Top elected leaders discuss regional issues
The elected leaders of Metro and three Portland area counties say they support pending legislation that ends exclusive single-family zoning, even though it may impinge on the principle of local control.
They say that a housing shortage, which prompted the legislation, is among a number of regional issues that compel them to cooperate far more than in the past.
Metro President Lynn Peterson said she is concerned about the estimated 56,000 households in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties that are on the edge of homelessness because rent consumes half or more of their incomes. The figure comes from a 2018 ECONorthwest report, and is based partly on a federal definition of households as "severely rent-burdened."
"We talked about how we do not have the ability to attract a workforce because even at $25 per hour, we have folks who are struggling" with housing costs, said Peterson, a former Clackamas County chairwoman and Lake Oswego city councilor who took her current position in January.
"We need so much more (housing) choice out in the marketplace."
Peterson and the three county chairs spoke June 26 at a breakfast forum sponsored by the Westside Economic Alliance at Embassy Suites in Tigard during what is believed to be their first joint appearance.
During a wide-ranging discussion moderated by journalist Shasta Kearns Moore, they also talked about homelessness and transportation.
"It's not something that any city, county or even region can tackle alone," Multnomah County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury said. "The only way we are going to solve this is if we can come together."
Choice is needed
Some cities have opposed House Bill 2001, which cleared the House on June 20, but awaited an uncertain future in the Senate as the 2019 session winds down. The bill, sponsored by House Speaker Tina Kotek of Portland, would allow for construction of duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes — or clustered cottages or townhouses — on land zoned for single-family homes in cities of 1,000 or more people within Portland's urban growth boundary.
Washington County Chairwoman Kathryn Harrington said she recognizes that the bill would result in planning and public works issues for smaller communities.
"But we need to build a wider variety of housing choices and support everyone's need for stable housing, including home ownership," said Harrington, a Metro councilor for 12 years before she took her current position in January. "I feel we will figure this out."
Clackamas County Chairman Jim Bernard said that under state planning requirements, cities are primarily responsible for ensuring an adequate amount of land for housing while counties protect farm and forest lands.
But he, too, supported the proposed change. "We need other choices," said Bernard, who was Milwaukie mayor for eight years before he became a commissioner a decade ago and chairman in 2017. "We need to go up … and not out."
Bernard said his county is completing an assessment of housing, and many cities close to Portland — even his former city of Milwaukie — lack housing costing no more than 30% of household income that is considered "affordable."
"Consequently, where are they moving?" he said. "They are moving to Estacada," which is outside the Portland urban growth boundary.
Voters within Metro boundaries approved a $653 million bond last year to build up to 3,900 homes for lower-income people. The approval followed a 2016 vote in Portland for a $258 million bond.
Even with the new housing, officials said, the region is short of adequacy by up to 44,000 units.
Kafoury said homelessness is another regional issue that warrants the attention of all four governments.
"The housing we are building is much needed," said Kafoury, a commissioner since 2008 and chair since 2014. "But we know that people who are at the very low-income level — and people who are suffering from alcohol and drug addiction, people who have mental health issues, seniors and people who are disabled — cannot afford the housing we are building that is affordable."
A coalition known as Here Together is forming to advocate for "permanent supportive housing," which combines shelter with services such as mental health and job training.
One model is the soon-to-be-open Blackburn Building at Northeast 122nd Avenue and Burnside Street in Portland, which combines housing with a health clinic. The six-story building will be run by Central City Concern.
"We are trying to pinpoint our investments to where it will do the greatest good," Bernard said, starting with social services grants by Clackamas County.
Harrington said even as they face state cuts in community mental health and corrections programs run by counties, local governments cannot rely on help from federal and state governments.
"No one is going to save us," she said. "We are going to have to marshal ourselves. You know we have a problem. You see it each day in your communities. Do we know exactly what to do? No. Are we talking about it? Yes.
"We know this is threatening our quality of life and our economic leadership in our region."
On transportation, Metro — the regional planning agency — and the three counties are discussing what a proposed 2020 regional bond issue should pay for. Metro's Peterson said that aside from a share of the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail extension from Portland to Tigard and Tualatin, an advisory committee is seeking agreement on high-volume traffic corridors that can benefit from improvements paid by the bond.