She started talking with Oregon Gov. Tom McCall on the need to pay more attention to housing policy at the state level. He created a new housing agency in 1971 and named her to chair the council to oversee it. She held that post for 12 years, and then served as a member for another four.

Niven paid close attention when the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission put together the guiding principles that would guide the growth management system. That, of course, is the body established by Senate Bill 100 in 1973 to curb unchecked urban sprawl.

As the new commission rushed to finish its work by the end of 1974, it released draft goals that had a lot to say about controlling sprawl, but not much about housing.

Niven thought this was a big mistake. She lined up the support of her colleagues on the state housing council and confronted the commission.

“It would be a grievous error,” Niven said in her prepared testimony, “for the state not to recognize this potential conflict between housing needs and the conservation of the state’s natural resources.”

John VanLandingham, left, Betty Niven, center, and Robin Johnson, her former aide, in this undated photo provided by Robin Johnson.

John VanLandingham, left, Betty Niven, center, and Robin Johnson, her former aide, in this undated photo provided by Robin Johnson.

Courtesy of Robin B Johnson

She explained that reducing the amount of land available for development could lead to a housing crunch – and higher prices.

Niven said she had already seen how urban renewal programs destroyed older and less expensive housing without providing suitable replacements. She met privately with LB Day, the commission’s chairman, to press her case.

She also joined forces with Fred Van Natta, the powerful homebuilder’s lobbyist.

“I joined the party and said housing is very important to people,” Van Natta recalled in a 2017 oral history for Portland State University. “You’ve got all these opportunities [under the new growth management system] to say ‘No,’ but there is nothing that says we ought to be helping housing.”

Van Natta said the commission “squiggled and wiggled a bit,” but finally decided to write a new goal explicitly devoted to housing.

Goal 10, as it became known, said local governments should provide enough land to build houses that will meet “the financial capabilities of all Oregonians.”

In a way, this was revolutionary. It says communities can’t do what is so common around the country – zone their land to keep out anyone who can’t afford to buy an expensive house on a large plot of land.

Niven continued to press for innovative housing policies in the wake of the growth controls. She pushed for zoning to allow more apartments and other multi-family housing – something often opposed by residents who fear it will hurt the character of their neighborhood

A forgotten legacy

Betty Niven's image in her celebration of life program, 2001.

Betty Niven’s image in her celebration of life program, 2001.

Courtesy of Robin B Johnson

Niven died in 2001 at the age of 83. Her fans persuaded the city of Eugene to name a new street in her honor. There’s a story behind that new street.

Niven had spent years pushing subsidized housing on an undeveloped parcel near her home in south Eugene. Many of her neighbors disagreed. They wanted to keep the city-owned land as a nature reserve, and they managed to kill the first two proposed housing projects.

Finally, St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County succeeded. Today, Betty Niven Drive serves an attractive, leafy community with duplexes, each with a front porch. There’s also a separate community center.

“It seemed very appropriate that a project like this – that was kind of a ‘NIMBY-ed’ project – could be named for somebody like Betty,” said McDonald, St. Vincent’s executive director. He was referring to the “Not-In-My-Backyard” sentiment that drove opposition to the housing.

Oregon’s housing goal would become a different kind of living memorial to her – even if few Oregonians remember her.

Next week: Oregon’s growth rules govern where homes and businesses can go. They also govern how we get from one place to another. And over the years, developers and environmentalists have fought repeatedly over just how many roads we need. One of the stiffest and more important fights was over Washington County’s Westside Bypass.

The Growing Oregon audio story is available through the OPB Politics Now podcast feed.

Podcast logo image


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.