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NE leaders press affordable housing case

Depending on gauge, North/Northeast has a lot or not enough


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - This regulated housing project under construction in Northeast Portland is going to be reserved for people in residential treatment programs.African-American community leaders insist they did not mean to drive Trader Joe’s away from Northeast Portland by protesting a proposed urban renewal project at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Alberta Street.

Instead, members of the Portland African American Leadership Forum say they were only demanding that affordable housing be added to the project that was going to involve the low-cost grocer. That goal — which was overshadowed by news that Trader Joe’s pulled out — was to partly compensate for rising housing costs caused by gentrification.

Follow-up meetings and surveys confirm a grocery store is a high priority for area residents for the site, and Trader Joe’s looks like a good fix. But affordable housing, either by itself or part of a mixed-use project, consistently ranked as the second or third preference.

“More affordable housing is something the community definitely wants to see,” says PAALF Director Cyreena Boston Ashby.

Mayor Charlie Hales agrees, saying he will commit $20 million to the area for affordable housing as part of deal to get Trader Joe’s back.

But that raises the question: how much affordable housing already exists in the heart of Portland’s historical African-American community? The answer is complicated because there are different definitions of affordable housing.

For example, Metro, the elected regional government, conducts a survey of regulated housing units every year. But Portland’s City Council has promised to spend an average of 30 percent of urban renewal funds on a broader range of affordable housing projects in 10 of the city’s 12 urban renewal areas. Two urban renewal areas are exempt because they are in industrial areas.

Based on these two approaches, North and Northeast Portland has both a lot of affordable housing and not nearly enough to meet the needs of everyone who wants to live there.

Portland State University Associate Professor Lisa Bates warns that officially designated regulated and affordable housing units are only part of the mix. Much of the privately owned housing in North and Northeast Portland was affordable to a wide range of people in the past, including blue-collar workers and those with Section 8 housing vouchers.

“We know the market in North and Northeast Portland is very hot right now, and there’s not a lot of affordable housing to be found, including homes for first-time buyers with moderate incomes,” says Bates, who does research related to housing policy and planning at the Toulan School of Urban Studies & Planning.

Closer look at numbers

The vacant block at the heart of the dispute lies in the Interstate URA that includes much of North and Northeast Portland west of MLK. According to an analysis of Metro’s 2011 report, it has the highest number of regulated housing units of all urban renewal areas included in the 30 percent agreement — 2,794.

That’s more than twice as many as the second highest number — 1,710 regulated housing units in the River District URA.

But just 19 percent of all housing units in the Interstate URA are regulated. That’s the second-lowest percentage of all URAs. Only the Lents Town Center and North Macadam URAs have a lower ratio, at 9 percent each.

The Interstate URA is so low because it has the highest overall number of housing units — 14,580 owner-occupied and rented units, including homes, condominiums and apartments. That’s about 40 percent more than the second most populated URA, Lents.

Forty-eight new regulated housing units are under construction at Northeast Mallory Street and 36th Avenue. They are part of a residential treatment program, however, and not necessarily available to displaced area residents.

The relatively low percentage of regulated housing units in the Interstate URA is not because the city has broken its promise. According to figures provided by the Portland Development Commission, a full 38 percent of all urban renewal dollars have gone to affordable housing projects there. In terms of dollars, that’s $31.8 million of the $83.5 million in urban renewal funds generated within the Interstate URA, so far.

At the same time, that’s not the highest percentage or the most money spent by the city on affordable housing projects.

The highest ration — 54 percent — is in the South Park Blocks URA. That amounts to $32.9 million of the $61 million generated to date.

The highest dollar amount is $68.3 million. That’s 40 percent of the $169 million generated so far in the River District URA.

Ashby says the 30 percent figure should be the minimum city commitment, not the average.

“Our organization sees that as the floor, not the ceiling,” Ashby says.

Responsibility is spread

But urban renewal funds are not the only source of financing for affordable housing projects. Other sources include state and federal funds and tax credits, and private funds sometimes solicited by nonprofit housing organizations. Major providers of affordable housing are Home Forward, Oregon Housing and Community Services, and the Portland Housing Bureau, which receives and spends the urban renewal funds for affordable housing from the PDC.

As an example of the shared responsibility, only 1,226 of the 2,794 regulated housing units in the Interstate URA are in the Portland Housing Bureau’s portfolio.

For the purposes of the inventory, regulated affordable housing is defined as housing that is made affordable through public subsidies and/or agreements or statutory regulations that restrict or limit residents’ income levels and/or rents. Regulated housing generally provides housing for households that otherwise could not afford adequate housing at market rates.

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