Seattle Mayor Ed Murray came to Portland Monday morning with two big messages about housing.
First, the Portland region isn't the only Northwest metropolitan area grappling with skyrocketing housing costs fueled by fast growth, tight supply and a strong economy. Second, it's possible to do something about it – but it isn't necessarily easy.
Murray was by turns wonky and frank with the 200-plus attendees at an Equitable Housing Leadership Summit hosted by Metro, held at the Eastside Exchange at the east end of the Burnside Bridge.
The mayor, elected in 2014, described bringing together a diverse group of housing affordability advocates, developers and community representatives to give them a deadline and a charge: Come up with a collaborative solution to create 20,000 affordable housing units, or I will. And you probably won't like it.
That set in motion a difficult process that almost fell apart several times – with disagreements about things as basic as housing data, and a long history of distrust that stubbornly resisted dissipation.
But from Seattle's debate emerged a path forward. The so-called "grand bargain" would institute a commercial development fee to fund the construction of new affordable housing, and a requirement for developers to include affordable housing in any new development or pay a fee to build it elsewhere. The agreement also includes allowing higher density in some neighborhoods called "urban villages".
The Seattle City Council passed the deal in November, though it must be implemented through an update to the city's zoning codes. That process, expected to be contentious, will take place over the next 18 months..
Murray said a key factor in the success of Seattle's effort so far was requiring a simple thing of all participants.
"Both sides wanted to go into that room with the condition that certain things could not be on the table," Murray said. "But my condition was that if you were going to be at this table, you had to be open to listening to anything," he said.
Murray's keynote address began a long morning at dozens of tables, discussing a wide array of potential solutions to the Portland region's housing challenge – which has seen rents rise dramatically, scarcity of homes to rent or buy and considerable displacement of lower-income residents from Portland's most in-demand neighborhoods.
The venue had an interesting backdrop. Across the street, active construction continued on two large apartment towers: the 21-story Yard, whose 284 apartment units will include 57 reserved for lower-income families, in exchange for tax and fee breaks from the city; and the 10-story Block 75, which will have 75 market-rate apartments along with office and retail space. Block 75's developers received $500,000 from Metro's Transit-Oriented Development Program as part of the total $35 million development cost.
Summit attendees represented government, developers, nonprofits and businesses from around the region. Over several hours of panels, small group discussion and presentations, they dug deep into a challenge that has been called a state of emergency by advocates and local and state officials.
Quotes from residents' housing struggles, shared via an ongoing Metro public comment survey, cycled on screens at the ballroom's edges.
The summit wasn't intended to come to final agreement on how best to proceed. But its focus was firmly on solutions, from other places and more locally.
"It is an achievable goal to…deliver affordable housing for this region," said Metro Councilor Sam Chase in introductory remarks.
"We also know there really is no silver bullet," he added, a phrase that would be echoed throughout the morning. "It's all a bunch of 5 percent solutions – the pieces that, when we put them together, we can actually get there."
Metro report grounds discussion
How have you been affected?
Share how you have been affected by the Portland region's housing challenge on a Metro public comment survey open through Feb. 16. The survey features a variety of questions on transportation, equity and housing.
Go to the survey
Much of the summit revolved around a Metro equitable housing report released on Jan. 22. The report includes four primary strategies to respond to the crisis, with the argument that all are part of the solution and all require multiple public and private partners playing a role.
First, increase and diversify market-rate housing. Second, "leverage growth for affordability" by connecting new development to new affordable units, whether through incentives or mandates. Third, find new funding for housing while also optimizing federal, state, local and philanthropic funding that's already available. Fourth, mitigate displacement through a variety of renter protections and financial assistance measures.
Experts who served on a 12-person committee that helped develop those recommendations shared their experience with what tactics could advance each strategy.
Developer Eli Spevak called for making it easier to build density where it's appropriate, like near transit and centers, and for opening the door to more medium-density developments.
Alisa Pyszka, a development consultant and former vice president of Greater Portland Inc., advocated taking a holistic approach to reserving land for affordable units before the market jumps – and that such units be built where residents have easy access to transit and services.
"This is about affordable living, not just affordable housing," Pzyska said.
Margaret Salazar, the federal Housing and Urban Development Department field officer for Oregon, described how developments like the Town Center Greens in Happy Valley, near Clackamas Town Center, combined multiple funds to build affordable apartments close to transit and jobs.
Cat Goughnour, a consultant and community advocate, described efforts she has helped lead in North/Northeast Portland that put local African American residents at the center of the conversation about combating displacement. She emphasized creating jobs and supporting small business development as well.
"The community needs more than just affordable housing," Goughnor said. "How might we co-locate opportunities with that housing?"
After a round of small group discussion intended to see which strategies in Metro's report might make the most sense to pursue – and which potential strategies might be missing – the full summit reconvened to hear about other efforts underway in the Portland region, including an affordable development in downtown Beaverton, a market-rate development in North Bethany and Portland's voluntary inclusionary housing program. Representatives from Bienestar, an affordable housing provider in western Washington County, and the Welcome Home Coalition, which plans to put a Multnomah County housing levy on the November 2016 ballot, also shared their thoughts.
No 'grand bargain', but pledges for action
Again and again, themes of cross-sector collaboration, creativity and compromise were cited both in the examples of success and as strategies the Portland region should pursue. So were admonitions that leaders should pursue more than cheaper rents. Increasing wages, protecting small businesses and providing better and more affordable transportation access all were repeated frequently.
People hoping for a Portland region "grand bargain" for housing affordability coming out of the summit would be disappointed, however. That wasn't the intent of the summit or Metro's equitable housing report, Metro staff said.
Despite that, Metro Council President Tom Hughes, in closing remarks, reflected on a sense of urgency for action as rents keep climbing – and the similarities between Portland and Seattle.
"It seems to me that the culture is similar up there to here, in that quite often, after all is said and done, more will be said than done," Hughes said. "We hope that will not be the case (today)…because I think there has been some very good meaty discussion going on today."
But a lesson from Murray's keynote address offered a note of caution going forward. Getting a broad coalition to agree on how best to move forward to create new housing and keep it affordable will be no easy task, particularly if it means that some neighborhoods will change.
"Seattle and Portland…are the two most conservative liberal cities in the world," Murray said. "We support everything, except if it changes anything that touches us."
Watch a video of the summit
- 0:00: Welcome by Metro planning director Elissa Gertler
- 2:14: Introductory remarks by Metro Councilor Sam Chase
- 10:39: Keynote address, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray
- 46:20: Presentation by Metro equitable housing manager Emily Lieb and panel from Metro Equitable Housing Working Group, including Alisa Pyszka, Leland Consulting Group; Eli Spevak, Orange Splot LLC; Cat Goughnor, Radix Consulting; Margaret Salazar, US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
- 1:22:44: Examples of local successes and report-backs from small group discussions about solutions, featuring Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle
- 1:46:22: Closing remarks by Metro Council President Tom Hughes]
This story has been corrected to clarify the status of Seattle's housing "grand bargain." Although approved by the Seattle City Council in November, it does not take effect until changes to the city's zoning codes are approved.