BY THE TIME Portland City Council convened on the afternoon of Thursday, June 30, there wasn’t any doubt about it: Portlanders will be voting on a housing bond this November.
In some ways, the two-hour hearing in which commissioners referred that measure to the ballot was a culmination of a dozen or more hearings over the past year—neatly collating facts about Portland’s dire need for around 24,000 units of affordable housing, the federal government’s diminished help in that fight, and the very real consequences of the city’s housing shortage that Portlanders are experiencing every single day.
And yet, as well trod as all those facts might seem in a city that’s become obsessed with them, let’s be clear: We are heading into very new territory.
November’s housing bond vote—a 20-year, $258.4 million ask—will mark the first time this city’s ever pushed for a discrete property tax to pay for housing. Backers say the average Portland home will see an increase of roughly $75 to its annual tax bill, enough to pay for at least 1,300 new units.
Other cities already do this. Seattle, for instance, has passed one bond and four levies over the decades, and is getting ready to vote on another $290 million measure. But in Portland? Other things have always taken precedence.
As Steve Rudman—the city’s housing director from 1992 to 2001 and a former director of housing authority Home Forward—told the Mercury: “It wasn’t a top-tier issue. Now it is. Affordable housing trumps all other issues.”
It’s not just the source of funding that’s revolutionary here. The city’s also changing up its model for housing.
Traditionally, the Portland Housing Bureau (PHB) has helped finance housing projects owned and operated by other organizations. With this $258.4 million, officials are promising a new strategy: The city will own the projects it builds, along with the existing buildings it’s planning to snap up and convert to affordable housing.
“These are community assets for community members,” Commissioner Nick Fish said before casting his vote on the bond measure. “It’s, in kind of a dramatic way, a sea change in thinking in how we approach the housing market, and I would say it’s well overdue.”
The rest of the hearing was just as positive, with no more than a handful of people raising concerns about the bond proposal. That’s in line with the tenor coming out of the Yes for Affordable Homes campaign, which says it has fine-tuned this bond measure to what Portlanders are willing to pay, and hints that polling shows it stands a great chance of passing.
If that’s right, then Portland’s on the verge of what PHB Director Kurt Creager calls “the last major fiscal building block in the City of Portland’s response to the state of emergency for homelessness and housing.”
But as several people pointed out last week, fiscal building blocks aren’t the only consideration here. Creager has promised that the next step is taking up new regulations that amount to real protections for renters at risk of displacement.
Assuming the bureau arrives at helpful suggestions, let’s hope a hearing on them is just as emphatic.