Portland’s Affordable Housing Strategy: An Open Letter to the Mayor and City Council

As a longtime Portlander, I've seen our city go from one of the most affordable cities on the west coast to one of the least. Many people of modest means have been pushed to the east or out of the city entirely.

I'm at the tipping point of being there myself.

The bursting mortgage bubble in 2007 and the explosion of rents has accelerated the problem over the past few years.

When I moved to Portland almost two decades ago, I found a remarkable city where people of various income levels seemed to live side-by-side, as one community.

Perhaps my memories of those days are overly rosy. There were people struggling then too, and there were wealth disparities in plenty of our neighborhoods then too. Certainly there was already much angst about newcomers and their impact on affordability.

I have no issues with Portland's new arrivals. They just want what we all want. They came here for the same things we all did. Who can blame them?

Actually, I take that back. In one respect I do begrudge them: They never knew the Portland I knew. They probably came from places where enclaves of wealth were common, where gated communities were assumed, as were geographic pockets of poverty. Maybe they think that's how every city always was and always will be.

Because they're new here, maybe they can't fully understand what Portland is losing. Perhaps they don't feel the same urgency I do to prevent it from happening.

But this isn't about newcomers versus oldsters. That fruitless debate has gone on as long as there's been a Portland, and I can already imagine the eyerolling I'm getting from those who predate me. We're all Portlanders, and there's never been a better time to indoctrinate the newbies into what used to be called "the Portland Way" --the inclusive, creative and bold problem solving that was such a vital part of our civic identity in a less cynical era.

Mayor Hales recently identified $20 million to be spent over the next five years on helping to preserve some semblance of housing affordability in North and Northeast Portland's Interstate Urban Renewal Area. I attended the first public meeting a few weeks ago to give my two-cents on this new initiative.

As seems to often be the case with such events, the gist of my thirty-second comment to the chaotic assembly didn't seem to translate well onto the butcher paper at the front of the room, and I have little faith that it will have much life left in it when translated into an appendix to whatever bland report the process spits out six months from now.

For that reason I'm writing this letter to you to flesh out my thinking on housing, affordability and community in Portland, circa 2014. I hope you won't mind me sharing it with the fosterunited.org community, since they, like me, are at the tipping point of many of these issues too.

Like many people in the Foster Road community I did a stint as a member of the Board of Directors of ROSE Community Development. In some ways it was a frustrating experience. Not for the time spent watching and working with the residents of ROSE's affordable housing communities --they were terrific and inspiring. And certainly not for having witnessed the dedication of people like Nick Sauvie, Mike Masat, Vivian Satterfield, Liz Hutchinson and Luke Bonham --all of whom I respect more than they can possibly ever know.

But it was frustrating for my rising awareness that the existing process of affordable housing creation is never going to stem the forces that are pushing low income people out of our community.

The way affordable housing in Portland works is that the Portland Housing Bureau and the Portland Development Commission identify some public money to be spent on housing. Maybe it's $1 million. Rarely is it more than $2 million. In the case of the Mayor's North/Northeast Portland initiative, it's an unprecidented $20 million. That sounds like a lot of money, right?

The smart and creative people at organizations like ROSE then go off, find whatever additional funds they can, put a proposal together, and if they're awarded the funds by the city, they set to work building decent housing.

Then people move in and hopefully live happily ever after.

Many wonderful and deserving families have gotten a roof over their heads as a result of this system. The people who work every day to make it all happen are truly doing God's work in this city --and I'm an atheist.

But the problem is that this approach can never come close to really addressing the displacement of low-income people in Portland. The 100, or even 200, new units that might result are a tiny spit into the face of a tidal wave. There will never be enough purpose-built affordable housing to change the trajectory that Portland's going in right now. That's because the vast majority of Portland's renters live in privately-owned, market rate units, and their rents are rapidly approaching New York City and San Francisco levels.

So, Mayor Hales, City Council, members of the Portland Housing Bureau and Portland Development Commission, and neighbors: It's time to get serious about regulating the private rental market.

I know... you'd rather have all your teeth extracted than to have this conversation. Politically impossible. It will upset the city's landlords, developers and land speculators. People will yell at us.

That's too bad.

If this community is serious about avoiding a San Francisco scenario, we'll need broader solutions than one or two new subsidized apartment towers.

And if that means a hit to the wallets of the people who have reaped the most benefit from decades of city largess, and have pocketed the biggest windfall from our current housing crunch, well... let's just say my heart isn't breaking.

