AFFORDABLE HOUSING advocates have a nontraditional ally in the Portland-based civic group Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good (MACG)—a collection of congregations, unions, and community organizations.
It's a good thing they do. As city development officials push back against recommendations they spend more on affordable housing, MACG's recent work is showing that the spending isn't just necessary—it's doable.
In July, members of MACG approached the Portland Housing Advisory Commission (PHAC)—a volunteer committee that advises the Portland Housing Bureau and city council on housing policy issues—with a suggestion: Increase the amount of Portland's Tax-Increment Financing money specially reserved for affordable housing from 30 percent to 50 percent. That money is the city's largest source of dedicated cash for affordable housing, but it's not enough to address Portland's needs.
"We are in a crisis and people are being dispossessed from their homes and their neighborhoods," says Bob Brown, a MACG member who's been working on this issue for months. "It's bad, and it's going to get worse if we don't do something."
In 2006, the city began setting aside 30 percent of Tax-Increment Financing money for affordable housing. Every five years—including this year—the city reviews the program's parameters and can make changes. PHAC (pronounced "p-hack") is tasked with making recommendations, but city council ultimately decides what changes, if any, to make.
Brown was one of 97 MACG members who, on September 1, packed a PHAC review hearing for that mandatory review process. Staff members from the Portland Development Commission (PDC) and the housing bureau were also at the meeting.
"PDC didn't say anything explicit, but if I was to read between the lines I'd say their attitude was that this is important, but we have other obligations we're committed to spending that money on," Brown says. "But we're here, we're watching them, and we want them to know we're watching them."
Shawn Uhlman, a spokesman for PDC, agrees that Portland needs more affordable housing, but argues that the increase MACG is pushing would mean cutting into the budgets of other vital projects.
"It's a zero-sum game," Uhlman says. "If you increase the amount set aside for affordable housing, it has to come from somewhere else."
MACG was prepared for that line of thinking. At the September 1 hearing, the group unleashed its secret weapon—a former senior housing policy manager for the PDC named Leah Greenwood.
Greenwood combed through budgets for existing urban renewal areas—pockets of land in which the city snatches up some property taxes to pay for improvements—and found that five-year projections for some of those have funds available that aren't allocated for specific projects. She testified at the hearing that the money could be used over the next five years for creating affordable housing without cutting into other projects.
"I have reviewed the budget and I believe an additional $55 million could be allocated," she testified at the meeting. "At least five publicly owned sites could be made available for development of affordable housing."
According to Greenwood, PDC isn't doing anything improper in its budget projections— but she argues that in the face of a housing crisis of the magnitude Portland is experiencing, spending on affordable housing now is a wise long-term investment.
"The credit should go to MACG for organizing and understanding that investing in affordable housing supports their goals of creating a healthy economy," Greenwood says. "Without their influence, I think the advisory commission would have done the review quietly and the [recommended] funding level would have stayed where it was."
At the end of the hearing, PDC staff asked the advisory commission if they'd like to reduce their recommendation from 50 percent. The commission declined.
"I am proud that the [PHAC] is pushing city government on the issue of increasing the allocation of [urban renewal area] funds for affordable housing," Dike Dame, a local developer who sits on the commission, wrote in an email. "I believe the message [the commission] was sending in its refusal to revisit its stance is it wants the time to be taken in a thoughtful and comprehensive manner... and did not feel that was the direction in which some decision makers were heading."