Talk with advocates for affordable housing for even a few minutes and you'll often hear a key phrase: "There's no silver bullet."
There are also a lot of ways at looking at the problem and how to solve it. As part of our Regional Snapshot on housing affordability, we spoke with people working on the issue from several of these angles: Affordable housing providers, public and private. Researchers. Storytellers.
Although each agrees that there's a crisis – and that it's never been more urgent – they also have unique ideas about its causes and its possible solutions. Together but also working independently, they are hoping to make a difference.
Here is some of what we heard. Interview excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.
Witness: Israel Bayer, Street Roots
As storyteller, editor and advocate, Israel Bayer has reshaped the housing conversation in Portland. The executive director of Street Roots, a community-based weekly newspaper based in Old Town, Bayer believes in catalyzing change by connecting people of all walks of life with the stories, perspectives and creativity of people experiencing homelessness and poverty. Street Roots certainly has made an impact in 17 years of publication. The paper and its director have collected an impressive list of awards for journalism and humanitarianism, as well as praise from policymakers, advocates and other leaders. More important to Bayer: the paper’s reporting has helped save people from eviction, advanced policy and funding decisions, provided help for homeless people through its Rose City Resource Guide and transformed understanding of hidden dimensions of homelessness and mental health, veterans affairs and numerous other topics for policymakers and the public.
Why is storytelling important in the housing crisis?
I think the importance of storytelling in the context of housing and homelessness is being able to understand that people are human beings, that we live complex lives, that not everything is simply a snapshot of what we think it is. You can't judge a book by its cover. In today's media climate, in the age of clickbait, in the age of just trying to get a story out there, sometimes we lose focus of understanding how people arrived in the situation they're in.
I've never met anyone who, after I've heard their story, that I could responsibly, as a journalist, simplify their lives to simply be, "I chose to be homeless."
It's easy to get a soundbite of somebody on the street and oftentimes people ask well, why are you choosing to be homeless? They think that's a loaded question because I've never met anyone who, after I've heard their story, that I could responsibly, as a journalist, simplify their lives to simply be, "I chose to be homeless."
I think it's important, when we're thinking about storytelling, to capture people's lives in a way that offers the public to have an understanding that ultimately homeless people aren't an 'other,' but they're simply human beings.
What opportunities do you see emerging?
Portland was a sleepy West Coast city for many years. We got away with not providing the tools necessary to create a healthy, affordable housing stock because the market was always soft. We managed the problem without getting ahead of it. And instead of treating housing like a rainy day fund we chose to simply manage the problem and so when the recession hit, followed by the latest boom and skyrocketing rents and the mass population growth in our community, we were caught asleep behind the wheel.
In some ways many of the policies that we're passing lately that help support affordable housing should have been incorporated into our government for the last two decades. If that were the case we would not be talking about losing our city without necessary affordable stock, we'd be talking about losing our city with still a deep affordable housing stock in place. That's the difference.
On the flip side of that, this housing crisis presents us with an enormous amount of opportunity. We have been able to go and create legislative changes and create revenue options in ways that we haven't been in the past because it is a crisis. It is an emergency.
Is it too little too late? That's a big question. But we can't stop in the middle of the storm and say the wind's blowing too hard.
No question that housing has moved to a top-tier issue in our community and that doesn't matter who you are, whether you're a low-wage worker or homeless, or whether you're a fifth-generation Portlander who all of a sudden recognizes that "I have a home but my parents are aging and my kids are going to school to be a social worker and a teacher, and oh, by the way, I'm not sure we're going to be seventh and eighth generation Portlanders."
The anxiety is real across all spectrums of our community and it affects us in different ways. It gives us the opportunity to all come together to work toward one common goal. Is it too little too late? That's a big question. But we can't stop in the middle of the storm and say the wind's blowing too hard.
Academic/Advocate: Marisa Zapata, Portland State University
Along with her colleagues, Marisa Zapata shapes the next generation of urban planners at Portland State University's Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning. But Zapata, a San Antonio native who did research all over the country before joining the Portland State faculty as a land use professor in 2013, goes further than the classroom to advance equity and housing choices. She also serves on a variety of community efforts, including the coordinating board for A Home for Everyone, a multijurisdictional effort to combat homelessness in Multnomah County.
