Affordable housing developers work to fill the gap
It's one of the most significant issues in the Portland region, and one no less poignant in western Washington County: Where do people who work at the low-wage jobs that make up a significant part of the labor market live, as real estate and rental prices soar?
The Welcome Home Coalition, a group of affordable housing developers, homeless service and shelter providers, and other organizations that work on poverty-related issues, and a coalition member, nonprofit housing provider Bienestar Oregon, partnered for a showcase of some low-income residential properties in Forest Grove and Cornelius last week.
About a couple dozen people participated in a tour Thursday morning, April 26, of farmworker housing that Bienestar owns and operates in western Washington County. The group included representatives from Washington County, the Oregon Food Bank, the Forest Grove City Council, and the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District, job-seekers interested in the affordable housing sector, professionals who work on multifamily housing projects, and more.
The Welcome Home Coalition formed in 2014. It has evolved from focusing on political advocacy around affordable housing in Portland to also lending heft to affordable housing efforts in the suburbs, including Washington and Clackamas counties, and serving as a sort of "regional housing authority."
"We want to work ourselves out of a job," said Kari Lyons, the coalition's director. "In order to do that, we have … I think it's 47,500 units that we need in the Portland metropolitan region — 0 to 50 percent area median income — need to be built in order for us to house all the folks that are either overcrowded, displaced or currently homeless. … So we've got a big job ahead of us."
The coalition advocates for new construction, Lyons said, remarking, "We really need to increase our housing stock."
That is something Bienestar is looking at, according to executive director Nathan Teske, who led participants through two farmworker housing properties in north Forest Grove and briefed them on a couple more housing developments in Cornelius. Bienestar owns some land across Osburn Street from its Juniper Gardens apartment complex, including what used to be a community garden space, and Teske said it's part of a portfolio of land the nonprofit is considering for future development.
Teske doesn't want to wait too long, he suggested.
"Those of you who work in housing will know that cost of construction right now is very high, and going up and up and up," Teske told the group. "They're projecting that it will be 12 percent more a year from now than it is now."
Unfortunately, development around the Juniper Gardens complex is constrained by a simple but significant problem: The streets are very narrow.
Forest Grove City Councilor Tim Rippe said drivers of larger vehicles — including the likes of fire trucks and school buses, which need to be able to traverse the streets without incident — have already been reporting problems with access because residents tend to park along the sides of the streets, further narrowing the lanes of travel.
"The easy solution is to put up more no-parking signs, which is going to take away parking from the residents," Rippe said.
The streets could be widened, Rippe acknowledged, but that would cost more money.
Still, Rippe said the narrow streets are an issue that must be addressed, especially with the prospect of more multifamily development in the neighborhood.
"We have to do something about it," he said.
Juniper Gardens is located just a few blocks from two of Bienestar's original properties dating back to the 1980s, Elm Park I and Elm Park II.
Teske introduced Krishelle Lucas, an Elm Park resident whose husband is a farmworker. With their financial situation improving, the family is preparing to move into a duplex not far from the apartment complex, but Lucas was effusive in praising what affordable housing has done for them, calling it "a huge blessing" to be able to live at Elm Park.
"This was really the first time that we were able to live in a place that was our own," Lucas said. "We were able to save money for things that we needed, so we bought a new car that we desperately needed. My husband was able to finalize his permanent residency, which was a huge deal for us. It was very expensive, and we'd actually had to put the process on hold multiple times. … Once we got here, we just kind of had that independence to say this is our place, we can afford to live here, we're not scared that the rent's going to increase so much that we can't pay it."
She added, "One of the things that I think was the best part about living here was that it gave us some financial independence. We always lived paycheck-to-paycheck-to-paycheck, and we always had a hard time being able to budget for things that were really important, because all of the money was gone on rent. … This has given us an opportunity to learn how to manage that money in a different way, because we weren't struggling so much. And so we have kind of a newfound confidence in being able to handle our monthly expenses, and you know, we're not scared to look at things that maybe before we were scared to look at."
While residents of complexes like Juniper Gardens and Elm Park share something in common — at least one family member must work in agriculture or food processing — in general, individuals and families seeking affordable housing come from many different backgrounds, with many different reasons for why they are priced out of an increasingly expensive housing market and many different specifications for the type of housing they need.
Lyons said the Welcome Home Coalition and its members have to keep those complexities in mind.
"It wasn't until I became a part of the Welcome Home Coalition that I started to realize how hard it is for us to build affordable housing," she said, adding, "The more and more I've learned about it, I've realized it's a very complex issue. … If we're going to sit around in our places of privilege, where we have a safe place to go home at night, we have to be really cognizant of how much energy we all collectively have to put in to solve this problem."
She added, "We can't just show up and say, 'Build more housing,' without understanding the complexity of it and what exactly we want to get behind and stand behind."
Teske likened what organizations like Bienestar do to a complex puzzle.
"Doing affordable housing development is like a Rubik's Cube of putting together different pieces of funding and financing and making it all work out," he said.
Metro, the regional government, is considering placing an affordable housing bond measure on the ballot as soon as this November. Lyons said the Welcome Home Coalition is advocating that bond dollars focus on new construction, including "family-sized" units with three and four bedrooms, and that a significant amount of the funding be set aside for housing to serve people making between 0 and 30 percent of median family income.
The Welcome Home Coalition and Bienestar are offering another affordable housing tour in Washington County on Thursday, May 17. Participants on that tour will visit housing developments in the Aloha and Hillsboro areas. Registration for the event is full as of press time.
By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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