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PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Construction workers stack prefabricated modules into the Kah San Chako Haws affordable apartment building in Southeast Portland. Affordable housing advocates are counting on the Portland City Council to place the city’s first-ever bond measure to fund affordable housing projects on the November general election ballot.

“We expect it will be a unanimous vote,” says Jes Larson, director of the Welcome Home coalition, which includes over 140 anti-poverty, cultural, environmental justice, faith, social service and other organizations.

Although Larson says the dollar amount of the measure has yet to be determined, one informed source predicted it will be in the $250 million to $300 million range.

Larson says the city, not Multnomah County, is the preferred jurisdiction to sponsor the measure, because it has agencies that provide affordable housing services, including the Portland Housing Bureau, which helps fund such projects.

“Portland already has the infrastructure in place,” Larson says.

She says the details of the measure are still being discussed.

Portland Housing Bureau Director Kurt Creager says the City Council will take it up after considering a proposal by Commissioner Dan Saltzman to enact a 1 percent construction excise tax to fund affordable housing projects on June 16.

“It will come forward after the construction excise tax is settled by the City Council. We’re trying to do these in sequence,” Creager says.

Affordable housing advocates have been discussing the idea of a bond measure for affordable housing for more than a year. Such a measure has never been put on a local ballot before, although Seattle voters have approved one bond and four levies for affordable housing projects since 1981. The $388 million raised there has funded more than 12,500 affordable apartments, helped more than 900 first-time homebuyers, and provided emergency rental assistance to more than 6,500 households. A new $290 million levy has been placed on the Aug. 2 ballot in Seattle.

The Portland bond measure could compete against several other money measures being discussed for the general election. They include: a statewide corporate sales tax expected to raise $3 billion a year; a $450 million to $650 million Portland Public Schools construction bond; and early renewal of Metro’s $12 million-a-year levy to maintain and improve the 17,000 acres of natural areas it owns in the region.

Addressing a crisis

Larson says a city affordable housing measure would help meet the needs of lower-income residents who are being increasingly priced out of the housing market. According to research conducted by Welcome Home, the region is short more than 63,000 affordable rental options for families with incomes below 50 percent of the federally determined median family income (about $35,000 for a family of four). Affordability is widely defined as rent or a mortgage costing no more than 30 percent of a household’s income.

“Affordability is the root cause of the homeless crisis,” Larson says.

For many years, the federal government was the only significant source of affordable housing funds. But the City Council has chipped in for decades. For example, it pledged 30 percent of all urban renewal dollars to such projects many years ago, and even transferred the funds for them from the Portland Development Commission to the Portland Housing Bureau.

The council began increasing its commitment to affordable housing more than 18 months ago. In response to community protests over a city-funded North Portland redevelopment project with no affordable housing, Mayor Charlie Hales persuaded the council to approve an additional $20 million in January 2015.

Then, in October, the council declared a housing emergency and increased the share of urban renewal dollars for affordable housing projects to 45 percent, generating a projected $67 million more over 10 years. More recently, the council approved another $20 million for affordable housing and homeless services in next year’s budget. It is being matched by $10 million from Multnomah County and will be administered by A Home for Everyone, a consortium of the city, county, Gresham and Home Forward, formerly the Housing Authority of Portland.

The council also joined with affordable housing advocates and developers to lobby the 2016 Oregon Legislature for more options. Lawmakers agreed to allow cities to require developers to include incentivized affordable units in their market-rate housing projects. They also authorized cities to enact a 1 percent construction excise tax on new residential and commercial projects to fund the incentives and traditional affordable housing projects.

Commissioner Saltzman has taken the lead on the construction excise tax because he is in charge of the Portland Housing Bureau. He estimates the residential portion will raise $5.4 million a year and the commercial portion will raise $2.6 million a year. Although the Legislature said half the commercial portion can be spent on other programs, Saltzman will ask the council to dedicate all of it to affordable housing.

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