A flurry of support at all levels in works to address the need

PORTLAND TRIBUNE JONATHAN HOUSE - The Abigail is one of the few affordable housing projects under construction. It is at Northwest 13th Avenue and Raleigh Street. Many more would be built under local, regional and state proposals.Community activists have been complaining about the lack of affordable housing for years, saying that the shortage is contributing to homelessness and the displacement of low-income minorities from the gentrifying parts of Portland.

But within the past few months, the complaints have turned into a scramble to support a wave of affordable housing initiatives at the local, regional and state level. New programs are being implemented or considered by the city of Portland, Multnomah County, Metro and the 2015 Oregon Legislature. Although the activists don’t claim the initiatives will solve all of the housing problems, they are amazed by the increased focus on the issue.

“There’s a lot going on, and it’s really exciting that there’s a lot going on,” says Ruth Adkins, policy director for the Oregon Opportunity Network, a nonprofit organization that advocates for seniors, working families, and people with disabilities.

Adkins sees several reasons for the surge in activity, including the increase in housing costs that have come with the economic recovery. Rents and home prices are both climbing, in part because millennials are getting jobs and moving out of their parents’ homes. That is forcing low-income residents out of their neighborhoods and into less expensive parts of town. And it is also squeezing middle-income earners whose wages have stagnated.

“I think things are getting so bad, there’s a recognition that it’s a crisis. It’s getting a critical mass,” Adkins says.

The larger number of Democrats in the Oregon Legislature as a result of the 2014 elections also is playing a role, she says.

“Affordable housing issues are getting more traction in Salem,” Adkins says.

As discussed by the activists, “affordable housing” is a broad term that means many things, from free housing for the homeless to housing with payments structured for those earning a certain percentage of the state’s median income. It also has come to mean programs that directly subsidize housing costs, such as rent supplements. Here are some of the current affordable housing initiatives:

• The North/Northeast Neighborhood Housing Strategy is a $20 million investment proposed by Mayor Charlie Hales and approved by the City Council after Trader Joe’s pulled out of a proposed Northeast Portland development because of protests against gentrification. As part of that initiative, the Portland Housing Bureau is seeking qualified developers for a vacant set of parcels it owns totaling approximately 32,400 square feet located on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard between Cook and Ivy streets, known as the Grant Warehouse Redevelopment site. The initiative includes other potential development projects, homeownership support and rental assistance.

• A Home for Everyone is an ad hoc committee composed of Portland and Multnomah County leaders. Its executive committee has accepted recommendations that detail how $33 million a year in new spending could reduce homelessness in the Portland metropolitan area by 50 percent. Committee members, who include Mayor Charlie Hales and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, have committed to pursuing such additional funding. Their budget proposals are falling short of that goal, however.

Multnomah County has approved an additional $375,000 to place more veterans and their families in housing. The City Council has approved an additional $126,00 to extend the women’s winter shelter and $150,000 to accelerate placing more veterans in housing and the Landlord Response Team. Hales’ proposed budget includes $500,000 to house more veterans and $2.5 million for affordable housing. Kafoury’s proposed budget includes $5 million for affordable housing development, $2 million for housing placement and retention supports, and $90,000 to keep the family shelter open year-round.

In addition, Home Forward, the countywide housing provider, has committed 200 Housing Choice vouchers for homeless families and 50 for homeless veterans who are ineligible for Veterans Adminstration healthcare.

• Metro, the elected regional government, has launched a $200,00 Equitable Housing Initiative that includes a survey of affordable housing policies in the metropolitan area and a summit in the fall to encourage more construction. Metro has contracted with the Oregon Opportunity Network to survey local governments on their affordable housing policies.

• $100 million for affordable housing has been proposed by Gov. Kate Brown and is being considered at the 2015 Oregon Legislature. Funds would come from $85 million general obligation and $15 million Oregon Lottery bond sales. It is projected to build 4,000 to 5,000 units. The state would retain partial ownership of projects built by local governments and nonprofit organizations. Rent requirements would be structured to support low-income workers and families. The proposal is in the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee.

• Repeal of the state “inclusionary zoning” ban to allow local governments to dedicate a fixed percentage of units in residential developments to affordable housing. The current bill to allow mandated units requires local governments to provide at least one financial incentive to developers, but does not apply to rental projects. Some legislators want to include rentals. Home builders are opposed to the repeal.

In addition, the newly formed Welcome Home Coalition of housing activists is working to recommend a permanent funding source for additional affordable units. And a loose-knit coalition of activists in Portland is formulating an agenda that potentially includes rent control and “right to return” policies for existing low-income residents displaced by gentrification.

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The relocation of the Right 2 Dream Too homeless camp in Old Town has been postponed for an environmental review of its proposed new site in Southeast Portland.

Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Amanda Fritz have proposed buying the surplus 9,072-square-foot parcel from the Oregon Department of Transportation at Southeast Third Avenue and Harrison Street for the camp. However, the parcel is near Highway 99E and close to railroad tracks. A previous Stage 1 review determined that a Stage 2 review that includes air monitoring was needed.

The City Council originally had been expected to vote on the purchase in May, and the decision has not yet been rescheduled. Camp organizers also have said they need to negotiate some details of the relation with the city.

Old Town developers gave the city $846,000 to buy a new site for the camp, commonly called R2D2. It is on a vacant lot at West Burnside Street and Fourth Avenue that the city has agreed to purchase for $1.2 million for redevelopment.

The city is considering installing toilets, showers and storage at the Southeast Portland site if the sale goes through.

Questions about the relocation have been raised by organizations representing businesses and residents in the area, including the Central Eastside Industrial Council and Southeast Uplift, which represents 20 neighborhoods in Southeast Portland. CEIC Chairwoman Debbie Kitchin says her group is against all outdoor homeless campsites. The SEUL board of directors could take a stand on the proposed move at its June 1 meeting.

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