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Loss of low-cost housing routing poor from downtown

 Street Roots (USA) 04 June 2019

Affordable housing for Portland’s poorest residents has declined significantly in the city center, even as more high-end housing increased. According to the Central City Housing Inventory, released in July by the Portland Development Commission, the city center lost more than 22 percent of its lowest income housing options, but gained nearly 12 percent more in the number of units for higher incomes. The result, according to those in the business of placing people in affordable housing, has been a shift of poverty from the central city area to outer parts of Portland. Yet as Amanda Waldroupe reports, the city maintains it is holding the line despite the reports which show the poorest have fewer options than ever.  - By Amanda Waldroupe

PORTLAND, USA - Affordable housing for Portland's poorest residents has declined significantly in the city center, even as more high-end housing increased.

According to the Central City Housing Inventory, released in July by the Portland Development Commission, the city center lost more than 22 percent of its lowest income housing options, but gained nearly 12 percent more in the number of units for higher incomes.

The result, according to those in the business of placing people in affordable housing, has been a shift of poverty from the central city area to outer parts of Portland and Multnomah County.

"Here in mid-county and in east county we are seeing an increasing number of people seeking low-cost affordable housing," says Jean DeMaster, executive director of Human Solutions. "And we believe part of it is the lack of housing in the central city areas and the decrease of housing in the central city area."

The sources interviewed for this article all point toward a growing trend: the displacement of low-income people, who can no longer find affordable housing in the central city, to other parts of Portland and Multnomah County.

The increase of people looking for housing in eastern parts of Multnomah County has been happening for the last three or four years, DeMaster says, but Human Solutions saw a "marked" increase in the last six months, corresponding with the deepening of the recession.

The inventory, published every three years, monitors whether or not the city is adhering to its "No Net Loss" policy. Passed in 2001, the No Net Loss policy establishes that the same number of rental units available to people earning 60 percent of MFI or below in 2002 would remain the same through preservation or replacement. That number is 8,286.

The inventory says there are 15,601 total rental units in the central city, an area defined as the downtown, the River District, Goose Hollow, University Place, the South Waterfront area, Central Eastside, the Lloyd District, and Lower Albina.

Affordability is categorized according to the median family income, or MFI, for which a unit is affordable. The federal Bureau of Housing and Urban Development sets the affordability standard that rent or mortgage consume no more than 30 percent of a household's monthly income.

In Oregon, the median family income is $54,000 for a family of two. An individual earning  zero to 30 percent of MFI - up to $14,700 - is considered to be living in poverty. In that price range, the central city lost more than 22 percent of its housing units. The nearly 12 percent increase charted in the inventory came in housing affordable to people earning at least 120 percent MFI, or $60,000 or above.

Human Solutions receives between 200 and 400 requests for rent assistant vouchers each month, with the number "edging" increasingly towards 400. Human Solutions can only provide 40 vouchers a month.

"The amount is so much less than what is needed," DeMaster says.

Shelley Dixon, the housing manager for Transition Projects, Inc. who helps place clients into housing, estimates that 10 percent of the 200 people she has placed into housing in the last two years were placed in the downtown area. Dixon says she remembers when, only a few years ago, the majority of her clients would be housed downtown.

"I used to have a lot of clients in each building," Dixon says.

"For a number of years, the majority of people who we meet who are homeless, we meet in downtown and the inner city area," says Marc Jolin, the executive director of JOIN. "But in terms of housing placement, the vast majority of people we help into housing are in the east side or north Portland, and in some cases, outside of the city altogether."

Jolin says that JOIN's retention team, which is responsible for assisting people who recently entered housing and helping them stay housed, has clients living in outer east Portland, Gresham, Beaverton, and other communities in Washington county.

Jolin and Dixon says the scattering of low income people presents an additional challenge: having the staff and time necessary to meet with people once they are housed.

"The more dispersed people are throughout the community, the more time and effort we're spending to be with them and the more effort it takes to get people to services they need," Jolin says.

The inventory's actual survey results of rental operations found that there are 6,389 rental units counting as No Net Loss units in the central city area. That is well below the 8,286 benchmark set in 2002 when the No Net Loss policy was passed. However, in projections of the survey results - to account for rental companies that did not return surveys - the PDC says the No Net Loss policy is being met, with nearly 8,500 units in the city center affordable up to 60 percent MFI. The PDC counts all of those units toward the No Net Loss policy.

"Statistical theory would say that what we did was perfectly adequate," Sheern says.

