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The City Council approved an allowance for more units in Highway 8 commercial zone for 'affordable housing.'

PAMPLIN MEDIA PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax speaks at a Westside Economic Alliance breakfast in 2017.Following the lead of city planning commissioners, the Forest Grove City Council agreed Monday night, Sept. 10, not to include higher density allowances for a residential zone south of downtown as part of its strategy for encouraging more affordable housing development.

The City Council approved changes to city code granting developers who dedicate as low-income housing at least one-fifth of their units in Forest Grove's "community commercial" zone, which runs along the Highway 8 corridor east of downtown, a so-called "density bonus" that will allow them to construct more housing units per acre. However, they did not approve a similar density bonus in the "residential multifamily high," or RMH, zone. That zone includes a slice of the Clark Historic District, on the north side of 18th Avenue, and is populated with many of Forest Grove's older homes.

Residents turned out at a planning commission meeting in July with concerns about the proposed RMH density bonus, which would have allowed 30 dwelling units per acre — up from the current 20.28-unit limit — for developments that met Forest Grove's "affordable housing" criteria. Commissioners ultimately voted to recommend that the City Council adopt the less controversial community commercial density bonus, but not the proposed density bonus for the residential zone.

The writing was on the wall for how the City Council would respond when it met Aug. 14. At that meeting, Councilor Adolph "Val" Valfre Jr. made a motion that the council largely follow the planning commission's recommendation, making only a tweak to how developments qualify as "affordable housing." Because the Aug. 14 public hearing was continued to the Forest Grove City Council's next meeting, that motion sat for almost a month before the council took it up again on Monday, approving the proffered ordinance on a 6-0 vote.

"We want to keep our downtown a place where people want to come and walk," said Debbie Rogers Bianchi, who told the council she lives in the Walker Naylor Historic District. She added, "I really appreciate you guys for listening to us in the downtown area."

Old Town Church outreach director Brian Schimmel showed a video of a woman with four children who said she had been priced out of rent and was receiving assistance through Family Promise of Washington County, a homelessness program with which he and his church are involved.

"I think the ordinance or the decision before you is really part of a regional effort to improve affordable housing for everyone," Schimmel told the council. "And just like the families that we experience in Family Promise, they're just economically distressed. … The cost of housing just continues to grow. So any effort we can make in terms of policy could greatly assist that effort."

The community commercial density bonus that is now slated to take effect will allow developments to be built out to 50 dwelling units per acre instead of the usual 30, provided that one-fifth of the units meet the city's definition of "affordable housing." That means they must be accessible for people making 60 percent or less of Washington County's area median income, a figure the Forest Grove City Council revised upward from the planning commission's suggested 50 percent in order to fall in line with other municipal documents and provisions.

The City Council also unanimously approved Monday a partial property tax exemption for nonprofits that meet the city's definition of an affordable housing provider. Together with Washington County's existing tax exemption, such nonprofits could be exempt from paying up to 48 percent of property taxes on housing developments in Forest Grove that serve a low-income population.

Nonprofits that wish to receive a tax exemption from the City of Forest Grove must re-apply annually and prove they meet the city's criteria, according to Bryan Pohl, Forest Grove's community development director.

The city's "low-income" criteria would increase from 60 percent of area median income in the first year to 80 percent in subsequent years, under an amendment successfully put forward by Valfre on Monday.

"We've had these problems in the past in the state where people would not take jobs … because they'd lose benefits," Johnston said.

Valfre, who retired last year as Washington County's housing services director, agreed.

"Most definitely," he said. "And this would avoid that."

Just as at last month's meeting, Forest Grove resident David Morelli urged councilors to reject both the density bonus and tax exemption proposals. Morelli, the only person to offer public testimony in opposition at either meeting, argued that Forest Grove already has more than its proportionate share of Washington County's low-income housing.

"Affordable housing should be located in jurisdictions in the vicinity of family-wage jobs and in jurisdictions that can afford to provide public services," Morelli said on Monday. "The rest of the county needs to step up to the plate and deliver affordable housing to the same degree that Forest Grove already does."

Affordable housing remains a hot topic both in Forest Grove and throughout the greater Portland area. The regional government Metro has referred a bond measure to the Nov. 6 ballot that would raise property taxes by 24 cents per $1,000 of assessed value — that's $60 per year for a house assessed at $250,000 — to fund the construction of up to 3,900 units of low-income housing throughout the region. If Oregon voters reject Ballot Measure 102, which would change the Oregon Constitution to allow for public-private partnerships on affordable housing projects, that number would shrink to 2,400.

While Metro's Measure 26-199 is hotly contested, Measure 102 would not raise taxes or fees, has no organized opposition, and is considered likely to pass.

The Forest Grove City Council has not formally weighed in on Measure 26-199 at this point. The Cornelius City Council deadlocked 2-2 on a resolution of support brought forward by City Manager Rob Drake in July, thereby not endorsing the bond measure.

Before voting in favor of the city property tax exemption on Monday, Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax alluded to Albert Einstein's famous — although likely apocryphal — definition of insanity: "doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results."

"This is not going to solve all the problems, just like the Metro bond is not going to solve all the problems," Truax said. "But these are things we're doing in an effort to come to a solution, because what we've done in the past hasn't worked."

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated Brian Schimmel's title. He is the outreach director for Old Town Church in Forest Grove. The story has been updated.

By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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