With a research specialty focused on participatory planning, Zapata turns her energies toward advancing planning processes and governance structures that lift up underrepresented communities to ensure that decisions that affect their communities do not exclude them from participating fully and meaningfully. Zapata says she tries to bring an “activist scholarship” model to her participation in A Home for Everyone: Assessing what’s happening, bringing knowledge of what’s worked elsewhere, and pushing for broadly shared solutions that can reverse decades of discrimination and racism in the Portland region.
Why is affordable housing important for an equitable community?
People have to have a safe affordable place to live in order to be able to work, raise children, recover from trauma in life, (or) if they are disabled be able to live a functional life. There is significant trauma done to people when they are on the street. So it’s the starting point for everything we do.
I’m always surprised by the number of students and the people I talk to in the community that don’t realize we have a fundamental right to housing in this country. We have a lot of rights. I can own a gun. That’s protected. But I’m not guaranteed a place to live.
If we want to have equitable schools, if we want to have equitable neighborhoods, if we want to have an equitable justice system, first and foremost, people have to have a place to go home.
If we want to have equitable schools, if we want to have equitable neighborhoods, if we want to have an equitable justice system, first and foremost, people have to have a place to go home.
People who are in a privileged position (need) to really understand and walk with the knowledge of what oppression and the history of racism has meant to this country. I’m talking about racial equity specifically, but for all other kinds of equity it would be the same thing.
People who are in positions of privilege and power want to be able to separate things out and say, “Well, that’s a history that doesn’t connect or we’re done with that. It’s no longer legal to say you can’t rent to Blacks or to Jews, for instance. Therefore we don’t do it and there are no current consequences to the fact that we did it for a long time.”
If we don’t see those narratives as integrally connected, we’re never really going to move past it.
What’s the role of PSU?
My view and vision for academia is that we are driven to solve societal problems and that is our role. I came to Portland State in part because the mission is “Let Knowledge Serve the City.” I picked planning in part because it’s an applied field. And I came here because I knew I would have colleagues who supported my desire to do things like be a part of A Home for Everyone, to take what I know and to put it directly into the public conversation. That’s not conventional academic life. So I very much appreciate that I am someplace where that is present.
People talk about the university being the unbiased broker for things. We’re not unbiased. I believe that equity should drive our work. What I can do is explore things, investigate things and ask questions in a space where I don’t have to worry about the political consequences of what I’m asking.
In A Home For Everyone we’re thinking about future governance structures. Obviously there’s a lot of elected officials and politics involved with that. Well, I have the space to say: What would it look like to have different types of models that are different levels and types of empowerment giving people who are most affected voice? What would that mean in terms of how much power the electeds would have?
I can ask, what are the tradeoffs of these models? Can we find a better way to public policy based on these models? Because so much of the housing issues right now are political, I think people need that space.
The biggest thing people get wrong about housing: "I have never received federal or government assistance for my housing."
What do people get wrong about housing?
The biggest one is this: “I have never received federal or government assistance for my housing.”
Anyone who has had a federally backed home loan or a tax break from owning their home has received government assistance. That is a huge myth, that it’s only people who are poor who have received government assistance.
Assistance comes in a lot of different formats. And a tax break is a huge benefit. A federally backed mortgage or loan? It's a huge benefit.
Investigator: Michael Parkhurst, Meyer Memorial Trust
In 2014, Meyer Memorial Trust – Oregon's third-largest private charitable foundation – doubled down on its Affordable Housing Initiative, dedicating $15 million over five years to an eight-part strategy of fostering innovation, preserving existing affordable housing and advocating for housing policy. In addition to grants, the initiative has included groundbreaking work on what makes affordable housing so expensive to build. Leading those efforts: Michael Parkhurst, who joined Meyer in 2014 as one of two program officers for the housing initiative, with Elisa Harrigan. Parkhurst brought a mix of public, nonprofit and academic experience to the role, including positions as an urban renewal manager in Gresham and affordable housing coordinator in Beaverton, board member at Portland Community Reinvestment Initiative and political science professor. Parkhurst worked with a group of 16 experts and stakeholders to compile a lengthy set of recommendations for decreasing the cost of affordable housing construction. After the report’s publication last year, Parkhurst continues to spread the word about what could make housing more affordable to build – and hopefully more affordable to live in, too.
