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Affordable Housing-The Portland Region's Biggest Failure

A recent series of articles by the Oregonian highlights a significant failure on the part of local and regional governments in the Portland region in one area of governance in which both levels of government are responsible. The series, Locked Out: The Failure of Portland-Area Fair Housing can be found here, and is likely to be considered for several journalism awards. In one sense, the story was not very surprising to those familiar with affordable housing in the region. Most local governments, who deal with pledges to assist and not discriminate against such housing, have done very little to plan for and provide for such housing. And Metro, which should be assuring that affordable housing is provided, finds it much easier to tout such popular objectives as open space acquisition, freeways and the zoo, rather than deal with the grimy realities of doing so.

The series consisted of four articles. The first and second dealt with the result of the failure to support fair housing that lead to the concentration of those housing units that are subsidized in peripheral parts of the region, where residents tend to be further from public transit, from food and other commercial facilities, and from the upscale regional center. Part of this story, however, is the level of resistance the journalist faced when making public records requests to evaluate the problem. The Portland Housing Bureau, Home Forward (the Multnomah County housing agency) and the Clackamas County Housing Authority either resisted those requests (with Home Forward paying $15,000 in legal fees to do so) or gravely overestimated the amounts it would charge for records that arguably should be released without charge to a newspaper in the public interest. If that resistance were based on the potential embarrassment of an exposé that public agencies failed in their duties to further affordable housing, they were right. For the article concluded that there was a concentration of affordable housing in Portland east of 82nd Avenue and that dramatic demographic shifts of ethnic minorities had occurred. Irvington and other inner eastside neighborhoods had become “gentrified” over time, while racial minorities were increasing rapidly in Outer Southeast Portland.

The third and fourth articles dealt with affordable housing in the suburbs of Clackamas and Washington Counties. While there have been recommendations to the leaders of West Linn and Lake Oswego, the movement to assist affordable housing in both cities has been glacial – even to the extent of a net loss in affordable housing units as the Clackamas County Housing Authority finds it easier to sell its housing in those cities to provide more units elsewhere. And in Washington County, fairly minimal efforts to include affordable housing in newly-urbanized areas were met, successfully, with resistance by homebuilders more interested in an upscale market than housing equity.

One may ask where Metro is in all of this. The unfortunate answer is that Metro is among the missing in the struggle for affordable housing. Metro has been reluctant to gather data on affordable housing from local governments in the region and has determined that it doesn’t want to know about race and ethnicity if it does gather such data. If it did gather such data, Metro might be required to adhere to the Fair Housing Act, as well as to state law, which requires governments to plan for rental and market housing for all income levels and price ranges. Metro might be able to defend itself by contending that the state planning agency, LCDC, is not requiring it to do anything. If so, that would be even more unfortunate, as no agency wishes to risk the discomfort of doing the right thing for affordable housing.

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