PORTLAND, Ore. – In November, Portland voters will decide whether to pay for a historic bond to create affordable housing. Supporters say the bond could make a significant difference in how many homeless people are on Portland’s streets.
There has been no organized opposition to the bond and many city leaders and agencies are in favor of it. The opposition will be seen at the polls, when tax-weary property owners will be asked to pay for other people’s housing.
Here’s a breakdown of what Portland’s housing bond would do, how it could impact homelessness and how much it would cost you.
How the housing bond works
The bond measure proposes to authorize $258.4 million in general obligation bonds to buy land and build affordable housing on it, as well as purchase buildings that currently house low-income people and keep those buildings affordable indefinitely.
That term “general obligation bonds” might seem like financial inside baseball, but it’s something the city has used a lot.
“We use general obligation bonds all the time to build bridges, parks, libraries, schools and fire stations,” explained Jes Larson of Welcome Home Coalition, a group of 140 local organizations that launched the ballot measure.
That $258.4 million would be available starting in July 2017. Over five to seven years, the city expects to build and renovate 15-20 buildings ranging in size from 20 to 100 units each.
In total, the bonds would create a minimum of 1,300 units in neighborhoods throughout Portland, according to Portland Housing Bureau Director Kurt Creager. Seventy-five percent of the bond would go toward buying land and building 950 new units, and 25 percent would be used to buy and renovate 350 units in buildings that already house low-income people.
That’s it. The bonds wouldn’t pay for building maintenance or management; instead, rent payments would cover those bills.
The city wouldn’t be paying a mortgage, so the costs are low.
“We are not in real estate,” Larson said. “With a bond, it’s public infrastructure. The public owns the building outright.”
Although it’s the first time Portland voters will consider a housing bond, it’s not the first of its kind nationwide. Oakland, Calif. will vote on a $500 million affordable housing bond in November. Seattle has had an affordable housing levy for decades and Vancouver, Wash. is proposing a levy similar to Seattle’s.
Portland property owners would foot the bill for the bond over the next 20 years. Taxpayers would pay about 42 cents for every $1,000 in tax-assessed property value.
For the average homeowner, that’s $6 a month or $75 a year on a home tax-assessed at $178,230.
In all, the average homeowner would pay $1,500.
Renters wouldn’t pay anything.
Since the money wouldn’t immediately be available from tax payments, the city office of finance would issue the bonds over a five-year period of time to the Portland Housing Bureau, according to Creager.
Property owners would pay the $258.4 million back to the city over two decades of tax payments.
PSU Assistant Professor Marisa Zapata said it’s not enough money to fix the city’s affordable housing issues, but it’s a start.
“It’s going to make a difference but we still need more affordable housing,” she said.
Who would get housing
Half of the units would be studios and one-bedrooms for single people and couples, and half would be for families, with two to five bedrooms. In all, about 3,000 people at a time would live in them.
Over 80 years, or the estimated life of the buildings, Larson says they would house 58,000 people.
“Families stay on average four years before they’re able to move up and out,” she said.
All of the homes would be low-income. Half would be for households that make less than 60 percent of the median income, which is just under $44,000 for a family of four. Half would be for people who make less than 30 percent of the median income, which, for example, could be someone working a minimum-wage job and supporting three other people. Some in the latter group would have no income, or only fixed income from social security.
The people who already live in the buildings the city plans to buy to renovate wouldn’t be kicked out, Larson said. The idea is to keep those units affordable so they don’t turn into market-rate housing. When a tenant moves out, that apartment would only be offered to low-income renters.
There would be an application process, Larson said, and once the buildings are full there would be a waitlist at each building, just like there are at the city’s current affordable housing developments.
There is currently space for about 4,000 people to live in the city's public housing developments and 6,500 households on the waitlist.
How it could help Portland’s homeless
Portland recently launched programs to fight homelessness, from new temporary shelters to sweeps. The city is also considering options such as inclusionary zoning, or requiring some affordable housing in big developments, and changing what kind of homes can be built in neighborhoods.
But none are as effective as an influx of affordable housing units could be, Larson said.
In January 2015, a homeless count found about 5,400 homeless people sleeping outside and in shelters in Multnomah County. The housing bond could theoretically house half of those people, many of whom have income either through jobs or social security but can’t afford more than $1,000 a month for a market-rate apartment.
The application process would not consider whether someone is homeless or living in a home, just their income, so it’s impossible to know how many homeless people would be housed though the bond. But Larson said it could be significant.
“We’re making a very big impact on where the need is greatest,” Larson said. “We can talk about ways to mitigate or address or treat homelessness, but if we want to talk about solving it we have to create affordable homes.”
Zapata said the bond won’t clear everyone off the streets, especially since she believes the number of homeless people in Portland has grown since the last count.
“One of my concerns is the people thinking of the houseless community who say, ‘If we pass this bond, why are there still homeless people on the street?’” She said. “Solving homelessness is a more complicated issue than that.”
Another roadblock for the bond is the general public’s perception. A recent poll showed that most Oregonians don’t think more homes are the answer to reducing homelessness.
A May 2016 poll conducted by DHM Research found that most Oregonians do not think housing and homelessness are directly related.
More people said the cause of homelessness was unemployment, choice and mental illness than housing. Only 30 percent of the state’s population thinks homelessness is a solvable problem.
But the truth is that Portland is getting more expensive while renters are getting poorer.
According to housing bureau commissioner Dan Saltzman, renters in Portland have seen their household incomes drop by 7 percent in the last 15 years, while rents increased by 30 percent.
That creates a new population of people who can no longer afford their homes. The question voters will answer in November is whether they think the housing bond will make a big enough difference that it’s worth paying for out of pocket.
Published September 21, 2016