With the clock moving faster than any of us would like to admit, I ask the city to aggressively pursue the following three policy initiatives as a modest first step toward keeping Portland Portland:

1) Inclusionary Zoning

The idea here is that the city would require future privately-built housing projects to include a certain proportion of units that would be rented at less than market rates. Since 1999, Oregon cities have been prohibited from passing these requirements, making Oregon one of two states --Texas is the other --where inclusionary zoning is illegal. Many great local groups, including Opal Environmental Justice, the Community Alliance of Tenants and the Center for Intercultural Organizing, have been working on removing this state pre-emption for the last several years.

Bills have been introduced twice, but in both cases opposition from developers led to the legislation dying in committee without being brought to a vote. In 2013, the bill failed despite bipartisan support and endorsements from several downstate cities. The City of Portland wouldn't take a position on the bill .

In March, City Commissioner Dan Saltzman told the Oregonian that he would be bringing a voluntary inclusionary zoning proposal to the City Council this year. So far as I can tell, nothing's shown up yet.

This summer a work group appointed by House Speaker Tina Kotek seemingly took the issue off the table for 2015's legislative session, although others tell me there will be a bill after all.

The City should unequivocally support it and the legislature should pass it. If downstate Republicans grumble, remind them that they're supposed to be all about local control. If Portland wants this, we should find a way to get it. And once gotten, the City should act to implement their new authority, and soon.

2) Rent Control

Oregon state law also forbids cities from passing rent control, and if inclusionary zoning seems like an uphill climb, a rent control ordinance seems like the equivalent of the moon landing. Still, it would nice if our city council would actually support the idea, at least.

Rent control would cap rents and only allow increases at a certain modest rate, which hopefully is less than the double-digit rate increases renters have been seeing annually for the last couple of years. It's demonstrably helped stem the displacement of middle and low-income people in high-rent places like the aforementioned NY and SF.

Neo-libertarians will say that landlords should be guaranteed exorbitant returns on their investments, rather than merely modest ones --because "socialism"!!

Fuck them.

Why do they get to decide anything? How about this city take care of its own? Stabilizing our community is more important than windfall profits for speculators. It's not as if the conservatives won't call us the "s-word" anyway.

3) Condo Conversion Reform

For most of the 2000's, Portland's developers were building condos as fast as they could throw them together. Once the mortgage bubble burst and many of the people who might have been buyers before became today's renters, those same developers moved into the rental game.

But despite the soaring rents they're charging, that's not where the developers want to be --it's not where the real profits lie. Those developers have very shrewd accountants hard at work, watching the marketplace, and when the time is right they'll begin converting all those new apartments into condos, displacing thousands of working class Portlanders in the process.

And our current laws allow it. The existing nominal protections for renters who are being displaced by a condo conversion are laughable.

For example, current state law requires that tenants get a 120-day notice if their unit is being converted to a condo. But unless they have a lease, the requirement is meaningless. Landlords still can terminate an at-will tenancy on 30-days notice. So the practice is to send the tenant a certified letter informing them of the 120-day timeline, thus complying with the law. Then the next day they send a 30-day notice to get out.

I raised this issue once with the former Director of the City's Housing Bureau and got a big wide blank stare, as if she couldn't understand what I was getting at. The very idea of challenging the unfettered right of a landlord to kick a renter out of their home seemed like science fiction to her.

And I fully expect that when a widespread crisis of condo conversions hits --and it will --there will be city leaders claiming that they couldn't possibly have seen it coming.

But Mayor Hales, Commissioners Saltzman, Fritz, Fish and Novick: I like you all very much. I don't think you're bullshitters. I think you want to do right by this city and treat low-income people fairly. If that's true and I'm not a fool, you'll take steps now to avoid this problem later. You'll ensure that renters are not second-class Portlanders, expendable in the rush toward a posh enclave of liveability for the wealthy.

I appreciate that you're spending public dollars on affordable housing in N and NE. Those projects are an important part of the overall strategy we need if we're going to keep Portland affordable for everyone.

But they are not enough. Bold new initiatives that go outside the usual affordable housing system and reach the private rental market are essential too.

Best Wishes,

John Mulvey

Swingin Sunday

If you're not worn out after your Saturday of fun at the street fair, boogie on down to the Bob White on Sunday for a little Ska/Swing/Mambo Big Band action. Put on your dancing shoes and don your best dress for what's sure to be a rocking good time.Bob White 90th  .

This is an awesome opportunity to catch a free show, have some cake, and take in the Bob White in a celebratory fashion.

