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Rockwood report expected to shape city policies going forward at Gresham City Hall.

FILE PHOTO - Gresham Mayor Shane BemisConcerns about housing are often raised during Gresham City Council meetings, frequently from community members facing exorbitant rent increases and no-cause evictions. But rather than focus on individual anecdotes, city officials said they want to approach the housing dilemma from a data-centric position.

"Making decisions with data is the right approach," said Eric Chambers, Gresham's director of intergovernmental relations. "We can't solve each individual case if the net outcome is poor overall."

City staff have created a new housing report that was presented during the council meeting Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 12. The report includes data that will help guide city leadership in future housing decisions.

"Because this deals with people's homes, it can be a very emotionally charged discussion," said Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis. "I'm glad to have this data to work with."

The new data will help update the city housing policy, which was last created in 2013. The old policy focused on providing a full range of housing types and sizes that would reflect the needs of the citizens. The policy stated the goal of avoiding concentrations of any one type of housing.

Gresham has about 43,000 housing units, with 770 being constructed since 2012. Compared to other communities in the region, Gresham remains one of the most affordable places to live.

Studies by third-party sources show one-bedroom rents in Gresham are not only about $300 less than in Portland, but also come in just below the state median.

"Rockwood is arguably the most affordable neighborhood in the Metro area," Chambers said.

In Rockwood, the median price for a studio apartment is $870, a one-bedroom is $823 and a two-bedroom is $1,022. Nearly two thirds of the units in Rockwood are two-bedroom.

Rent cost growth is currently at 3.7 percent, according to CoStar database. That is similar to what was seen pre-recession, and is a significant drop from the 12.5 percent growth that occurred in late 2015.

Brian Monberg, senior manager for the city, said the sharp increase two years ago was because of a lack of construction occurring in the wake of the recession, so there were no units available.

While only 18 percent of multifamily units in Rockwood are currently regulated by income or rent payment, more than 98 percent of rental units in the neighborhood are still priced to be affordable to people at or below the local median family income.

"A lot of stuff happening in Rockwood has been nation-leading," Bemis said.

The Rockwood-West Gresham Urban Renewal Plan was created to increase the availability of quality housing, with a focus on a mixture of different types of units. Housing projects in Rockwood have included other essential services like medical, dental, Head Start and job resources.

At Rockwood Rising, which will bring new construction and needed services to the area between Southeast Stark St., Southeast 185th Avenue and East Burnside Street, that work is being continued.

The site will be a central square with a public plaza and play structures for children and youths, an innovation hub with services for locals, retail stores, apartments, and a market hall with foods from the many cultures represented in the community.

Rockwood Rising also meets the city of Portland Inclusionary Zoning standard, and is atypically the first Urban Renewal project that has incorporated housing.

Despite the optimism from the city and others in the community, as Rockwood Rising nears the start of construction, opposition has become vocal. Fueled by Pueblo Unido, a grassroots organization dedicated to supporting and advocating for Latino immigrants in East Multnomah County, detractors claim the project will adversely affect housing.

They fear gentrification through the site will force out the Rockwood residents the city wants to support, and that the housing should all be dedicated to low-income families.

"Everything we have seen and studied showed Rockwood Rising will have the exact opposite of a mass exodus," said Monberg.

According to the city, it has seen more people move out of the region because of a betterment in their economic situation. Because there is a lack of higher-income housing options, those families and individuals are moving away from Rockwood.

The city wants to avoid creating pockets of concentrated poverty, which according to national studies, leads to a bevy of negative effects. Crime and delinquency, lower education, psychological distress and various health problems are all increased when there is a lack of income diversity.

"When you bring in the other elements of the project, we are making investments to help people improve their lives," Chambers said. "When you concentrate poverty, it creates bad outcomes."

Future actions Gresham plans to take using the information will be to continue producing new housing units while preserving existing ones, incentivize home ownership and support renters.

"In all of my years talking about housing in this community, I have never seen anything as detailed or put together," said Councilor David Widmark. "This will be very helpful moving forward."

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