Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

THE FINAL WEEKS of 2014 loomed as a marathon of consequential votes for Portland City Hall: Airbnb and short-term rental enforcement, the Portland Street Fund, the city's future with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, police body cameras, and major changes to some of the city's urban renewal districts.

But over the past several days, final decisions on most of those items have been pushed into January. That's in part because of amendments and unanswered questions, but also the reality that time, always precious, is particularly scarce because of holiday vacations.

Now comes word that the last item on city hall's list—urban renewal revisions—also will be pushed back, to January 29. But this delay, unlike the others, is more than another casualty of a compressed calendar.

It's partly about Portland's soul.

Because when the urban renewal changes re-emerge next month, they'll be newly focused on a related subject that some advocates thought had been given short shrift: housing. And they'll likely come with amendments that emphasize the city's deep, ongoing, and growing struggle to provide affordable units for Portland's needy.

Up until last month, the city's housing bureau had seen the proposed expansion of an urban renewal area around South Waterfront as an opportunity to soften years-old affordable housing goals it was struggling to meet—rather than push forward with renewed urgency. ["Redefining Success. Downward?" Hall Monitor, Nov 12]. That zone's boundaries are expanding to snap up part of Portland State University—making up for the early death of an urban renewal district drawn around the school in 2012.

But a memo detailing what the bureau saw as a realistic realignment of its resources (a memo that's since been abandoned) shocked some of the city's longtime advocates into action. They pressed and pressed, and then, in an email sent Saturday, December 13, Hales' office said the mayor had been persuaded to slow things down.

"The mayor believes there's an opportunity to improve," wrote Jillian Detweiler, Hales' urban renewal policy adviser. "We will take additional time to do that."

Sources have singled out one advocate in particular for starting the conversation. Debbie Aiona of the League of Women Voters served on the city's Urban Renewal Areas Advisory Committee and was reportedly instrumental in starting a general conversation on housing needs, which led to the housing bureau's memo, which led, in turn, to wider pressure on city hall not to retreat on housing policy.

Eventually Aiona was joined by well-respected housing leaders like Susan Emmons of Northwest Pilot Project, former city housing commissioner Gretchen Kafoury, and Margaret Bax, a retired city official who, years ago, helped write housing plans for each of the city's urban renewal districts.

And that's not all.

The city's restive Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC) also chimed in. Its chair, André Baugh, says the panel hinted that one of the city's main mechanisms for financing affordable housing—setting aside 30 percent of the tax bounty generated within urban renewal areas—is plainly not enough to keep pace with the demand.

But maybe most consequentially, the delay also sprang from a shift in the city's political math.

Because his family has business concerns in North Macadam, the city's housing commissioner, Dan Saltzman, told his colleagues he'd skip voting on the changes planned for the district—never mind that his office was part of crafting those changes.

Losing Saltzman meant Hales had no choice but to court either Nick Fish or Amanda Fritz, or both, to see his agenda pass. That willingness to do business is not surprising. Hales has long promised to reduce urban renewal's footprint so he could pour more property taxes into the city's general fund. Pulling that off would become a major talking point ahead of a potential re-election bid.

So far, sources say Fish and Fritz are seizing the opportunity, and working up amendments.

Those changes could include a council mandate for a specific project. Advocates like Bax are intrigued by the idea of putting an affordable housing development atop a grocery store. That's potentially in store for South Waterfront's vacant "Parcel 3," which sits next to a PGE substation and requires environmental cleanup.

Bax, however, questions whether that plan would even be approved because of those issues. She says she does support the concept at a site like South Waterfront's vacant "Block 33" at SW Macadam and Gaines. Years ago, Oregon Health and Science University had planned to put a parking garage on that land, and the city paid millions for the right to put apartments over the garage. When plans for the parking garage fell through, so did plans for the housing.

"Block 33 is a terrific location," says Bax, "and it would be an excellent concept to have low-income housing over a neighborhood grocery store."

PSC has expressed interest in crafting guidelines on what to do when urban renewal areas do better than expected. Right now, bonus revenue is parceled out just like budgeted revenue: 30 percent of the extra cash goes toward affordable housing, while the rest goes to everything else.

Baugh, PSC's chair, wonders why the city can't spend all or most of that unanticipated revenue on affordable housing—to help the city make some gains toward its housing goals.

"If housing is important, and it's a priority, and we know we're not meeting the goal," says Baugh, "you've got to change the formula. How do we increase the funding? That's the major issue."

Hales' office, according to Detweiler's email, has promised to huddle over a calendar with city housing officials and then meet, during the next few weeks, with some of the advocates who pressed them on housing.

Bax, among the advocates named by Hales' office, said she welcomed the idea—and that she's grateful city hall's discussion around South Waterfront has shifted. The housing conversation, under Saltzman, has increasingly emphasized "workforce" housing, arguably at the expense of difficult-to-fund housing for those who are the most poor.

"I am thrilled the city is focusing now on how to meet the goals. They want to do the right thing," says Bax. "If we put our heads together, I'm absolutely confident we can do it. With rents and housing costs on the rise, people at the lowest income levels are just literally falling out on the streets. And none of us wants to see homeless families in our community."