As the city’s problem with affordable housing has evolved into a full-blown crisis, city officials have embraced the time-honored tactic of throwing shit against the wall and seeing what sticks.
The most recent example comes from the city’s water bureau.
Since 1995, the Portland Water Bureau has offered some form of financial assistance for residential water bills. Up until recently, those financial discounts were available to anyone making 60 percent or less of the state median family income—around $23,095 for a household of one. The water bureau would simply take a reading of a household water meter each month and take off a certain percentage for lower-income residents.
But here’s the thing: Nearly 50 percent of Portlanders rent their homes. More than a quarter of those renters are “severely cost-burdened”—meaning they spend 50 percent or more of their income on housing, leaving them consistently teetering on the edge of eviction. For those 32,000 burdened renters, even the full cost of a single monthly water bill could tip them into homelessness.
Many Portland tenants live in apartment buildings, duplexes, or weird old houses broken into multiple units. These multi-unit rentals only have one water meter to calculate the entire building’s monthly water usage. For years, low-income Portlanders living in these multi-unit rentals haven’t been allowed to apply for a discount under the water bureau’s program—in these situations, it was simply too complicated to determine each tenant’s water usage.
On Wednesday, Portland City Council will vote on a measure to begin eliminating that barrier. The plan? Partnering with Home Forward, the city’s public housing agency, to administer bill reductions through the organization’s short-term rental assistance fund. This limited fund, which maxes out at two years, is specifically for households on the verge of eviction and homelessness—Portland’s “severely cost-burdened” population. Going forward, a water bill discount will be part of this emergency assistance package for vulnerable tenants.
But what about the thousands of low-income tenants who don’t qualify for Home Forward’s short-term rent assistance?
“We would like to broaden the program to meet people before an emergency,” says Commissioner Nick Fish, who heads the water bureau. “But right now, this is triage. We have to serve the people in the emergency room first.”
According to Fish, Wednesday’s vote will be “historic”: No other city has used this particular model to relieve water bill costs for low-income tenants in multi-unit buildings. Intentionally or not, Fish uses a dad joke to explain. “Portland is looking upstream,” he says.
Sure, it’s a wonky, miniscule fix in the gargantuan mess that is Portland’s housing crisis—but it’s a step in the right direction. And if city commissioners decide to throw it at the wall, I think it’ll stick.Editor's note: A previous version of this story erroneously claimed Portland is the first city to try water bill discounts for low-income renters in multi-unit housing. Portland is simply the first city to use this wonky model (going through emergency rent assistance) to offer water bill discounts.