Affordable Housing — Another Shameful Setback for Portland (A Rant)

About a decade ago the city of Portland made a commitment that development of the South Waterfront neighborhood would include enough affordable housing to ensure that a diversity of economic status in the new neighborhood that reflected that of the whole city.

For the projected 3000 units of housing in the planned initial developments, that would mean over 1500 units of affordable housing. The city backed off from that to fewer than 600.

Now a decade later, there are just over 200 affordable units, and while a city official claims not to know the total number of units that have been developed, they are likely around 3000. An estimate two years ago put the number over 2800 and move have opened since then.

The most recent news is that because we have missed the (already modest) goal, the city will reset it at an even lower level — about twice the current number for the final buildout. So we’ve gone from one in two to about one in every seven units.

This is just plain wrong. Once again our city has failed to do the right thing when it comes to affordable housing. Portland has an ugly history of xenophobia and of serially pushing low-income and racial minority populations out of what are deemed desirable areas for gentrification and development.

I find it impossible to believe that the city does not have statistics on housing units in the South Waterfront. Have they not issued building permits? Granted occupancy permits? Maintained real estate assessment and tax records? Developed emergency plans? Can they not use their own readily available geographic information systems to extract that information? It is inconceivable that they don’t have the data.

The area in question has had major investments in infrastructure. A streetcar line provides easy access to downtown, the tram delivers folks to the OHSU and VA hospitals and clinics, bikeways offer convenient transportation, and the riverside walkway affords access to the river and recreation. The transit bridge currently under construction and set to open in a year or so will add easy access by streetcar and bus to the east side of the river and a new light rail line. It’s an area designed to permit access to goods and services and to recreation even without need of a car. Ideal, in many ways for affordable housing occupants.

And of course that also makes it highly desirable for high priced condominium development. There are big bucks and political power behind that. So we’ve paid for infrastructure development and now discover that once again it will line the pockets of the already wealthy.

One might even think that perhaps there has been some political pressure to keep “them” out of the nice new neighborhood. “Them” being folks with fewer financial resources and less income. (And conveniently a code for exercising privilege and racism.)

I know someone who lives in one of those few affordable units. From her reports, the folks in her building have quickly begun to form a community. Shared meals, communal events, and cooperative sharing of resources are all a part of that. Even though that may arise in part from necessity, in a crisis, we’re all going to need that sort of community for basic survival. The residents of those affordable housing units just might have something to teach their neighbors about caring for one another and creating community.

I would have at least expected the announcement of the reduced goal to include a quid pro quo — along the lines of “We’re going to reduce the goal for affordable housing in the South Waterfront, but we’ll commit to developing another 500 units of affordable housing in _______ with similar access to public transportation and services. We’re doing that because we can create twice as many units for the same cost.” Nope. Not a word on that, of course.

I love my city. It’s a great place to live, work, and play. But we’ve got some problems, and affordable housing is one of them.

Instead of moving the goalposts, why not double down on affordable housing? Why are our officials not saying, “Gosh, we’ve missed the goal, and here’s how we are going to make sure we meet it fully going forward?” We could do this if we had the will. And if we were willing to go against the existing power structures that perpetrate and exacerbate economic inequality.

This entry was posted in city planning, design, Portland OR, what were they not thinking?. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Affordable Housing — Another Shameful Setback for Portland (A Rant)

  1. Leslie Pohl-Kosbau says:

    Duane, I agree with you completely. The area is a ghost-town because the preponderance of people are wealthy and afraid of others. A healthy neighborhood is a diverse neighborhood, with people of all incomes and cultures. Portland, where I have lived for all of my life, has a long way to go in equitable housing and opportunity.

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