Committees find city has highest rate of poverty in county, council accepts needs assessment and policy

COURTESY PHOTO - Tiny houses and other 'accessory dwelling units' might be part of the solution to affordable housing in Forest Grove.The Forest Grove City Council officially accepted a needs assessment and policy recommendations related to affordable housing in Forest Grove at its Monday night meeting Sept. 11.

Submitted by two committees that have been studying the subject, the recommendations include everything from tiny houses or other small dwellings connected to homes, to a manufactured-home village, to helping low-income families with security deposits or rent.

The committees found that Forest Grove has the highest rate of poverty and highest number of subsidized houses per capita in Washington County.

Based on Metro data, about 2,000 of the city's households have low or "extremely low" incomes while the city offers only 652 regulated affordable housing units.

The committees estimate a minimum need for at least 1,400 affordable housing units, which would account for 10 percent of the affordable housing need across Washington County. But that number could be higher, given that 3,000 households in Forest Grove currently spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing-related costs, according to data from the American Community Survey.

After reviewing 25 affordable-housing programs or strategies used elsewhere, the committee developed its own top 10 recommendations. Starting with the No. 1 priority, they are:

1) Reducing or waiving costs and fees in order to promote accessory dwelling units — small extra spaces which meet minimum standards connected to a single-family home, such as an apartment over the garage or in the basement, or a tiny house or "granny flat" in the back yard;

2) Tax exemptions for affordable housing;

3) A security deposit/rent assistance program;

4) An inclusionary housing ordinance, which would require new housing developments to include a certain percentage of affordable units;

5) A construction excise tax for affordable housing;

6) Setting aside land for a manufactured home village and revising codes or regulations to encourage such homes;

7) Partnering more with affordable housing providers;

8) Waiving or offsetting system development charges (SDCs) for developers who provide affordable housing;

9) Adopting regulations that would allow "micro-housing" villages (apartments the size of a dorm room); and

10) Streamlining the development approval process for affordable housing by identifying a "point person" to shepherd projects.

Of those, accessory dwelling units, tax exemptions and a manufactured home village would be "low-hanging fruit," according to Sheila Greenlaw-Fink, executive director of the Beaverton-based Community Housing Fund.

The city council requested a critique from Greenlaw-Fink, who also favored three options which might require a dedicated revenue source: deposit/rent assistance, inclusionary zoning and an SDC offset.

Among the 15 ideas that didn't make the list were: encouraging Forest Grove High School's Viking House program to construct cottage housing; donating surplus land (or providing other incentives) so nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity would build more homes; expanding the density bonus for affordable housing beyond the Town Center area; and relaxing development or design standards for affordable housing.

Councilor Malynda Wenzl was particularly excited about the tiny house idea. "There's a lot of different kinds of people who like tiny houses," said Wenzl, who feels strongly about low-income residents being respected, accepted and not discriminated against.

Wenzl also wants to link the affordable housing issue with homelessness, which council members discussed in a work session before the meeting. Of some 20 goals prioritized by the council at its annual retreat this year, the desire to address local homelessness rose to the top.

During the work session, City Manager Jesse VanderZanden noted that at a recent conference for city managers in Oregon, he discovered homelessness is a big issue across the state and other cities are creating task forces or committees to address the problem.

Councilor Matt Vandehey supported the idea of Forest Grove creating its own ad-hoc committee on homelessness.

Senior Planner Dan Riordan (acting Community Development Director) presented the committee's findings to the council and said the next task is to develop a work plan that will formally prioritize the council's priorities for action.

By Jill Rehkopf Smith
Associate Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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