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  • Johana Dooley

The City of Portland wants to get rid of property, and it wants you to know it's getting rid of it.

At a city council hearing last week, Portland financial officials trotted out a new plan—in the works since 2013— focused on transparency, and ensuring the city does a better job of giving notice when there are "surplus" pieces of public land up for grabs.

It was a feel good, if dull, bit of policy—until it became a wake up call about the city's housing crisis.

It turned out the policy staffers had been working on for more than a year would have created a new path to get rid of all sorts of property without so much as a suggestion that all that property might best be used to assuage the city's affordable housing shortage.

"I don't even think the question was asked," says John Miller, executive director of the Oregon Opportunity Network, who attended last week's hearing. "There was a breakdown along the line."

Miller showed up at the hearing with Cameron Herrington, an anti-displacement worker with the group Living Cully. Both men were alarmed that the city would neglect to prioritize its own land holdings as potential havens for cheap housing.

"We have an affordable housing crisis on our hands in Portland," Herrington said at the hearing. "We have ongoing displacement of communities of color, and the threat of mass displacement of other communities in coming years. To us it's a no-brainer."

By that point, the danger was largely averted. Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman came to the meeting ready to introduce amendments that would force the city to prioritize affordable housing, green space, or "community development" when it's offloading property it no longer needs.

"These are all keen areas of interest," Saltzman said. "Particularly affordable housing."

The new property policy was created in response to outcry over the sale of a plot of land in Southwest Portland. It's coming back before council this morning, and works like this:

When bureaus identify that there's a piece of land they don't need, they can flag it as "excess," and let other bureaus know it's available. If no other bureau wants the property, the city has to let nearby neighborhood associations, other government entities, and anyone who subscribes to a city notice process know that it's considering ridding itself of the land. There's a minimum 45-day notice period, where the city must accept public comment.

If, after that notice, the city still wants to get rid of the property, city council can vote to declare it surplus, and set about selling it.

The main points of that policy changed little in last week's hearing. But amendments Saltzman inserted could be key. First: When a bureau sends word to other city agencies there's a property up for grabs, the Portland Housing Bureau is now required to respond—even if it doesn't want the land. That's to ensure the offering doesn't get lost in the shuffle of day-to-day affairs.

Second, and most crucially, when city council votes to declare a property surplus, "the bureau and Commissioner in Charge shall consider proposing conditions for disposition of the real property for affordable housing, community, or open space use," according to a new clause in the policy.

The city's website lists 31 properties currently designated surplus (that doesn't include land owned by the city's two utility bureaus). The city doesn't even currently track how many properties it considers excess, according to Office of Management and Finance spokeswoman Jen Clodius.

It's not a one-to-one comparison, but failure to prioritize affordable housing projects on city-owned land has been the source of consternation lately.

In early 2014, the Portland Development Commission announced it was selling—at a steeply reduced price—a plot of land at NE Alberta and Martin Luther King, so developers could build a new Trader Joe's. There was immediate backlash from longtime neighbors, who'd watched for years as black Portlanders were priced out of the neighborhood.

The outcry ultimately killed the grocery store deal, and in its place the PDC has agreed to spend $20 million on anti-displacement initiatives in the neighborhood, and use the would-be Trader Joe's lot for a development that includes affordable units.

As part of that $20 million spending plan, the PDC proposes using $3 million to purchase plots that can host affordable units. The PDC isn't a part of the proposed surplus property rules, but such "land banking" may be an important part of Portland's strategy to combat displacement. There's just not much money to do it right now.

"If we don’t have the dollars, we have the land, is the point right now," Herrington said at last week's meeting. "So let's hang onto it."