The Joyce Hotel
The Joyce Hotel Mercury staff

Here's one stark fact to consider about Portland's loss of housing affordability.

Back in 2002, there were more than 1,000 "market-affordable" units downtown, according to the Portland Housing Bureau (PHB). That is: those units were affordable under normal market conditions, without any city subsidies or other regulations or covenants artificially lowering rents.

At the time, as today, the city had a "no net loss" policy in place for affordable units in the Central City, stating that the overall number of these kinds of units wouldn't be allowed to decrease.

The policy hasn't mattered.

Today, downtown Portland has only 91 market-affordable units left. And just one building, the 69-unit Joyce Hotel, now accounts for 76 percent of them, PHB Director Kurt Creager told Portland City Council this morning.

The decrepit Joyce has for decades been a last bastion for destitute Portlander trying to stay off the streets, and unable—because of criminal histories or other considerations—to find lodging elsewhere. Now the City of Portland's buying it.

City Council today formally voted to purchase the building for a price "not to exceed" $4.22 million, after its owner closed up shop at the building earlier this year. Once it's fixed up by the PHB—which Creager says is exploring adding two floors to the property—the city promises the building will remain a resource for the city's poor.

"It’s an uncommon opportunity and frankly a fleeting resource," Creager said this morning.

The loss of market-affordable housing has been felt throughout Portland's Central City. While there are more regulated affordable units today than there were in 2002, the overall number of affordable units has dropped. That's because the supply 2,896 market-affordable units in 2002 had plummeted to just 267 in central neighborhoods by last year.

Here are those numbers, from the State of Housing report the PHB released a year ago.

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The failure of the no net loss policy is "a lesson for all of us" and one reason why the city's purchase of the Joyce is necessary, Creager tells the Mercury.

"We did not put into place the necessary tools to ensure that those 1,048 [dowtown] market affordable units were preserved," says Creager, who took over the housing bureau in August 2015. He vows there will still be 69 affordable units "at minimum" at the Joyce when the city's completed renovations.

The Mercury's written about the Joyce several times over the years. In 2002, one of our writers spent (most of) the night there. And in January, we reported on what the loss of this dwindling resource would mean to 90 residents and the community at large.

We wrote then:

The Joyce, for lack of a better descriptor, is a flophouse. It's cheap—a hostel bed in a shared room will run you $19 a night, or $20 if you spring for a TV—and it has "low barriers to entry," meaning no one checks your criminal or rental history. It's also one of the few places that will accept IOUs from residents who receive state assistance, but don't have access to their own money.

To get a room all you need is an ID—they'll even accept a jail-issued version. For $40 a day or $214 for six days, pretty much anyone can get a private room with a TV and access to a shared bath.

"Single room occupancy" lodging like the Joyce has been largely erased in the city in recent decades. Sean Hubert, the chief housing and employment officer for Central City Concern, told council Portland's lost 75 percent of its SRO stock. That trend, both locally and nationally, has corresponded with a rising homeless population, Hubert said.

"The Joyce represents a critical and scarce option," he said.

This fact was widely agreed upon by city council members this morning, but not shared by everyone in the room for today's vote. Charles Johnson, an activist who frequently addresses council, noted: "We’re talking about $4 million to perpetuate a 69-bed flophouse."