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Our opinion: Save existing affordable housing, while coming up with options for new units.

When a proposed new apartment building pencils out to $285,000 per unit, it's hard not to wince at its description as "affordable housing."

And yet, as reporter Jim Redden discovered, members of the Portland City Council are being asked to pony up $7 million for just such a development. Redden writes for The Times' sister publication, The Portland Tribune.

The Portland City Council this month is debating the price-per-unit of affordable housing. The query is particularly pertinent as the city fields proposals to be funded by the $285 million housing bond money voters approved last year and Metro considers a $500 million measure of its own.

There are some peculiarities that drive up the cost of the high-rise apartment building proposed for the Portland region. Even cheaper new apartments funded by the bond measure likely will cost more than $200,000 per unit.

Luckily there are other options. Thousands of them, in fact.

A new study commissioned by the city of Portland shows that more than 11,000 affordable rental units exist in the Southwest Corridor between Tigard and downtown Portland.

But these privately built units, which are affordable without any public subsidies, may be imperiled.

That's because they are clustered along the corridor that could be served by the region's next light-rail line, the Southwest Corridor, making them an attractive target for developers who want to upgrade or replace them and jack up the rents.

And, indeed, the Portland State University study showed that rents in lower-end units located in the Southwest Corridor are rising faster than rents of similar units in Portland.

"This housing is precarious — in that its conversion would displace tenants who are likely to have a difficult time finding units in the current rental market," according the study's authors, PSU's Seyoung Sung and Lisa Bates.

The researchers' report serves as a timely reminder of a few key points in the conversation about affordable housing.

First, we're in a building boom and it's appropriate to use public funds to ensure that affordable housing units are part of the mix and that workers have housing options near their jobs and mass transit. But it's easy to overlook existing affordable housing, built by the private sector, that may not be affordable much longer in this hot real estate market.

There's some money in the Portland bond for buying existing apartment buildings, but we'd like to see as much attention paid to those projects as the fancy new buildings that get everyone excited.

One strategy used elsewhere is to help non-profits buy affordable housing units, either with cash or financing, when they come on the market and keep the rents low. Buying an older apartment building has its risks, so it's important that philanthropic organizations also are involved, as they often have more flexibility with their funds than do public agencies or financial institutions.

Second, despite lofty goals for ensuring affordable housing along light rail lines, our region has a pretty lousy track record of doing so. Aside from The Orchards at Hillsboro's Orenco Station on the Blue Line and Patton Park on the Yellow line, there's been more talk than action. The proposed line to

Tigard offers another chance — particularly given all the affordable housing that already exists.

Ideally, regional leaders would have come up with a plan to protect the Southwest Corridor rental units before picking the light rail route to Tigard. But TriMet's decision to hold off on a bond measure for a year and hand off the effort to Metro offers a second chance.

The regional planning agency is well-poised to lead the effort to ensure that any new light rail line, unlike previous ones, includes a plan to not only develop affordable rental housing, but also to protect what's already nearby.

Finally, while Portland and Multnomah County have taken the lead on affordable housing initiatives, it's time for officials in Washington County, home to many of the Southwest Corridor units, to step up their game. And the preservation of the county's existing affordable housing units in the Southwest Corridor is a good place to start.

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