Why is Meyer interested in the issue of affordable housing? How can it help?
There was a first five-year housing initiative and we just renewed it a few years ago. Our trustees were hearing a lot from partners in the field that housing was a really important issue and a place the Trust could make a difference. Not just grantmaking, but advancing policy and issue conversations around housing, helping advise public funders and learn from the field and disseminate best practices. Funding research is another thing we can do.
This issue of widespread concern about the expensive nature of affordable housing development bubbled up as an important issue where Meyer can weigh in as an analyst. So we put together this group of experts and spent a lot of time digging into the issues. We wanted to try to evaluate the underlying implication that it was more expensive than it needed to be and somehow there is a way to do this less expensively.
You really have to decide what sorts of things you are willing to compromise on. What tradeoffs are you willing to make if you want to drive costs down?
It's a complicated topic, so in a sense there are ways to do this less expensively but you are probably going to compromise on some other things that are important. So you really have to decide what sorts of things you are willing to compromise on. What tradeoffs are you willing to make if you want to drive costs down? If you want all the things that we currently bake into an affordable housing project, it's going to be hard to significantly reduce those costs.
What's the biggest thing people get wrong about housing affordability?
You can work really hard and play by the rules and still not make anywhere near the money you need to live in this city. I live and breathe this stuff and I'm surprised when I hear about rents. I'm blown away when someone tells me what they're paying. But developers are playing by the rules that are set for them and you or I would probably do the same thing.
It's not a moral failure to need affordable housing in a city.
I think one thing that a lot of people don’t understand is there are a lot of homeless people who are working, a lot of people who need affordable housing who are working. It's not people's fault. It's not a moral failure to need affordable housing in a city.
There's a really critical role for policy here. If you want affordable housing you need to be intentional and you need to put real money on the table.
What opportunities do you see emerging?
I don't think there's anyone who would look you in the eye and say affordable housing isn't an issue. I don't even think there are many people who would say government doesn't have a role in it. That was not true three or four years ago.
There's a bigger discussion I hope we have. Who are we willing to share this wonderful city with, this wonderful region? Who are we willing to share our neighborhoods with? The reflex we all share to some extent about ‘I don't want jarring change in my neighborhood,’ I think we need to think that through about, "If I'm not willing to share my neighborhood with some people, then I have to admit out loud that I'm OK with this becoming a completely unaffordable city and region."
(There is) a price tag on solving the problem. It's a big number, it's not a small number, but it's not infinite. The question is, how bad do we want to solve it?
There's a conversation to have about choices. If you want to live on an 8,000 square foot lot and park in front of your house every day, there's still places in the region where you can do that and I'm pretty sure you'll be able to do that in 20 years, in great communities. If that is a lifestyle you want, this region will provide that choice. But if you want to live where you can walk to work or (have) a leisurely bike ride to work, we are really artificially constraining that choice. We are not providing as many of those options as the market is demanding.
We do know how to move the needle on these things. The homelessness issue is a great example. The Home for Everyone work is really important. We can solve the homelessness problem if we really want to. They have put a price tag on solving that problem. It's a big number, it's not a small number, but it's not infinite. The question is, how bad do we want to solve it?
Public providers: Michael Buonocore and Molly Rogers, Home Forward
Home Forward is a big fish in Portland-area affordable housing. Once known as the Housing Authority of Portland, the agency is the largest provider of affordable housing in Oregon – with more than 6,000 apartments – and is the administrator of roughly 9,400 federal Housing Choice Vouchers, also known as Section 8, that subsidize residents living in market-rate apartments across Multnomah County. Demand for those vouchers – which help people earning less than half of the area's median income – is intense. About 40,000 households in the county qualify for less than 10,000 available vouchers, and when the agency opened its waitlists last month, more than 16,000 households applied for less than 3,000 spots.
