How would the Southwest Corridor project impact affordable housing?
Representatives from Metro, TriMet, the cities of Portland and Tigard and an amalgam of organizations are working on an ambitious transportation project — a MAX line along the Southwest Corridor — that could cause both
intended and unintended consequences, particularly in the housing sector. To address potential problems and possible solutions, those public officials, citizens and community activists gathered at Markham Elementary School in Southwest Portland on Oct. 14. to discuss strategies for mitigating displacement and skyrocketing
real estate. They also considered ways to foster housing affordability and flexibility along the potential new MAX line from downtown Portland to Bridgeport Village. The gathering included speeches from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Community Alliance of Tenants Executive Director Katrina Holland, small group discussions and an explanation of the plan by Metro representatives. Project managers will continue to deliberate and engage with communities and organizations in the coming years, officials said, and plan to fi
nalize an equitable housing strategy by the spring of 2018. Funding for the project has not been finalized, and the rail wouldn't be finished in any case until 2025 at the earliest. Hillsdale resident Sheila Greenlaw-Fink told the Connection that the introduction of the project may have already caused housing prices to increase along the Southwest Corridor and said the implementation of the light rail would likely keep prices rising.
"When we look at what's happening around Portland, and definitely the Southwest Corridor, we're seeing more rapidly rising rates. I think whether that's due to the idea of a light-rail line, at least in part it would be hard to argue that it isn't. That's only going to increase the more real a potential light rail becomes. Getting ahead of that is really challenging." Project managers anticipate that the population along the Southwest Corridor will grow by 40,000 residents by 2040 and that jobs will increase by a similar amount. According to Metro, 3,500 residents along the Southwest Corridor spend at least 50 percent of their income on housing and 4,000 additional homeowners are struggling to maintain homeowner status. The Portland City Council declared that the city is in the throngs of a "housing emergency" in 2015. Coupled with stagnating incomes and an increase in housing demand, public infrastructure projects often exacerbate affordable housing issues, officials said. Metro, the City of Portland and other organizations are considering strategies such as public investment in affordable housing, land banking and improving tenant rights to mitigate these issues. "A lot of people ask, 'What is equitable housing?' And so we define it in two ways. One is the ability to stay in your home without fear of displacement as your neighborhood becomes more desirable. The second is the ability for new people to come in and have a variety of choices that meet their needs," Project Manager Ryan Curren said. In one of the most notable moments of the morning, Wheeler said that he will advocate for a $100 million investment in affordable housing along the Southwest Corridor as part of the $1.7 billion regional transportation funding measure that the Portland City Council is preparing for the 2018 ballot. Currently, only 1.2 percent of all regulated
housing in Portland is located near the proposed route of the Southwest Corridor light rail. "This cannot be a successful corridor if it's not successful from a housing affordability perspective. I think the two go hand and glove," Wheeler said in his speech. However, TriMet told the Portland Tribune after the event that it can't issue bonds for affordable housing. "We fully understand the need for affordable housing in the community; however, TriMet is not legally allowed to issue bonds for housing of any kind, including low-income or affordable housing. While we move forward with our jurisdictional partners on discussion of a possible bond measure to fund projects that will combat traffic congestion, we also will work to help Mayor Wheeler and the region identify affordable housing opportunities near transit," TriMet Public Affairs Director Bernie Bottomly said. Hillsdale resident Glenn Bridger said he hopes that future investments related to the Southwest Corridor project will go toward developing more housing options for residents in Southwest Portland — specifically smaller units. "Because Southwest Portland has not received public funding benefits of urban re
newal districts, we have less public investment in resources such as publicly funded affordable housing as the rest of the city, so we need this money," Bridger said. "My goal for Hillsdale is we use this project and the housing resources it should bring to provide a wider variety of housing into the larger Hillsdale community so that there are more choices for the present residents and more choices for new residents when they move in. "We don't need bigger units," Bridger added. "We need more choices so people can have a place to live." Allan Lazo, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, said he likes the idea of land banking, where the government invests in land and vacant properties, builds affordable housing units and turns them over to responsible ownership. Attendees also discussed ways the City could incentivize builders to develop low-income housing units, such as providing tax credits. "Being able to control assets in the corridor so that the market doesn't just drive what happens to the residents in the area, because what we're seeing is speculative investment drives up cost," Lazo told The Connection. Greenlaw-Fink said she
would like to see more affordable housing units built in Southwest Portland, in part so that more refugees and immigrants can find housing on the west side of the Willamette River. But Greenlaw-Fink, as well as other attendees, said she would really rather see more mixed-income housing developments — not block-style housing that some refer to as "projects" and which could be walled off from the rest of the community. "I think having worked with Neighborhood House and other groups in the area, I know we have a lot of immigrants and refugees. But what I've heard from my individual group is that there's a preponderance of immigrants and refugees pushing into other parts of Portland and that they wish they could be more integrated in Southwest," Greenlaw-Fink said. Wheeler said he hopes to avoid the failures of previous projects, such as the yellow MAX line, to protect homeowners and renters from displacement. "We made a lot of promises, those of us in government, about how it was going to impact people who lived along that line. But we didn't follow up those promises with public investments and the kind of
support required to actually realize those promises; and as a result what happened along the yellow line is a lot of private sector people filled in where government didn't. They made investments that were speculative, which is what they do, and a lot of people got displaced," Wheeler said. Wheeler and Holland lamented the City's constraints under Oregon law to implement tenant protections such as rent controls and justcause eviction, but they championed initiatives such as a tenant-protection rule that forces landlords to fund relocation costs for tenants who are evicted without cause. Because of such constraints, they said, Portland tenants are more vulnerable to housing displacement than tenants in most other parts of the country. "On the spectrum of tenant protections, you have full-on rent control like New York City. If you're in a rent-controlled unit in New York City, you know what your rent is going to be for the next 10 years. You have stability in that sense. All the way over on the other end of the spectrum of housing services is what we've got, which is nothing," Wheeler said. Holland, who referred to
the effects of transit-oriented development as a "Civil Rights issue," said she doesn't think transportation overhaul is necessarily a bad thing, but that it must be implemented with housing protections and affordability in mind. "We need to have diverse choices in thinking about how we're going to get to the places that we go, to the places we work, the places we interact with our family and friends and communities. Transportation is a good thing. Pairing that with equitable housing strategy, with tenant protection, with money for investment is extremely important. Otherwise we're going to continue to see 350-percent rent increases, 100-percent rent increases, no-cause evictions," she said. Though she has her concerns, Greenlaw-Fink said she is encouraged by the major players' commitment to addressing the affordable housing issue in deliberating plans for the Southwest Corridor project. "I think it's really gratifying to see public leaders realize that there are multiple impacts from a decision and that if we add a light-rail line, it has the impact of making housing less affordable and displacing residents," she said. "It's great that we're thinking about that now, because we haven't always done that."