Jenny Zych

IN THE NEXT 20-plus years, developers in Washington County's North Bethany area will cover about 785 acres with more than 4,200 single-family homes. Homes in one of the subdivisions already under construction—Arbor Oaks—are inviting: They're close to shopping centers, parks, good schools, and they're easily accessible to US Highway 26.

What they're not easily accessible to, thanks to their $400,000-and-up price tags, are the bulk of Portlanders.

"Only the top 28 percent of wage earners can afford those houses," says Washington County Commissioner Greg Malinowski. "Police, teachers, nurses, they can't afford to live there. When I brought that up, I was told that for people who don't make $100,000 a year, that's what Aloha is for."

In 2012, Malinowski tried to offer incentives to developers to get them to build housing which would include a mix of smaller, less expensive homes among the 2,700-square-foot behemoths, but says he was met with a we-don't-have-to-and-we're-not-going-to answer.

"I said, 'I know you don't have to, but wouldn't it be neat if you did?'" Malinowski says. "I think if I'd walked in there with the option to enact a statute, I would've gotten a little more cooperation."

If Oregon lawmakers pass House Bill 2564, Malinowski could get the bargaining chips he lacked.

The bill would end a 16-year-old ban on inclusionary zoning, a policy that requires developers to include a certain number of affordable housing units in a new development, with the goal of making homeownership accessible for low- and moderate-income families.

HB 2564 would partly end that prohibition, allowing municipalities statewide to set aside up to 30 percent of homes in a new development for sale at below-market rates in exchange for offering developers incentives like increased density, fee waivers, and speedier permit processing. Introduced by Representative Jennifer Williamson of Portland, the bill passed in the House last month on a 34-25 vote. It's now had its first reading in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The legislation's a step toward cheaper housing, and advocates say it will open the door to homeownership. But the bill as written leaves out a huge chunk of Oregonians: renters.

HB 2564 only applies to for-sale new construction, a detail which Portland Commissioner Steve Novick recently called "very troubling." Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the Portland Housing Bureau, is floating an amendment to HB 2564 that would add rental units into the mix.

"The bill won't have as much currency for Portland without including multi-family rental developments, since that accounts for 74 percent of new developments in the city," Saltzman says. "It's still a good piece of legislation without it, but of all the new rental developments in Portland, almost none include affordable units."

The local rental market is remarkably tight. Vacancy rates have dropped to less than one percent in some parts of Oregon, driving up rents. In Portland, the vacancy rate has hovered around three percent for several months, according to the Barry Apartment Report, a publication covering trends in Portland's apartment market.

Diane Linn—former Multnomah County chair and current executive director of Proud Ground, a Portland nonprofit that connects low- and moderate-income potential buyers with suitable homeownership opportunities—says the bill would have a trickle-down effect of loosening the vacancy rate by freeing up rental units.

But some argue the bill would have a much better effect if it applied to rentals.

"This really seems like more of an opportunity for the rental market than the owned market," says Nick Krautter, a principal broker with Keller Williams Realty. "It would be smart to include it, because a lot of people in that income bracket can't, or don't want to, buy a home."

Linn says she would love to see rental units included in the bill, but argues passing the bill the way it is "doesn't diminish" its effectiveness.

It's true that workforce-price housing is increasingly hard to find. Linn says 60 percent of the new jobs created in the area in the last year pay salaries that are 60 to 70 percent of the median income. She says she works with families that have done everything right but can't afford market-rate homes on their incomes.

"We can't counsel people into homeownership," she says. "We need every possible tool at our disposal."

But developers are wary. Krautter says they fear the effects inclusionary zoning could have on profits.

"If there's a net gain for them, then maybe some developers would support it," he says. "But I think they also have concerns about the perception of buyers that they'd be buying into a low-income development."

Such NIMBYism is "out of touch with reality," Malinowski says.

"I guess as long as these people are willing to mow their own yards, dispense their own medication, and teach their own kids, then we don't need affordable housing," he says. "But that's not a normal community, and we need working-class housing options for the other 72 percent."

Jonathan Ostar, executive director of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, says people who consider inclusionary zoning a tool to take from the rich and give to the poor are mistaken.

"Inclusionary zoning typically isn't really used as a direct anti-poverty tool, but it does free up public dollars to help meet the needs of the poorest among us," he says. "It's effective at building workforce housing for hard-working families who are priced out from buying a market-rate home."

More importantly, Ostar says, it's a policy that shouldn't be in the state's hands to begin with.

"The legislature shouldn't even be arguing the merits of inclusionary zoning; that's for individual jurisdictions to decide," he says. "Oregon lawmakers need to lift the prohibition so that local jurisdictions have the option."