Its role gives Home Forward a lot of influence in the region’s affordable housing policy, but also many challenges, including the unreliability of federal budgets that fund many of its programs, and a large backlog of aging apartments that need renovation and residents – including many of the region's most economically vulnerable people – that need services beyond just a roof over their heads. Governed by a publicly-appointed board of directors, Home Forward’s day-to-day operations are managed by Michael Buonocore, who served at several levels of the organization over 13 years before becoming executive director in 2014. Joining Buonocore on Home Forward’s leadership team is director of asset management Molly Rogers.
What's the role of a housing authority and what challenges and advantages do you have as a result?
Buonocore: Federal subsidies are both a challenge and an advantage. We deal with a lot of volatility and unpredictability in how we're funded, so budgeting from year to year is hard and we've definitely seen some big swings if you look over the course of decades: Federal investment in subsidized housing has diminished.
But there's also a constancy to it, in that we are fundamentally reasonably assured that we will be funded. So as long as there's not some really massive seismic shift, we have some certainty that we will continue doing business and serving this population of folks.
What's the future of public housing in your portfolio?
Buonocore: We find ourselves in this situation of a capital needs backlog after years of operating an underfunded, aging portfolio. Twenty years ago you weren't getting enough money for maintenance, and that wasn't great, but you compound that year over year and it just gets harder and harder.
Unlike some other communities in the country that have sort of given up, we've put a stake in the ground and said we're really committed to the spirit of public housing and we keep this portfolio and we continue to house the most economically vulnerable.
Unlike some other communities in the country that have sort of given up, we've put a stake in the ground and said we're really committed to the spirit of public housing and we keep this portfolio and we continue to house the most economically vulnerable. That mission is really important.
Rogers: We have now a stock of housing – about 40 properties – that are averaging 40 to 50 years old and haven't had the level of significant rehabilitation that we need to make sure those physical assets last another 30, 40, 50 years.
We are converting all of our public housing into a Section 8 (voucher-based) platform. Section 8 has benefited from being more politically supported and hasn't faced the level of disinvestment congressionally that public housing has. So it's a more predictable funding stream. In addition we get out of the restrictions that are specific to public housing, like not being able to leverage tax credits or take on debt. Those are the two main ways we finance capital improvements.
For our residents, it's the same. It's still an income-based approach for their rent.
What are the biggest things people get wrong about affordability?
Buonocore: When a person on the street or a legislator is trying to understand this issue, especially now as it's in the forefront, people understandably want a simple way of wrapping their head around it, and they want to know, "what's a reasonable amount per door?"
The reality is there aren't simple answers and there aren't a lot of straightforward apples-to-apples comparisons. You do have to dig in a little bit. The human tendency and sometimes the opportunistic approach is to try to simplify the conversation in a way that, I think, can be harmful in the long term.
We want to see the community explore a whole range of options. There are some things we want that we're not going to pursue because it's not our wheelhouse, but God bless entrepreneurial folks who want to find different ways to help.
What we do well and what we understand in the long term is that if you want long-term affordability, you have to invest up front well, or you're going to pay more down the road. And you have to manage it very well and carefully. It's easy in the first five years when everything is pretty and brand new. It's a lot harder 20 and 30 years down the road.
Rogers: There's all this talk around cost containment: Why doesn't affordable housing construction cost look similar to the private sector? It's inherently a much more complex set of financing to get an (affordable) project built. It takes us, on averag,e 10 to 12 funding sources to get a project built, each one with its own set of regulations and requirements that we are reconciling.
You either pay it today or you pay it tomorrow. Either way, we're going to pay, and it's just so much better to pay it up front.
And we build them to last. You either pay it today or you pay a lot more tomorrow. Either way, we're going to pay, and it's just so much better to pay it up front. It's more cost effective, you can build more energy-efficient buildings, you can think about the residents' needs and design amenities to create really healthy homes for people.
What opportunities are emerging?