All of the details are HERE

If you have yet to meet your neighborhood Big Band, you're in for a treat. A free and deliciously dance-tastic treat.

Planning for 82nd Avenue

82ndTodayDo you live near, work, shop, or travel on 82nd? What would you think if it looked drastically different in the future? Citywide planning as part of the Comprehensive Plan Update is right now laying the groundwork for a future 82nd and the neighborhoods around it.

The 82nd Avenue Improvement Coalition, a communications network of neighborhood associations, business associations and interested people is hosting a presentation from the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability so that interested neighbors hear how the Comprehensive Plan will affect them, and how they can affect it.

82nd Avenue and the Comprehensive Plan
Sept. 22nd, 7:00 PM
232 SE 80th Ave - Montavilla Methodist Church

The Comprehensive Plan is the citywide master plan for growth and development. See our introduction to the plan, and learn more about the mixed use zoning designations

The Future of Foster Part I: Mixed Use

This is part one of a series looking at the Comprehensive Plan Update and how it effects the Foster neighborhoods in SE Portland. The plan takes a big-picture look at our city across a full spectrum of civic life: from parks, to buildtings, to transportation. Take a look for yourself at http://www.portlandmaps.com/bps/cpmapp2/

Today's focus: the buildings.

The most important land-use element of this compressive plan is the decision of where to put mixed use buildings.

If like most of us, you are living in a detached home or duplex tucked into your neighborhood, you probably don't want an oversized apartment building looming large over your backyard. The comprehensive plan recognizes this, and bends over backwards to preserve the low-density residential areas we have today. The comprehensive plan doesn't change anything about the residential core of our neighborhoods, with a few exceptions.

The vision for SE is pretty clear. Our main corridors like Foster Rd will see mixed use lining the street, and the Lents Town Center/82nd&Foster area is going to be the built-up urban district for our part of town.

The plan proposes a few types of mixed use areas. The most common for us are Mixed Use Civic Corridors, where development fronts a major main streets, Mixed Use Urban Centers, where a cluster of activity on multiple connected streets can create a "district" rather than a single street, and Mixed Use Neighborhood, where pockets of activity can bring unobtrusive commercial uses into the hearts of the neighborhood.


In general, the big difference between the different zones is the intensity of use. Urban Centers are planned to have dense, 5-7 story downtown-like urban form, build into a district of urban blocks. Corridors are 3-5 stories, build along a main street, an Neighborhood uses are smaller, tucked into an otherwise residential areas.


There are really only two things the City of Portland wants from you when it comes to the mixed use zoning of the comprehensive plan:

Did they identify the right parcels for mixed use? Did they reach too far into a residential neighborhood area, as someone has commented for the area of Foster near 72nd?


Or maybe they didn't make enough mixed use? This comment in Lents wonders if the "hole" between Woodstock and Foster would be better off with mixed use designation:


What do you think? If you have thoughts, concerns or comments about the extent and type of mixed use designations identified here, you have until September 19th to submit your comments. Go to http://www.portlandmaps.com/bps/cpmapp2/

Do you want to have your say in person? Come to the first of three open houses:

Wednesday, September 10 2014, 4 – 7 p.m.
David Douglas High School, South Cafeteria
1001 SE 135th Ave

Map to the Future of Foster

The City of Portland Comprehensive Plan is the road map for future development and major capital projects over the next 30 years, and it is being updated as we speak!

The plan seeks to answer important questions such as:

  • Where will apartment buildings go? (And more importantly, where will they not go?)
  • What do our commercial streets and district look like?
  • What parts of town get new parks?
  • What sorts of Transportation investments are in the works?

The planning is not 100% done, but the rough vision is ready. the City of Portland wants to hear from you about the specifics of their vision. Did they get the right projects? did they pick the right locations? Using the Comprehensive Plan Map App, you can review the proposals and leave comments.



The Plan is divided into three categories - Land Use (Buildings), Transportation (walking, transit, etc), and Infrastructure (sewers, parks).

The graphic below shows the basics of how to review and comment on proposals - take a look at the map, and let the city know what you think! In particular, the City is looking for feedback about where the new mixed use zoning is supposed to go.  


Over the coming weeks, we'll make three posts focused on the Comprehensive Plan Update, each focused on the individual category areas. We’ll offer a brief run through of the major proposals, and share a few public comments from your neighbors.

MAX Light Rail on Powell Blvd?

Route800Transit upgrades are coming to Powell Blvd and Division St, that much is certain. But what will it look like and where will it go? That's the $3 million question. The yellow line in the image above shows potential alignment options.

