Metro looks to unite regional vision for affordable housing with new equitable housing initiative

Portland is growing – fast.

With that growing population is a growing conversation. The topic: affordability.

That’s the focus of a new $200,000 effort from Metro’s Planning and Development Department which aims to lead a regional conversation about equitable housing – ensuring diverse, quality, affordable housing choices with access to jobs, schools, and transportation options – to try and preserve affordability in the Portland region.

The Equitable Housing Initiative, which Metro staff detailed at a council work session last week, aims to improve coordination of the efforts already underway in the region’s 25 cities, make the most of affordable housing resources and, project leaders hope, develop a united vision for housing affordability in the region.

The region continues to grow, as people and families move to greater Portland. The Census Bureau estimated that more than 21,000 people moved to the Portland metro area from 2013 to 2014.

But the region’s residents are having a harder time finding affordable housing. Enterprise Community Partners reports that about 143,000 households in the Portland region are spending more than half of their income on housing, an 81 percent increase from 2000 to 2012.

Emily Lieb, the project manager for Metro’s housing initiative, said housing choice and affordability have to be part of the region’s conversation about growth. Demographers and economists expect the Portland region to grow by 200,000 households in the next 20 years.

“We can look to neighboring cities on the West Coast for a sense of where we might be headed if we don’t start thinking about this and planning for housing needs now,” Lieb said.

Partnerships was the word of the day at the work session beginning with the announcement that Metro issued a Letter of Intent to award a Community Assessment Partnership to Oregon Opportunity Network. The network will begin working with cities and community stakeholders throughout the metro area to identify their successes and the gaps in their housing strategies, what tools might be used to meet those needs, and, importantly, what programs local leaders are willing and able to move forward.

Some tools that could potentially be considered are programs that offer tax abatements, development fee waivers or other incentives for development projects that prioritize affordable housing or ensure a certain percentage of affordable units in their development plan.

“It’s really important that the discussion of solutions in particular come from the community itself,” said John Miller, executive director of the network. “I think this approach tries to get at that.”

Oregon Opportunity Network will be working primarily as a community organizer while Metro leads research. Metro staff will be organizing a working group for the initiative, with representatives ranging from Metro councilors to community organizations and businesses.

The work of the community assessment partner and working group will culminate in a fall summit on equitable housing. Bringing together government and community stakeholders from all Metro jurisdictions, the summit will focus on local and national success stories, and include presentations of work group recommendations and research findings, with an aim to develop a united understanding of opportunities for improving housing equity in the region.

“Our goal is really to provide a regional framework for talking about housing and a platform for sharing best practices across the region,” Lieb said.

The first year goals outlined in the work plan through 2015, which includes the efforts of the community partner, working group and fall summit, will inform the 2016 work with goals to implement short-term projects and develop plans for long-term recommendations. At last week’s work session, councilors stressed the need for real results from the work.

“I don’t want all the money to get sucked into convening meetings and talk talk talk talk talk,” said Councilor Kathryn Harrington. “I want to see some real dollars, on doing something, with at least one project, hopefully two.”

Elissa Gertler, the director of Metro’s Planning and Development Department, said she hopes that two tracks of work will come out of the first phase of the initiative. The first is focused on technical assistance, potentially modeled after other Metro programs where a small investment is made in a community that can demonstrate the ability to leverage the funds.

“And then the second is that larger funding question – is there a regional funding model that can bring public and private together?” Gertler said. “That’s a longer conversation.”

Councilor Shirley Craddick emphasized the need to be conscious of developing throughout the region and not just where land is most affordable, exacerbating concentrations of low-income neighborhoods.

“What’s happening now is affordable housing is being built primarily in areas of the region where people of less means are living, because that’s where it’s less expensive. And often times they live far away from their job,” Craddick said. “How do we match up jobs and housing so not all people of less means end up living all in the same place? Because it’s not healthy. We should have mixed income housing throughout the region. And in addition, when everybody lives in the same place, it puts a significant burden on that jurisdiction, that city, to support that community.”

The initiative is designed to engage all jurisdictions in bolstering affordable housing throughout Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties by finding solutions that work for each community, particularly through the Oregon Opportunity Network community assessment partnership.

“Diversity of housing affects the degree to which people can choose to live where they want to live, how close they can live to work, which has impacts for congestion, public health, and community vibrancy,” Lieb said.

Councilor Craig Dirksen highlighted Metro’s ability to act as a network for the efforts that are happening throughout the region, uniting smaller conversations about housing equity into one greater regional conversation.

“I think there are places where we can work to help coordinate all of those other housing providers together to identify where there are gaps, because there certainly are, and where there is duplication of effort, where there certainly is,” Dirksen said.

“We can just give a higher level of focus as a regional government than regional jurisdictions who are currently struggling to try and find ways to provide equitable housing in their communities,” Dirksen said. “We can bring all that together.”

Original feature appeared at Metro News.
Photo credit: Metro.