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Minority, housing groups praise 'density bonus' in central city

City Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s plan to promote more affordable housing in the central city by allowing developers to build taller buildings won widespread praise Thursday from low-income housing advocates and groups representing people of color.

The resounding show of support quashed earlier resistance among Saltzman’s council peers, who had feared the plan was tilted too much to modest-income earners instead of the poor.

City commissioners voted 4-0 to endorse the plan and keep it moving forward. Now it will be fine-tuned by city planners and the Planning and Sustainability Commission, returning to the council for a final vote by next July.

Saltzman proposed allowing builders to add essentially three extra stories onto their buildings if they agree to include a certain number of affordable apartments or pay a fee to the city.

City officials figure the new “density bonus” could yield 800 to 1,300 more affordable apartment units over the next 20 years, or generate $120 million to $200 million so others can build such units.

The apartment units must be affordable for 60 years to families or individuals earning 60 percent to 80 percent of the median family income.

Fees paid in lieu of adding such units would go into a city fund and would be used to develop apartments for lower-income tenants earning less than 60 percent of the median.

Many existing density bonuses allowed in the central city would be eliminated, to put more focus on developing affordable housing.

When his plan was first aired last month, Saltzman said there was a bit of a “war” brewing over what income groups to support from the policy, which seemed like a potential sticking point. Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish had stressed the need to aid more needy tenants, and Fritz said Saltzman’s proposal would make the central city “more white.”

But Saltzman’s plan was roundly endorsed Thursday by a host of groups working on affordable housing and representing people of color.

Jonathan Ostar, executive director of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, said developers might not “bite” if they were pressed to build in the central city for people earning less than 60 percent of the median income. Margaret Tallmadge, who works on environmental justice issues for the Coalition of Communities of Color, concurred.

Saltzman noted his proposal will provide money to subsidize units for those earning less than 60 percent of the median income when developers choose to pay fees instead of building the units. Commercial building developers also would pay such fees in exchange for adding more floors to office, retail or hotel buildings in the central city, he noted.

“This structure allows us to address both of those issues,” said Javier Mena, assistant director of the Portland Housing Bureau.

In the face of such testimony, Fritz said she changed her mind and would support the plan. Fish went further, calling it a “legacy proposal” for Saltzman.

The city started allowing density bonuses for building in the central city back in the 1980s, but then the city’s main goal was to lure developers to build housing — any housing — downtown.

Since 2005, more than 50 central city developers have taken advantage of the density bonuses, said Joe Zehnder, chief planner for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Of those, 23 were awarded for simply building housing, which is now seen as an unnecessary incentive. Another 13 were granted for builders to add green roofs, and four were granted for developers who added bike lockers.

Zehnder earlier said developers using the density bonus to put up green roofs or bike lockers were getting “pretty sweet deals.” Those developers reaped far more financial benefits than warranted, in his view.

Those are some of the bonuses the city might discontinue under the new policy, in order to prioritize affordable housing, Saltzman said.

Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, objected to scrapping the green roof density bonus. “The fact is the market’s not taking care of it,” Sallinger said.

City councilors asked the Planning and Sustainability Bureau to recommend some way to foster more green roofs.

Raihana Ansary, government relations manager for the Portland Business Alliance, suggested the council retain the current density bonuses but allow even-taller buildings for those adding affordable housing. And she suggested the city provide the incentive for builders willing to build apartments for tenants earning 100 percent of the median family income instead of targeting lower-income people.

Those ideas didn’t get any support among city councilors.

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