Affordable housing bond discussion gets testy
Supporters and opponents of Metro's $652.8 million affordable housing bond clashed before Pamplin Media Group editors last Thursday. The exchanges were occassionally heated during their first joint appearance before newspaper editors on Measure 26-199, which will appear on regional ballots at the Nov. 6 general election.
Leading the charge in support was Portland Commissioner Nick Fish, who characterized the need to provide more affordable housing as a moral issue. "A human calamity is unfolding on our streets," said Fish.
The most prominent opponent was Washington County Chair Andy Duyck, who said the property tax increase to pay the general obligation bonds could force some low-income renters and property owners out of their homes. "The first goal should be, do no harm," Duyck said.
If approved by Metro voters, the bond would increase property tax bills by 24 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $60 a year for the average home with an assessed value of $250,000. It would fund 2,400 new units affordable to households earning less than the area's median family income. The number would increase to 3,900 units if Measure 102 also passes in November. It is a proposed amendment to the Oregon Constitution allowing private companies to partner with governments on bond-funded affordable housing projects.
Fish said the measure was not intended to be the complete solution to the affordable housing crisis, but something to help the region better cope with the growing problem. "We are not over-promising on this," said Fish.
Duyck said it would produce too few new homes to justify the cost, noting that Metro estimates the region needs at least 40,000 new affordable housing units. "It's a drop in the bucket," said Duyck, who nevertheless supported Measure 102.
Joining Fish in support of both measures was Metro President-elect Lynn Peterson, who said most of the money raised by the bond would be passed onto the public housing authorities in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, which have experience building homes for households earning below the area's median family income. Appearing with Duyck was Joe Keizur, founder of the Affordable Oregon advocacy orgnization, who argued that governments should instead cut the construction-related fees they charge and make all new housing more affordable.
Duyck and Keizur also called on Metro, the elected regional government, to expand the urban growth boundary to create more land for housing, saying such an increase would reduce new home costs. "Limiting supply drives up costs," said Keizur.
Fish labeled the argument a "red herring," noting that the lack of affordable housing is a crisis throughout the state, not just in the Portland region where the UGB detemines where new development can occur.
Keizur also criticized the relatively high per-unit costs of recent affordable housing projects in downtown Portland. He said more units can be built for the same price in outer Southeast Portland. Fish responded that federal fair housing laws require such projects to be built citywide.
Fish, Lynn and supporter Sheila Greenlaw-Fink, executive director of the Community Housing Fund, portrayed the measure as a well-planned response to a crisis that regional residents want their elected officials to address. "We can do a lot in a very short time (if the measure passes). If it doesn't, we're digging ourselves into a deeper hole."
Duyck and Keizur said the measure was poorly written, noting that many details will be included in intergovernmental agreements that have yet to be finalized. Duyck said they include who will actually receive the funds, how much can be spent for nonhousing purposes like related retail spaces, and any required ethnicity mixes in the projects.
On paper, Metro measure supporters seem to have an overwhelming advantage. They are supported by hundreds of organizations, elected officials and prominent figures. Their political action committee, Yes for Affordable Housing, has reported raising over $341,000 in cash and in-kind contributions so far.
In contrast, the opponent's committee, Affordable Housingfor Who?, has only reported raising around $32,000. Only a handful of organizations have come out against the measure, including the Beaverton Chamber of Commerce.
But affordable housing funding is a new role for Metro, the elected regional government, which is best known for operating the Oregon Zoo and a number of regional parks and natural areas. It has only limited experience with affordable housing projects.
Metro has required cities within the UGB to include affordable housing in their growth plans, and has provided grants to help fund them. It has helped fund transit-oriented development projects along MAX lines with some affordable units. And it has launched an Equitable Housing Initiative to encourage more affordable housing in the region.
But the Metro Council agreed to go much further by referring the measure to the ballot earlier this year after years of rapidly increasing home costs helped create a homeless and affordable housing crisis in the entire region. Rents have been increasing faster than incomes for years, especially in the largest cities. Metro's charter gives the council the authority to act on issues they determine are of regional concern.
Peterson promised that Metro would not become a housing authority under her administration. Duyck responded that the Metro Council could expand its affordable housing role after she leaves.