According to recent data, that’s the number of additional affordable houses that the Portland metropolitan region—which includes Washington, Multnomah, and Clackamas counties—needs in order to accommodate the region’s renters. Last Thursday, the Metro Council committed to shave 3,900 homes off that daunting deficit with a first-of-its-kind affordable housing plan for the entire region. That is, if voters agree it’s the right call.
After three hours of emotional public testimony from economic equity advocates and formerly houseless people, the council unanimously voted to place a $652.8 million affordable housing bond on the November ballot. For homeowners, that means agreeing to an average annual fee of $60 that would help house up to 12,000 people currently on the edge of homelessness, many of them families and people of color. If the bond passes, Metro staff says they can house those 12,000 within seven years.
“I consider this moment historic,” said Martha Bennett, Metro COO, at the council meeting. Metro, generally known for managing regional parks, the Oregon Zoo, and waste facilities, doesn’t normally take a role in housing issues. But the Portland area’s unrelenting rise in rents—the region has seen a 56 percent spike in just 10 years—and a steep drop in federal housing dollars convinced the regional government to step up.
“The magnitude of this housing crisis is bigger than any one of us. We all know if we stand together we have a better chance of solving it.”
Forty-five percent of the bond’s proposed housing is expected to be constructed in Multnomah County, where federal funding is the most lacking: The estimated wait time to get into public housing in Multnomah County is 14.5 years. A proposed 34 percent of the bond-funded housing will be built in Washington County and 21 percent in Clackamas County.
“The market forces that drive up rents are blind to city limits and oblivious to county lines,” said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, who testified at the Metro hearing. “The magnitude of this housing crisis is bigger than any one of us. We all know if we stand together we have a better chance of solving it.”
The majority of those who testified before Metro offered their support of the bond, echoing Metro’s recent poll data. Their latest poll, conducted in February, found the affordable housing bond had a 63 percent approval rating among tri-county voters. That’s the same percentage of Portlanders who approved the city’s $258.4 million housing bond in 2016. Others, however, are hesitant to trust an untested project with such a massive scope. The challenge before housing advocates: Convince voters to support a new tax that will benefit residents outside of their immediate community.
Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle doesn’t think it’ll be too difficult. “When voters understand what this does and where this money goes, I can’t see them opposing it,” Doyle says. “This is one of the most critical efforts the region has taken on.”
Doyle says he’s grown frustrated watching his city’s seniors forced into homelessness and seeing families move into their cars. Beaverton School District has the highest number of homeless students in the region—an estimated 1,522 students (nearly four percent of the student body) don’t have a reliable place to call home. If Metro’s bond follows the current blueprint, half of the new affordable homes will be built with families in mind and have at least two bedrooms.
“This is one of the most critical efforts the region has taken on.”
And for families who live in rental housing, those of color are disproportionately burdened by creeping rents. Metro estimates that local families of color are more likely to spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent compared to white families.
“In my field, racial equity is a very overused term. It’s easy to say, but a lot harder to do in practice,” said Sahaan McKelvey at the Thursday meeting. McKelvey is a co-director of Self Enhancement, Inc. (SEI), a nonprofit that offers academic support to underserved kids. “Families who need supportive housing, those are communities of color,” he said. “This housing bond is an opportunity for us to take tangible steps toward learning racial equity.”
While many details of the sweeping bond package remain blurry, regional service providers overwhelmingly support the measure for one reason: The status quo, they say, simply isn’t working.
“No matter how much we’re able to do with the resources we currently have, it’s not enough,” said McKelvey. “We’re playing musical chairs. Every dollar we’re able to give a family to move forward is another dollar we’re not able to give to someone else who needs it.”
Not everyone’s convinced the bond’s the right fix.
“If you have one thread of humanity in you, you know we have to help the less fortunate,” Washington County Commissioner Roy Rogers tells the Mercury. “But if we ask voters if they’ll support the largest migration of people moving to Oregon across the US to not work, and have us pay for their housing... that’s going to be tough.”
Rogers offers no data to back up this theory of unemployed mass migration. (It certainly isn’t a problem we’re currently dealing with—for much of the past year, Oregon has had an unemployment rate of 4.1 percent, the lowest on record.) He’s also concerned that, by raising taxes, the region will only increase poverty.
In a testy email to Metro councilors, Washington County Chair Andy Duyck took Rogers’ concerns a step further, calling the proposed bond a solution that’s “worse than the disease.” He warned of a looming political fight against the ballot measure.
“For those people who say the bond is just a drop in the bucket... you know what? If you’re the single mom living in the car with her children, that drop is a lifeline. So I say bring on those drops.”
There’s another roadblock that could hobble the bond’s success. The bond will be on the same November 6 ballot as a statewide measure to amend the Oregon Constitution. If approved, this amendment would allow government entities such as Metro to partner with private businesses on voter-approved bonds. In other words, Metro could team up with nonprofits who have decades of affordable housing expertise—like Central City Concern or Transition Projects—to run supportive housing programs that include job training, mental health care, addiction treatment, and childcare.
The current state constitution explicitly bans these types of partnerships, a factor that has delayed the rollout of Portland’s own housing bond. Both Metro and City of Portland staffers have testified before the state legislature in favor of the amendment and tie the proposed bond package’s success to the amendment’s passage.
If the amendment does not pass, the promises Metro has made about the bond’s efficacy drastically shrink. Without the ability to partner with private businesses, the bond would only be able to house around 7,500 people with 2,400 affordable homes.
But for a region in crisis, elected officials view the creation of any affordable housing as a step forward.
Before voting in favor of the bond, Metro Councilor Betty Dominguez shared her experience as a single mother barely making rent payments in the ’80s. Dominguez recalled that for a time, she and her daughters lived without electricity so they could afford food.
“For those people who say the bond is just a drop in the bucket... you know what? If you’re the single mom living in the car with her children, that drop is a lifeline,” said Dominguez, blinking back tears. “So I say bring on those drops.”