This spring, the Portland Housing Bureau published the 2015 State of Housing in Portland Report, our first comprehensive look at the current state of Portland’s housing market. Quite frankly, it paints a stark picture for many of our fellow Portlanders trying to buy or rent housing in our city.
Portions of our city that were considered affordable just a few years ago are now out of reach for the average Portland family. For many members of our communities of color, our seniors or households headed by a single parent, there is almost nowhere in the city where housing is affordable. It’s clear that we need more tools and resources to develop more affordable housing and retain the housing we’ve already got — and we need them now.
Unlike a number of other cities, we can’t regulate private rents in Portland or require private developers to build affordable housing; state law prevents it. But we can encourage those who want to build here to be part of the solution. One clear option before us is to find new ways to leverage the housing boom that is already happening all over the city. The city currently provides “density bonuses” to developers for including certain public benefits in their projects — meaning they can build taller buildings or get more floor space for their projects than would normally be allowed in the zoning code in exchange for including features like eco-roofs, bicycle parking or housing.
Now is the time to restructure our density bonus regulations to prioritize affordable housing development.
Portland started using density bonuses in the central city in 1988 as a tool to spur development within our urban core. Currently, developers can choose from a list of 18 public benefits to achieve a density bonus. Most of these benefits no longer need to be incentivized; providing a bonus for things that the market already demands and many developers are already doing is no longer necessary.
Right now, we still give extra density to developers who build any housing at all in the central city, regardless of the rent level. In the late ’80s, this was a great tool to encourage the development of the lively and active downtown we enjoy today. That incentive is no longer needed today. What we need more than anything else is more affordable housing.
In the next 20 years, Portland’s central city is projected to gain 30,000 new households. To ensure that the central city maintains a mix of income levels while accommodating rapid growth, we need to streamline the bonuses we provide to developers to prioritize affordable-housing development. The buildings we all see rising up along our corridors and the construction cranes dotting our skyline signal a vibrant and prosperous Portland, but I often look at these new buildings and lament the fact that most do not contain even a single unit that many Portlanders could afford to call home.
Under a proposal that will go before council on July 9, developers seeking a density bonus must either provide affordable housing within their development or pay a fee into a fund for the creation and preservation of affordable housing. This proposal would not give developers extra density or height; it would instead require them to contribute to the creation of affordable housing in order to receive the maximum density that our zoning currently allows.
This “affordable housing incentive zoning proposal” could result in as many as 60 additional units of affordable housing a year on top of those already being developed by the city, or it could mean an additional $120 million to $200 million in funds for affordable housing over the next 20 years.
This proposal alone will not solve our affordable-housing crisis but is a critical step to ensuring more affordable housing in our city.