Buonocore: I think there's this confluence of growing need and public awareness and concern, strong political will and orientation to do something and to recognize that the toolbox has not been big enough and we need to see it bigger. I think everybody also recognizes that really, systemically, what we need is for the federal government to invest at a scale that really is going to help what is not a local problem but really is a national problem of underfunding affordable housing.
This is a very big problem and we can't solve all of it, but we also can't just sit back and do nothing. So let's figure out what other tools are available, let's turn over the couch cushions and find every penny we can to try and get at this need.
We now see the healthcare system, the education system, the criminal justice system all recognizing the importance of housing. So we have allies in these conversations that we may not have had so directly in the past.
Because whatever your vantage point is – maybe almost any vantage point you have in terms of trying to help people – you're hearing over and over again that the foundational issue that they're struggling with is housing. Providers are hearing that and they're saying to themselves: "We've got to get to the housing table and get our systems lined up together."
Panoramic view: Martha McLennan, Northwest Housing Alternatives
Affordable housing isn’t just an urban challenge. That’s been central to the mission of Milwaukie-based Northwest Housing Alternatives since it was founded in 1982. The nonprofit serves more than 2,600 residents in more than 1,800 homes throughout 16 Oregon counties, including many suburban and rural communities as well as Portland. By developing new housing and purchasing existing buildings, Northwest Housing Alternatives aims to both create and preserve housing affordability, particularly for some of Oregon's most vulnerable populations, such as families, seniors and people with disabilities. The organization also runs the Annie Ross House, Clackamas County’s only emergency shelter for families experiencing homelessness, behind its offices in downtown Milwaukie. Since 2002, the organization has been led by Martha McLennan, who has sought to broaden the organization's mission to include more services for residents and people experiencing homelessness. McLennan is also on the board of the Oregon Opportunity Network, a statewide coalition of affordable housing providers, authorities and advocates.
Why is affordable housing an issue in suburban and rural areas?
As our region has grown over the decades, homelessness has become an issue in the suburbs. And lack of affordability has become an issue in the suburbs. The same dynamics that are at play in Portland just in the last handful of years – nobody built anything starting in the recession in 2007 or so, population continues to grow, rents start increasing and new contractors come in, build at the top of the market, the rest of the market looks at that and says, 'Hey, I can increase my rents.'
So for example, we saw studio apartments in Oregon City that we could've gotten a household into a year ago for maybe $650 (a month). Now that unit's $1,000. So the same upward pressure on the market that Portland's been experiencing, we're definitely experiencing in the suburbs.
The picture may look different in different parts of the state, but there's a bottom-line issue that low-wage workers, folks on fixed incomes, are having a very difficult time in many parts of the state.
I heard recently about the total eviction situation in Clackamas where the landlords' giving everybody in the building a no-cause eviction, painted, threw some carpet in, jacked the rents, 3,4,5 hundred dollars a unit and released it. Portland has been seeing that for about a year, then that was the first one I've heard of in Clackamas County, just recently.
The picture may look different in different parts of the state, but there's a bottom-line issue that low-wage workers, folks on fixed incomes, are having a very difficult time in many parts of the state. And so are entry-level professionals.
What do people get wrong about affordable housing?
There are a lot of stereotypes about who needs affordable housing. And I think in those stereotypes there are probably some judgments about, 'Oh, if they had made the right choices, if they were doing the right thing, they wouldn't have this problem.' And I don't think that's true at this point.
Affordable housing is serving folks who are hard working, who are making the right choices, but who are just still not able to get what they need in the marketplace. I think that the other thing is that we do this us-and-them thing: 'I don't want those people in my neighborhood.' Well, let's see. That's the bank clerk that you're very friendly with. That's the checkout clerk at the grocery store. That's the guy at the gas station. That's the person who works at the daycare center that you entrust your children to. Why would you not want that person to live in your neighborhood?
What's the biggest challenge we face?
How do we view our housing stock as another piece of infrastructure that has both a public and private responsibility? A lot of the Oregon land use structure was based on the notion that if you let people build apartments they will be affordable. And that was true in 1973, it was true in 1985, and it was probably true still in 1995.
