Nick Fish

Last week, Commissioner Dan Saltzman announced a recommendation that advocates have long been looking forward to. He filed an ordinance proposing that money specially reserved to build affordable housing should increase from a minimum of 30 percent to 45 percent of the money snatched up in five of the city's urban renewal areas (URAs)—potentially adding $67 million to the coffers for cheap housing over five years.

Affordable housing advocates are thrilled, calling the proposed increase a victory. Leah Greenwood, a former senior policy manager for the Portland Development Commission (PDC) who's advocated for ratcheting up affordable housing money, said after the announcement that she was pleased with Saltzman's calculations.

"To seriously address the affordability crisis, we have to look at all potential sources of funding," Saltzman said in a press release. "Increasing the amount of money we spend in urban renewal areas is a community-led solution."

Commissioner Nick Fish and Mayor Charlie Hales say they'll vote in favor of the increase, which means the proposed ordinance should make it through council with three votes.

Despite the jubilation, though, history suggests there's a hiccup in the announced funding increase: There's no guarantee Portland will meet that 45 percent requirement.

Since 2006, Portland's required that at least 30 percent of the tax increment financing (TIF) money generated by urban renewal districts be dedicated to affordable housing. But the city hasn't always achieved that goal. According to data provided by Saltzman's office, in 2006—the very first year of the requirement—the city only set aside 21 percent of its TIF funds for affordable housing. It wasn't until 2009 that the city got up to 30 percent.

Since officials started hitting the 30 percent citywide goal in fiscal year 2009-10, the city's spent slightly more than the 30 percent baseline amount much of the time.

So what's to say officials will start consistently hitting a 45 percent goal?

Saltzman's policy director, Shannon Callahan, says the Portland Housing Bureau will report on the URA goals and present them annually to city council in a State of Housing Report.

And Fish, who formerly ran the housing bureau, says it's important not to look at TIF spending as a moment-in-time snapshot. He recommends looking at progress over a five-year timespan.

The latest State of Housing Report produced by the housing bureau shows the city meeting or exceeding its housing funding goals for TIF money in each of the affected URAs and in the city overall. But it has largely failed to maintain or replace affordable housing rental units in those districts, falling behind on target numbers.

New money from the increased housing pot could make a real difference in the number of regulated units in the city, where 20,000 families are living below the poverty line, Fish says.

"The community, and particularly housing advocates, have been pushing city council to do more," he tells the Mercury. "This new money will allow us to do as many as four substantial new developments. That's 800 new units, to put it in context."

Advocates had initially pushed Saltzman for more.

The original proposal for increased housing money, made by civic group Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good (MACG), suggested Portland City Council raise the housing set aside to 50 percent of collected TIF money. Folks from MACG teamed up with Greenwood, the former PDC policy adviser, to come up with the proposal. She scoured the city's budget and found $55 million that could be reallocated to address Portland's lack of affordable housing ["The Common Good," News, Sept 9].

"I was ready to vote for the 50 percent," Fish says. "The reason why I can accept the 45 is that it's going to generate more money than Leah Greenwood had asked for in the first place, so this is a huge win for low-income families."

The PDC's board recently expressed reservations about putting more of its money toward affordable housing, warning that doing so cuts into the amount of money the city has to dedicate to revenue-generating projects. Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Steve Novick also have not lent their full support to the plan, fearing it could eat away at money promised for parks (Fritz's bureau) and transportation (Novick's).

City council is scheduled to discuss the ordinance on Wednesday, October 28.