The Portland area is one of the fastest-growing regions in the state, but its booming economy has come with some growing pains: a lack of affordable housing driven by rising rents, low vacancy rates and stagnant wages.
At a recent luncheon hosted by the Oregon Environmental Council, local leaders say the region isn't alone, but finding solutions requires policymakers to work cooperatively with private-sector and nonprofit partners.
"As public, private and community leaders, we can support individuals and families struggling to make ends meet with strategies to reduce costs and raise incomes," said Kimberly Branam, executive director of Prosper Portland.
She said that includes affordable housing, earned-income tax credits, food stamps, frequent and reliable mass transit systems and connecting people with local services to improve their education and employment.
"Doing this means the workforce development system, the economic development system, our public and private partners, transportation and planning all need to connect as we engage in planning and development," Branam said.
The event was just days after it was announced that TriMet would not proceed with its planned $1.7 billion transit and road measure, instead passing the decision to Metro.
Elected officials at Metro are also weighing whether to put an affordable housing bond measure on the ballot as early as November 2018 as a response to the rising cost of renting and buying homes in the region.
The event's keynote speaker, Tony Pickett, vice president of master site development at the Denver-based Urban Land Conservancy, said the lack of affordable housing lies at the root of most problems.
Here are some key takeaways from his talk:"How do we link transportation, housing, educational facilities and job creation?" he said. "You've got an opportunity here in Portland with the Southwest Corridor. You're already well on the way to establishing an equitable plan for it; it's just a matter of figuring out implementation."
Land is power
"Get control of the land so you can have the power to influence the change," Pickett said.
He says the Urban Land Conservancy has found success in Denver with the concept of land banking, buying land at low prices along planned transit corridors before major redevelopment begins and prices skyrocket.
"If anything, that's been our silver bullet for us in terms of protecting and maintaining affordability in our investments," he said. "We try to be mindful of making our investments so that we're tying affordable housing, quality recreational and education facilities to actual transportation that our families can actually use to get to work, to get to school, to have all of the quality of life that they're entitled to."
Being intentional early on in the planning process is key; otherwise, the lack of affordable housing will force people to live farther and farther from their jobs and other amenities, he said.
He pointed to his own neighborhood, Denver's Union Station, which despite undergoing a multimillion-dollar transformation, only has 107 units of affordable housing.
"We have great amenities, but it's sort of a double-edged sword when I realize that no one who makes minimum wage can afford to live there and take advantage of those amenities," he said. "They're all taking transit in to work at all of the businesses that are supporting higher-income people. … We need to be thoughtful about that before we create transit hubs that suddenly have no affordability."
Prioritize permanent affordability
Pickett says creating permanently affordable housing needs to be made a priority and using the community land trust model is one way to help do that.
Too often, he said, developers are allowed to convert low-income units to market-rate ones after a 15- or 30-year limit, ultimately reducing the number of affordable units.
"What we found is that time period only lasts for one or two families and then you're in the hunt to create more affordable housing because you no longer have prescription," Pickett said.
By contrast, under the community land trust model, local nonprofits acquire properties but separate ownership of the land from the buildings on top of it, helping to keep costs low.
The buyer purchases only the house, so the price is lower. They also agree to restrictions on the resale of homes, including how much profit they could make in order to keep the units affordable for the next family.
He says the issue of short-term affordable housing is playing out in Atlanta with the BeltLine, a $2.8 billion plan to transform a 22-mile railroad corridor that encircles the city into a network of trails, parks, affordable homes and streetcar lines.
The goal was to create 5,600 units of affordable housing, but the project is past the halfway point and the number of units is behind pace.
Pickett, who worked on affordable housing efforts in the city as executive director of the Atlanta Land Trust Collaborative, says lack of financing isn’t the problem.
There's a special taxing district, where 15 percent of the revenue goes into an affordable housing trust fund.
The problem, he says, is that the agency behind the project has chosen to spend a majority of the money on term-limited affordability.
"In addition to having existing affordable housing that's expiring, they're creating affordable housing that will expire before the BeltLine is fully built out," he said. "Strategically, that's not a good move."
Partnership is necessary for success
Pickett also encouraged collaboration between groups and said public-private partnerships could help advance affordable housing initiatives.
In Denver, examples have included Mile High Connects, a partnership of public, private and nonprofit organizations working to increase access to housing, jobs, schools and services via public transit; and the country's first affordable housing Transit-Oriented Development Fund, a revolving loan fund that makes capital available to purchase and hold sites for up to five years along current and future rails and high-frequency bus corridors.
Pickett said foundations, both local and national, have played a huge role in both efforts.
"I would not underestimate the role of philanthropy in the work that you're doing to connect across the silos of housing, transportation, jobs and education," he said.