The only growth in affordable housing counting as No Net Loss units was seen in housing affordable to people living between 51 percent to 60 percent of the median family income - people earning around $29,400.

"The PDC report outlines that there still aren't new units for 0 to 30 percent," says Julie Massa, the Portland Policy coordinator for Oregon Opportunity Network. "The City seems to be at conflict with itself to reach its housing goals."

"Those percentages may reflect a decrease in actual number of units, but they may not," says David Sheern, the policy coordinator at the PDC who was the principle author of the Inventory. Sheern notes that the 2005 Inventory counted college student housing, while the 2008 Inventory omitted those numbers.

When asked for information that would have clarified how affordable housing declined by more than 22 percent, such as whether specific buildings affordable to those living at 0 to 50 percent MFI were lost due to condo conversion, rent increase, or demolition, Sheern declined to give that information, saying it might negatively impact a property owner's willingness to complete the surveys the inventory relies on for its information in the future.

Susan Emmons, the executive director of Northwest Pilot Project, a housing agency serving low-income and homeless elderly people, finds the fact that the Inventory says the No Net Loss  Policy is being met despite decline in housing for people living at the low income levels misleading.

"It does seem to me that they're using a very loose interpretation to say that they are meeting the No Net Loss Policy," Emmons says.

"We were a lot more focused on the downtown area, and we've just had to extend that," Emmons says of Northwest Pilot Project's placement efforts.

"We're not satisfied with the numbers," says Nick Fish, the City's housing commissioner, calling the results of the Inventory a "mixed bag."

Fish points to five developments that he says will increase the supply of units affordable to people living at 0 to 30 percent MFI by 572 units:


•           The Resource Access Center, slated to open in 2011, will have 130 units.

•           The Rose Quarter, scheduled to open in 2010, will have 176.

•           University Place will open in 2010 with 48 units

•           The Martha Washington building, opening in 2010, will have 80 units.

•           Pearl Family Housing will open in 2011 with 138 units.

"These five projects are coming on line when private financing is really messed up," says Margaret van Vliet, the new director of the Portland Housing Bureau. "The fact that we're still getting these five is good news."

"What we have put in place is positive," Fish says, despite the nation's recession and the freezing of the tax credit and credit markets, factors which, Fish says, are forces working against and cannot be controlled by those involved in Portland's housing policy and efforts to build affordable housing.

Fish also thinks that the inventory should not be looked to as a good indicator for evaluating the success of Portland's housing policy. A decline in affordable housing for the poorest of the poor does not mean that Portland is failing to provide decent housing for its citizens.

"It's important to monitor the No Net Loss Policy, but it's important to step back and look at the forest from the trees," Fish says. "A 3-year inventory doesn't define the success of a community wide strategy."

The inventory's findings raise problems in addition to the fact that Portland's stock of low-income affordable housing is declining.

More than 80 percent of the total No Net Loss units have attached tenant or income restrictions, such as Section 8 vouchers. In other words, to live in certain buildings or certain units within buildings, an individual would have to have a Section 8 voucher in order to qualify. Only 19 percent of No Net Loss units are open market units, or units that have no such restriction.

"It (shows) … the importance of restrictive covenants and public financing," Sheern says. Sheern says that having such restrictions attached to the building ensure that the units will remain affordable, rather than becoming the prey of market forces that could increase the rent.

Those open-market forces have had a tremendous impact. The PDC report found that in the open market, the percentage of rental units priced at or below 80 percent MFI has decreased markedly over the last three years. The proportion of open-market rental units priced above 120 percent MFI increased by more than 27 percent, while the proportion of open-market units affordable below 50 percent MFI decreased by more than 20 percent.

The inventory also found that 77 percent of the central city area's No Net Loss units are single-resident occupancy units (SROs) or studios. "Remarkably, only 3 percent of all No Net Loss units are two- or three-bedroom units and virtually all of those larger units are located within the River District," the inventory states.

DeMaster says it is a mixed bag when it comes to whether or not people are able to find decent affordable housing in east county. "Many times we see one or two families combine into a single housing unit in order to make ends meet," she says.

Some interviewed for this article suggested that the rapid displacement of poor people to East Portland and the eastern parts of Multnomah County may turn the area into a ghetto.

"People are really concerned to … not let the ghetto effect happen," DeMaster says.

Fish makes no bones that low-income people are being displaced from the central city area. Not directly stating whether or not east Multnomah County is or will become a ghetto, Fish did not dispute that poverty is moving east. He also acknowledged that it represents a trend that will most likely continue.

"We need to invest in the infrastructure of East Portland," Fish says.


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