Measures to stem housing crisis lag behind need
A little more than 18 months after the City Council declared a Housing State of Emergency, efforts so far have failed to meet the need identified by Portland leaders — even as complaints over homeless camping are growing.
When the council declared the emergency on Oct. 7, 2015, the most recent homeless count concluded 3,800 people were either sleeping on the streets, in shelters, or in temporary housing. By the time the council renewed the declaration a year later, it said that more people were newly homeless because of rising housing costs.
But only around 400 additional affordable housing units have been created since the original 2015 vote. And all of them are in projects that were either planned or under construction by then.
With Multnomah County's help, the city has added 472 permanent new emergency shelter beds in Portland since Feb. 1, 2016. And 90 new shelter beds have been created in Gresham. Around 100 more have existed continuously at a number of different temporary shelters since late 2015.
However, complaints about people camping in neighborhoods have increased even faster. When the city first began logging complaints about homeless campsites in October 2016, it received between 340 and 370 a week. By March of this year, the numbers had climbed to 354 to 451 a week. Many of those reported are also about people sleeping in vehicles.
A Home for Everyone, a regional initiative, has achieved more with increased funding for existing programs that place homeless people in housing with rent vouchers and other incentives. It reports 4,600 placements in the last fiscal year, the highest number ever. Most are still in their units, in part because they are also receiving supportive services.
The homeless estimate in the council's first emergency declaration came from the most recent Point-in-Time count completed by the county over two years ago. A new count conducted in February is scheduled to be released in coming months. It is widely expected to show a significant increase in the number of people living on Portland streets, despite the city and county having spent tens of millions more to address the issue over the past 18 months. Portland voters also approved a $248.5 million bond measure to build affordable housing at the 2016 November general election.
One big problem is the time it takes to build affordable housing. Although the Portland Housing Bureau says seven projects with 229 affordable units are currently under construction, only one has opened so far this year. It is the 40-unit NAYA Generations multi-generational housing project in Lents. The 105-unit St. Francis Park Apartments is scheduled to open next month.
And ground was just broken on the 80-unit Beatrice Morrow apartment building in Northeast Portland, the first project covered by the North/Northeast Neighborhood Housing Strategy intended to allow those displaced by gentrification to return to their former neighborhood.
An additional 25 projects with 1,905 affordable units were in pre-development at the beginning of the year, according to the Housing Bureau. It announced funding for an additional 125 units on Monday. The increase reflects the additional spending by the council, but most will not be completed for years.
Spending from the largest single source of affordable housing money — last November's bond measure — is currently on hold. A 21-member Affordable Housing Bond Stakeholders Advisory Committee was recently appointed to write a framework for spending the money. The committee is not scheduled to produce a draft until July 31, and it must be approved by the council before any of that money can be spent.
And the inclusionary zoning policy approved by the council last year has yet to have any effect. After the 2016 Oregon Legislature lifted the statewide prohibition against local inclusionary zoning policies, the council voted to require multifamily projects with more than 20 units to designate 10 to 15 percent of them as affordable, depending on the city's incentives. But developers rushed to submit building permits before the policy took effect on Feb. 1. The number of applications dropped off sharply after that, and all of the projects are still in the earliest stages of development.
Perhaps the most effective short-term measure approved by the council was the requirement that landlords pay relocation costs of tenants forced out by no-cause evictions or who chose to move after their rents are raised more than 10 percent in a single year. It is being challenged by landlords in the courts, however, and the 2017 Oregon Legislature has not yet lifted the statewide ban on local rent control policies, which the council supports.
In the meantime, rent increases are finally slowing in the Portland area. The easing is credited to the number of new market-rate apartments being completed throughout the city. But rents in some lower-priced apartments are still reportedly going up.
Both emergency declarations approved by the council cited double-digit rent increases as a major cause of homelessness. According to numerous organizations that track rents, area increases have either dropped to single digits or actually fallen slightly this year, depending on the size of the unit.