Last Wednesday, August 16, the Portland Development Commission (PDC) presented the findings of an internal audit that revealed how much (or how little) the agency spends on affordable housing projects. The results: PDC has spent as little as 16 percent of its urban renewal budget of affordable housing, much to the chagrin of city council.
City council has already approved a proposal that would require a certain percentage of PDC's budget be set aside for housing. While a strict 30 percent set-aside is supported by three of the city council's five commissioners, the actual percentage has yet to be decided.
But that hasn't stopped property developers in the South Waterfront area from coming out against the proposal. Most surprisingly, Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), which is one of the main developers of the emerging and heavily subsidized district, is spending resources in order to fight the set-aside.
That has City Commissioner Erik Sten, who drafted the set-aside resolution, hopping mad.
"That OHSU is spending time and money fighting affordable housing in the public space is disappointing at best," Sten said at last week's council session. "If you get a major advantage by the city's spending, you have a higher responsibility to help out with these issues."
OHSU's Mark Williams, though, is quick to point out that the organization is not opposed to affordable housing. "OHSU supports affordable housing," he says. "But the question shouldn't be whether it's 20 or 30 or 40 percent—it's whether there should be a predetermined, one-size-fits-all percentage."
Sten added that it was the developers' and PDC's actions in the South Waterfront district that prompted his 30 percent set-aside plan. When budgets in that project got tight, the money for affordable housing was the first to get tossed. In order to avoid that in the future, Sten wants a strict budget that will keep affordable housing at the top of the list.
Leah Greenwood, the housing policy and development manager for the PDC, says that in order to meet the 30 percent set-aside in its total budget, between $18 million and $22 million will have to be "reprogrammed"—that is, moved from one spending category, like parks and transportation, to housing.
The PDC and the city council are expected to hold a work session on Wednesday, August 23, in council chambers in order to work on the set-aside, and on August 28, the city will hold a public forum. Check portlandmercury.com/blogtown in the coming days for updates on both.