THE GREAT RECESSION came, and Metro Auto Wholesale's customers went.
So the car dealership's empty lots—straddling SE 72nd on Foster—sat unused and bank-owned when, in 2011, the City of Portland saw an opportunity.
For $1.4 million, the Portland Development Commission (PDC) purchased the three distinct parcels that had made up the old lot ("by far the worst dealership I've ever dealt with," reads a lengthy posthumous Yelp review of the business).
It was a solid deal. The PDC bought the land for less than the bank's initial asking price, and the property sits near transit, parks, and groceries.
The PDC even knew what it would do with the land: It convinced the Portland Housing Bureau to contribute nearly a third of the purchase price, according to a PDC resolution, "because it is anticipated that the property will be redeveloped as a mixed-use project with affordable housing as one component."
More than four years later, one of the three lots purchased in the deal has become the Portland Mercado, a celebrated new business hub aimed at Latino culture, offering food carts, groceries, a coffee shop, and more. The other two plots have failed to inspire anything more than overflow parking and weeds.
There's still no affordable housing—or definitive plans for any—though the PDC says that's still a goal.
Portland housing boosters say it needs to be. Criticism of Portland's lack of affordable housing, echoed by housing advocates for many years, is growing increasingly louder as the sizzling economy sends more and more construction cranes skyward. If there was ever a doubt, there isn't any longer: Affordable housing is the most pressing issue the city faces.
"The problem is so huge and visible that it can't be ignored anymore," says Nick Sauvie, executive director of ROSE Community Development, which develops and manages affordable housing in outer Southeast Portland. "To some degree, I feel like [nonprofit organizations] have been the voice crying in the wilderness."
As the enormity of Portland's housing challenges has dawned on the community at large, so has an expectation: that the city will use its resources to help solve the problem.
On July 1, Portland City Council considered a new policy, nearly two years in the making, that would ensure neighbors, interested citizens, and city bureaus would have ample warning when the city intended to offload a parcel of its surplus property.
The plan was largely hailed by city commissioners, but greeted with alarm by some housing advocates. It contained no suggestion that the city should make new cheap housing a priority on its unwanted land.
"I don't even think the question was asked," says John Miller, executive director of the Oregon Opportunity Network, who attended the hearing to speak out for affordable housing. "There was a breakdown along the line."
Miller showed up at the sparsely attended meeting with Cameron Herrington, an anti-displacement worker with the community group Living Cully. Both men were worried the city would neglect to prioritize its own land holdings as potential sites 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."
The city's fixed the holes in the policy. Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman introduced amendments stipulating the city will vet all excess land as a potential site for affordable housing, and requiring the Portland Housing Bureau to formally weigh in on each unwanted parcel—even if it's not interested.
That's especially important at a time when federal investment in housing has waned, and the city doesn't have a great deal of money to snap up lots for future projects. (City council had $49 million in surplus cash to play with in this year's budget, but much of that money ended up going to roads.)
"Everybody here has acknowledged that we can't solve the problem without more homes," Commissioner Nick Fish said at a recent city council hearing. "Are we doing enough to land bank, and are we doing enough to build?"
The city currently has more than 50 properties listed as "surplus," and doesn't even track the number of those that city bureaus consider "excess"—an earlier designation on the path to selling a piece of land. But while the extraneous fallow fields and dingy lots that belong to many bureaus will get a close look from the Portland Housing Bureau, the new policy doesn't apply to the PDC, the city appendage charged with stimulating growth in Portland's rundown neighborhoods.
The PDC's failure to put housing first resulted in an uproar in early 2014, when it announced it was selling—at a steeply reduced price—a plot of land at NE Alberta and MLK 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.
In the end, Trader Joe's pulled out. The PDC now plans to put another grocery store on the site.
Despite the current rapid expansion of market-rate apartments and condos, the outlook for new affordable units—typically considered accessible to people earning between 60 and 80 percent, or less, of the area's median family income—is actually very modest. According to data obtained by the Mercury, the Portland Housing Bureau expects the completion of something like 527 new affordable units between now and the end of 2016. That's far less than the average of 663 a year built between 2000 and 2011—a period of time that contained the worst recession in decades.
Out in East Portland, near the former car lot, the PDC is just beginning to see the commercial interest it has worked to attract for years. The commission is preparing to sell three of its properties near the Lents Town Center area at SE Foster and 92nd, with two of those projects proposing dozens of affordable units.
With that momentum under way, and with the city pledging to consider housing on plots it doesn't want, it's time to begin fixing a problem that's been unsolved for too long.
"If we don't have the dollars, we have the land," Herrington, of Living Cully, told city commissioners July 1. "So let's hang onto it."