Our Opinion: Affordable housing bond needs work
The people backing Metro's bond measure have some powerful facts on their side:
• The affordable housing crisis is not just a Portland issue. Median-wage earners would be hard-pressed to find a house they could buy anywhere in the metro area. Minimum-wage earners struggle to find rents they can afford.
• The "free market" is not supplying enough affordable rental units in the region. There are a lot of buildings going up in and around Portland, but few of them are offered below market rates.
• The federal government, which once provided incentives and even direct funding for low-income housing, has pulled back dramatically from that role. Local governments have been unable to bridge the funding gap.
• Public opinion polls show that residents are tired of seeing fellow Oregonians living in tents and sleeping on sidewalks. They want their local governments to do something bold to allow the working poor to have homes.
At first blush, Measure 26-199 seems like a good step in the right direction. The $653 million general obligation bond was referred to the ballot, unanimously, by Metro councilors in June. The money would be used to buy, renovate and build affordable housing for up to 12,000 people in the tricounty area. It would target people making 80 percent or less of the median income (which is about $65,000), with about half of the units set aside for households earning about $23,000 or less.
Yet we are unable to give this measure our endorsement.
We agree that lack of available affordable housing is a regional issue, but we're not convinced that turning Metro into a regional affordable housing czar — providing funds and setting standards — is the solution.
It's true that the measure is structured so that the money is split fairly between Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties (even its opponents concede that), and three county housing agencies would be heavily involved in deciding what gets purchased and built. But Metro, which has little experience with housing, would take on a big, new role on a project with lots of moving pieces, on a proposal that received fairly little public debate.
Some of those pieces are political, and response to the measure in the 24 cities inside the Metro boundary is mixed, at best. Few elected officials outside Portland are actively backing the bond and several mayors, as well as Washington County chair Andy Duyck, are publicly critical.
Locating subsidized housing requires balancing a lot of factors. A good deal on a building or parcel of vacant land is important, but so is proximity to public transportation and jobs. And yet, Metro has no authority to force cities to provide low-income housing. In fact, it's been unable to get some mayors of affluent cities to even establish housing goals for their communities.
As a result, there's no guarantee that the affordable units will be distributed equitably. Some communities may continue to get a disproportionate number of apartments, while others will continue to build primarily market-rate single-family homes.
Finally, there are no requirements — or even incentives — that the money be used to get the most bang for the buck. We'd hope that local agencies would stretch the bond money by working with nonprofits and look to preserve existing low-income units before breaking ground on new buildings. But there's nothing in the measure that would guarantee that the $5 per month levied on a typical homeowner (based on a $250,000 assessed value) would be spent efficiently.
One of the measure's critics described it to the Portland Tribune as "half-baked." We think that's a bit harsh, but we do think this is an idea that needs a bit more fine-tuning before getting approval from voters.
We encourage voters in the metro region to support statewide Measure 102, which would give Metro and other local governments more flexibility with spending housing bond funds, but to reject Measure 26-199, to give Metro and regional leaders more time to get the details right.
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