AFFORDABLE HOUSING COMES TO FRUITION
In the 20 months since the City Council first declared a housing state of emergency, two new, publicly subsidized affordable housing apartment buildings have opened in Portland.
Both are models of the kind of housing city officials say they want to provide to low-income residents. They are located close to employment centers and transit lines, meet environmentally friendly building standards, have such amenities as community rooms and outdoor spaces, and link the neediest tenants with social services.
But they also were in the works years before the emergency was declared in October 2015 and cost more than $200,000 per unit to build. The most recent one to be completed — the St. Francis Park Apartments at Southeast 11th Avenue and Oak Street — was dedicated last Wednesday as the city is considering whether and how to build such projects quicker and cheaper.
Portland Housing Bureau Director Kurt Creager says one option is buying newly completed projects from developers that don't meet the higher standards but might be finished faster for $100,000 a unit. The question is especially important when it comes to the $258.4 million affordable housing bond approved by voters last November. Spending restrictions in the Oregon Constitution prevent the city from seeking private financing to help pay for its projects.
"A lot of options are on the table, but the final decision rests with the City Council," says Creager, who has discussed the concept of buying less-expensive "turnkey" housing with Rob Justus, co-owner of Home First Development. The council would have to approve the concept and any specific projects, Creager adds.
Home First specializes in building smaller affordable housing projects for churches and nonprofits, primarily in East Multnomah County, where land is cheaper and much of the low-income population in the region is concentrated.
"We had a positive conversation," says Justus, whose projects are typically completed within two years for as little as $85,000 a unit. Among other things, Justus says he and Creager discussed the idea of a pilot project approved by the council.
A need for transitional and affordable housing
The St. Francis Park Apartments clearly has a lot to offer. The project was developed by Catholic Charities and Home Forward, Portland's housing authority, with support from the city and other partners for $23 million. It includes 106 units, all priced so that households earning 60 percent or less of the median family income can afford them. Twenty of the units are set aside for those transitioning from homelessness or escaping domestic violence.
"This project is a model for the city that shows what can be accomplished," Ali O'Neill, principal of the O'Neill/Walsh Community Builders construction team, said at the May 17 dedication ceremony. Her opinion was echoed by the other speakers, including Alexander Sample, the Catholic archbishop of Portland, who blessed the apartments.
The U-shaped, 73,000-square-foot building occupies a full block that once was a park owned by the adjacent St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church. Parishioners first began discussing converting the park to housing 15 years ago when they realized that many people coming to their dining hall were on waiting lists for public housing.
"Originally we were thinking of shelters, but soon realized the greatest need was for permanent housing," said Valerie Chapman, pastoral administrator of the church, at the ceremony.
It took until August 2013 for the park to be sold to Catholic Charities and Home Forward. Then the development team was put together and financing was secured from numerous public and private partners, including $6.5 million from the Portland Housing Bureau and $9.55 million in tax credits from KeyBank. After that, the project had to undergo Portland's design review process because of its location within the Central City. The project will have been in the works for more than four years when the first residents are expected to move in next month.
The previous affordable housing project also took years to plan and complete. The Abigail, located at 1650 N.W. 13th Ave., includes 27 market-rate apartments and 128 others priced for households earning 60 percent or less of the median family income. Developed by San Francisco-based BRIDGE Housing for $48 million, its amenities include two landscaped courtyards, a children's play area, a community room, laundry rooms on each floor, secure bicycle parking in a tool-equipped bike storage room and underground car parking.
The Abigail was completed in May 2016 and had a ceremonial opening on Sept. 15, 2016, just a week after the City Council extended the housing emergency for another year. Once again, putting the project together took time. The PHB awarded BRIDGE the project in March 2013 and the construction permit application was submitted on Feb. 13, 2014. Funding came from the Portland Housing Bureau, Oregon Housing and Community Services, National Affordable Housing Trust, Wells Fargo Bank and Energy Trust of Oregon.
A number of similar projects are now in the works, boosted by increased council spending on affordable housing since declaring the state of emergency.
Range in rents
Although Portland can avoid the complex funding process with its affordable housing bond funds, the city also must pay all project costs, unless a creative financing method can be found that passes legal muster. That makes the per-unit costs of the projects more important than ever before.
Also important are the actual rents charged at the finished projects. Justus says his rents typically range from $400 to $975 a month, depending on the size of the units. The affordable units at The Abigail range from $346 to $1,067 a month. At the St. Francis Park Apartments, which only offers studio and one-bedroom units, rents range from $339 to $766 a month.
Although The Abagail and St. Francis Park Apartments are much larger and more expensive than Justus' projects, they are able to charge similar rents because of their scale and subsidies, which include the local, state, federal, foundation and nonprofit funding that takes so long to pull together.
Those are among the issues currently being discussed by an 18-member Stakeholders Advisory Group appointed by the council to draft a framework for spending the bond funds. It has four more meetings scheduled. Subjects include goals, priorities and criteria for acquisition and production.
The final meeting, where the draft framework is scheduled to be considered, is July 31. It must be approved by the council before any of the bond funds can be spent.