Will Affordable Housing Exist in Portland in Ten Years?

By Cameron Whitten of Portland, Oregon. Cameron is the Board President at Know Your City, an economics student at Portland State University, and a community advocate.

Last week, Willamette Week wrote about the Murrays -- a family who survived 30 years of mass displacement to become the last African Americans living on a block of Northeast Portland. Soon there may be none, as the family wrestles with foreclosure due to a predatory mortgage scheme. Unfortunately, this story of loss and injustice happens too often and is consistently invisible.

Who else does it effect? Well, most of us, actually. Fun Fact: the average apartment rent in Portland rose over six percent in one year. Just. One. Year.

Portland was named in 2011 as one of the top 10 American cities with the fastest rising rents by the research firm, Reis Inc. We as a community are witnessing housing choice disappear at an alarming pace, as both new and old housing becomes less and less affordable. The shift is visible in North and inner-East Portland, which was once home to low income families and people of color and has changed at a dramatic cost to racial and economic cohesion.

For decades, local leaders and community members have raised awareness about past injustices that disrupted the livelihood of working class Portlanders: red lining, eminent domain for the Rose Quarter, the Models Cities Program, Legacy Emmanuel Hospital expansion, etc.

What we don't talk about enough, is what's happening now. Our goals for affordable and safe housing continue to be threatened by activities that stem from a local, regional, and statewide level. Here are a few examples.

Last week, Portland City Council voted 3-2 to waive building fees (System Development Charges, or SDCs) from developers in Old Town Chinatown in exchange for a promise to provide some affordable housing, most of which will sunset after ten years (according to the Portland Housing Bureau's FAQ on their SDC exemption program: “a project must maintain affordability for a period of 60 years for the number of exempted units”). Think about that- after ten years, there is no guarantee this housing developed with government discounts will be accessible for lower income workers, while developers still benefit from the agreement.

Here's another example. Last year, the regional government Metro invested $300,000 into a transit-oriented subsidy for a development called the Radiator, a large-scale mix of office and retail space just north of the recently opened New Seasons in the gentrifying Boise neighborhood. Only recently, thanks to the work of new Councilors, has Metro dedicated funds to even begin examining how regional policies impact access to affordable housing.

Even in the State Legislature, a coalition of affordable housing advocates and non-profits have rallied to repeal the 15-year-old law that prevents local governments from using Inclusionary Zoning as a tool to promote affordable housing. Although the Legislature's party lines have changed since the 90's, efforts to repeal the ban have fallen short against a powerful real estate lobby in Salem.

We are losing our community legacy to gentrification at a time when we needed action the most. Where is our vision to move forward?

Think about the pain the Murray's endure as they grapple with potentially losing their home of 33 years. Then, remember the thousands who've already lost the battle to gentrification. We need to do better- locally, regionally, and as an entire state.

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