Officials eye affordable housing along future Southwest rail line
Although Washington County is more affluent than Multnomah County, it also has a severe affordable housing problem.
The supply of publicly subsidized apartments is so limited, the most recent project to be completed, the second phase of the Hillsboro's Orchards at Orenco, was full before it opened.
Despite that, county officials and affordable housing advocates recently agreed to delay asking voters to approve an affordable-housing levy. A poll conducted for the county showed it had little chance of passing.
"No one has given up on the idea, but the poll showed there's a need to educate the voters about the situation facing the most vulnerable people in the county before moving forward. We are committed to doing that and continuing the conversation," said Glenn Montgomery, director of the Vision Action Network, a low-income advocacy group in the county.
Although few additional affordable housing projects currently are in the works in the county, one project underway seeks to prevent more people from being forced out of their homes by rising rents and housing costs. The cities of Tigard and Portland have partnered with Metro to study how to prevent gentrification along the future MAX light-rail line in the Southwest Corridor.
The goal is to prevent the kind of dislocations caused by the earlier Interstate MAX line also occurring in the corridor between Tualatin and Portland, if the proposed line eventually is funded and built. The project, funded by grants from the elected regional government, is just getting underway.
The issue was raised last Thursday morning at the monthly meeting of the Westside Economic Alliance. The private-public economic development advocacy organization in Washington County devoted all of June to studying housing issues. It invited Ron Sims, the former deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, to speak. He previously had served 12 years as the elected executive of King County, Washington.
During the question-and-answer session, Mimi Doukas, a project manager for AKS Engineering and a member of the WEA's Land Use and Housing Committee, asked Sims for his advice on how to prevent gentrification in the corridor. She said Metro recently had briefed the committee on how the Interstate MAX line had helped raise housing costs in North and Northeast Portland.
"Do not build a transportation system that only serves the affluent. It must serve everyone," said Sims, who recommended conducting in-depth surveys to determine who is currently living in the corridor and why.
Sims also recommended involving organizations that build affordable housing earlier in the planning. Among other things, the project undertaken by Tigard and Portland will identify potential sites for building affordable housing projects.
"Housing is a determinent factor in life outcomes. It make for better employees and healthier people. Subsidized housing is the absolute key," Sims said.
According to WEA Executive Director Pam Treece, the organization decided to focus on housing last month because it has emerged as such a critical issue in recent years. Other events included a Housing Summit held on June 2 at the Beaverton Building that attracted more than 100 people, including Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, regional and local elected officials, affordable housing advocates and social service providers.
"Our role is to convene business, government and nonprofit leaders around issues, and this is one that is not going away," Treece said.
Even though the median household income in Washington County was $70,447, compared to $59,231 in Multnomah County in 2015, a high percentage of Washington County residents are rent burdened.
"About half of the renters in Washington County are paying more in housing costs than they can afford. And that percentage has gone up," said Kimberly Armstrong, a senior housing planner with Washington County.
The problem is especially acute in Hillsboro, the largest city in the county. A recent study found one in three Hillsboro households was spending more than 30 percent of monthly income on housing expenses, including basic utilities.
Treece said the goal of last month's focus on housing is to develop a series of specific policy recommendations the WEA can endorse and pursue. Ideas under consideration include preserving land for future affordable housing projects before costs increase any further. Helping condominium developers overcome the insurance problems that have slowed construction in recent years also is being discussed.
Affordable housing advocates in the county welcome the interest.
"This is not just a federal or state issue. It's everyone's responsibility," said Renne Bruce, director of the Community Action Network, another low-income advocacy group in the county. It has teamed with Montgomery's organization as Washington County strives to push for action on affordable housing and related issues.
To see a previous Portland Tribune story on the issue, go to http://tinyurl.com/y8w2522c.
Hillsboro Tribune reporter John William Howard contributed to this story.