As part of the Powell-Division Transit and Development project, Metro is trying to improve your transit commute between Gresham and Portland in the Powell/Division corridor. Other than calling the project "High Capacity Transit" they really don't know what it's going to look like. They don't know the type of vehicle, and they don't know the preferred route.

So far, everything is on the table. Could this be just a faster bus? Would it run in dedicated lanes? Would it run along Powell and then Division? Or Division the whole way? or Powell the whole way?

Planners are asking the community to chime in now until mid September. They want to know “what type of transit should it be and where should it go?” If the fate of Powell Boulevard matters to you, this is the moment to get involved. Take the survey, share the survey. The planners will add up the results and use this to make and defend their decisions.


Frankly, it feels like we are being set up

TransitTypeWhile the planners put photos of Light Rail and "Rapid Streetcar" in front of us as if they are an actual choice, the terms of the project itself indicate that those are very unlikely outcomes. According the to project brief, the goal of the project is to identify "near-term high capacity transit solution for the corridor that ... recognizes limited capital and operational funding." (Emphasis added). Rail projects are neither near-term nor affordable.  How can they even offer these up if they go directly against the project goals?

If you want light rail or rapid streetcar on Powell, you are going to fight for it. You are going to have to step up for you neighborhood in a way that was unnecessary for other previous light rail lines. It's unfair, it sucks, but it's real.

If you don't step up, we're probably going to end up with a slightly faster, slightly prettier, bus. This wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, but it would be one of the biggest missed opportunities Powell Blvd has ever seen.

Read more at the local Transit blog Portland Transport, and the Official Project Website.

The Street Fee & Foster Neighborhoods

A lot of people have been pissed off about the City's proposed street fee (aka Transportation User Fee). I attended the Woodstock open house last April, and saw a deeply divided audience. The audience seemed to be 50/50 for and against. Some were upset about the concept of a new fee, others though we were already paying for streets, and more still were distrustful that their neighborhood would see any of the money that was raised. 

Particular frustration came from Brentwood-Darlington residents, a neighborhood where it seems they have more unimproved streets than 'complete' streets. How does maintenance money help them, when they don't have many finished streets to maintain? How can you add safe curb ramps to a sidewalk that doesn't exist?

It looks like PBOT was listening, and they recently released the Transportation Needs Guidebook, with information and maps of where transportation needs are, and presumably, where potential improvements would go. What does it mean for our SE neighborhoods?

Street Paving

No one likes driving (or biking, or crossing) on cut-up, pothole filled bumpy streets. The big winners here are:

SE Holgate: from 63rd to 72nd
SE Foster: from 82nd to 92nd) (hey, maybe this means we can use the Foster Streetscape money for something else?)
SE 92nd: From Holgate to the Springwater, except for the recently rebuilt part in the Lents Town Center
SE Ellis: from Foster to 92nd 

Other streets are in less dire need of repair and will get various treatments from fog-seal, to a scrape-and-resurface.

See the area below, or click here for the citywide map.


Safety Improvements

PBOT has been saying that a big chunk of the money will go to safety improvements, like crossings and sidewalks. This one is a little less specific than the street paving map, but it does give us a sense of priorities.

School areas will get safer streets and crossings
The east side of the Lents couplet will get a crossing.
SE Ellis will finally get sidewalks.
and so will Brentwood-Darlington

See the area map below, or click here for the citywide map.


Pop-Up Public Plaza comes to Lents


Sign01The Foster and Lents areas is full of half-empty lots. These forgotten spaces are used to store granite, appliances, used cars, and often, nothing at all.

I suspect many neighbors want to see their neighborhood commercial streets be more than storage yards, and seeing new activity come to these lots helps maintain the hope that their future has more potential than the recent past.

In Lents, the owner of many of these empty lots is surprising: the City of Portland itself (through the Portland Development Commission).

After years of non-interest in development of these lots, the PDC is taking a different approach to development, offering a short-term "pop-up" style lease to the sites. One of the winners of the bid was an art installation/community building/public space, called Story Yard.

Build through a collaboration of Propel Studio Architecture and ROSE Community Development , the Story Yard at 88th & Foster uses benches, walkways, low walls transform the empty lot into a pocket park, surrounding the inhabitants with larger than life portraits of anonymous neighbors that live and work in the neighborhood.

A grand opening celebration is tonight, Monday August 18th from 6-8pm, SE 88th and Foster. Come celebrate with your neighbors.


Learn more about the project from the PDC and Rose CDC.