How do we think of affordable housing as piece of public infrastructure, the same as libraries, the same as roads?
But there's been a lot of change in the last 20 years. The market simply is not meeting those needs anymore and realistically won't meet those needs on a long-term basis.
So how do we think of affordable housing as piece of public infrastructure, the same as libraries, the same as roads? How do we build good-quality product that's going to be durable for generations, that's going to be located appropriately to give people the access and opportunities they need so they can get transit, get jobs, go to good schools, so that we can use that to break the cycle that they're in and see things be different?
Builder: Cynthia Parker, BRIDGE Housing
Though she leads a California-based nonprofit affordable housing provider, Cynthia Parker is no stranger to Portland. The 30-year veteran of affordable housing development attended Portland State University in the late 1960s, when students were organizing to save affordable student housing near campus from destruction. Among her many roles in the housing world since then since then, she founded and directed Seattle’s housing office, worked as a public finance executive, and has led two nonprofit housing developers. In 2010, Parker took the helm at San Francisco-based BRIDGE Housing, founded in 1983 by a commission grappling with growing affordability crises in the Bay Area. A developer, property manager and service provider, BRIDGE manages a diverse portfolio of 8,000 homes, mostly in the Bay Area but also in other California cities and Seattle.
Last month, BRIDGE opened its first new Oregon development: The Abigail, a mixed-income, family-friendly 155-apartment building in the Pearl District, built with support from the Portland Housing Bureau and several other partners. (BRIDGE also operates a 111-unit affordable apartment community in Hillsboro.) Parker says BRIDGE emphasizes high-quality design and resident services in every project it creates. Though it’s a newer player on the Portland scene, Parker feels confident that BRIDGE's deep experience combined with a strong local staff will help it make a big impact here.
What advantages is BRIDGE finding in doing business here?
We know development is local. It doesn't work unless you have a local presence on the ground and people who are local and can talk to local people and move things through. Nicole (Peterson) and her team represent that for us. I think it's been a combination of BRIDGE's history and acumen combined with having a local presence which has really led us take off in such a great way. And we hope we're adding to the fabric here.
You can really see how to move from A to Z very quickly in Portland.
You can really see how to move from A to Z very quickly in Portland. It's never a straight line, but it's one that has a lot of intersections here, and that is really important to be able to move things through.
I don't want to badmouth any other area, but we do work in very complex environments. Our headquarters are in San Francisco and we've developed 5,000 units in the Bay Area and right now we have one of the largest developments in the city with 1,500 units that will be totally mixed-income. Those types of projects are very, very complex. You're dealing with the housing authority, the federal government, the city, the permitting. It took us eight years to entitle that site, just to give you a little snapshot. I don't think we'd be facing an eight-year entitlement process in Portland.
Can we get ahead of the Bay Area?
I think you have to put your shoulder to the wheel if you want to get ahead of it. Having a number of organizations, not just one or one housing authority, all working to peak capacity will help. Public attention is really important. There's a good chance that you can make a dent in it and get ahead of it if everyone puts their shoulder to the wheel.
I'm very hopeful that the locality is recognizing the crisis, has already labeled it a crisis and indeed it is. Cities are now starting to do that because it's clear the federal government is not going to be helpful.
What opportunities do you see emerging?
I'm very hopeful that the locality is recognizing the crisis, has already labeled it a crisis and indeed it is.
Cities are now starting to do that because it's clear the federal government is not going to be helpful. And there's more control when you do it locally.
I'm very hopeful the investor community has broadened. We're seeing so many more investors come into this business because they've recognized it's not only mission-driven but something that's good for their business. That's changed, since the days I asked for my first loan for an affordable housing development and had to explain, 'Gee, what are you doing?'
It's still so complex. It's not just that being an affordable developer is complex. The financing has been very tricky and it gets more and more complex because sometimes you have to bring in multiple sources of financing. One of the great things about Portland is the city understands that and is willing to make the investments in the development.
In some places we've had to take on 14 sources of financing and it might take years to assemble that. Having two or three sources of funding, debt and equity, public investment—those are all things that make a project much simpler and quicker to deliver. It's time. It's really time.