‘What the County should be doing’: Land donation makes affordable housing possible in neighborhood hit by gentrification

January 24, 2019

County-owned land on North Williams Avenue that's been donated to the City of Portland for housing.
After unanimous votes this month by the Board of Commissioners and the Portland City Council, dozens of deeply affordable, family-size apartments will soon rise on a large inner North Portland lot donated by Multnomah County.

The County Board approved the land donation and development agreement on the project, called North Williams Center, on Thursday, Jan. 24. The vote came a week after city commissioners approved $4.5 million in urban renewal funding for the project and its developer, Bridge Housing.

North Williams Center will replace a former vocational training site at North Williams Avenue and Northeast Tillamook Street. It will include 60 apartments affordable for people earning no more than 60 percent of median income or roughly $48,840 a year for a family of four. One more unit, for the project’s on-site manager, will be unregulated.

Crucially, roughly two-thirds of the units — 40 — will be deeply affordable, set aside for households making no more than 30 percent of the area’s median income, or $24,420 for a family of four. Home Forward, the County’s public housing authority, is making those subsidies possible by committing federal Section 8 vouchers.

“The endgame is that there’s going to be more deeply affordable units for more of the most vulnerable members of our community,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. Whenever she drives by the site, she thinks about “how exciting it’s going to be when this property is turned into something that’s going to change people’s lives.”

Supportive housing and a lifeline for families

In a market where rents have outpaced incomes and builders have largely favored luxury-rent units, affordable units for those experiencing poverty is “our biggest unmet need” when it comes to housing, said Marc Jolin, director of Portland and Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services.

“These are the units that keep our lowest-income community members stable in their housing over time, and prevent homelessness,” Jolin added.

To make the public investment go even further, 10 of those 40 deeply affordable units will come with ongoing wraparound services that offer people leaving homelessness the extra supports they need to stay housed, from physical and mental health care, to addiction treatment. Funding for those services will come from the Joint Office.

Supportive housing is one of the most effective and cost-efficient ways of addressing chronic homelessness and its livability impacts. Less than two years after Portland and the County committed to creating 2,000 supportive housing units by 2028, nearly 550 are open or in development, including these 10.

In addition, the project will add to the Portland-area’s stock of housing suitable for families. Recent construction in Portland’s private market has focused on smaller units — leaving family-size units increasingly expensive and hard to find.

Thirty-four apartments will have two bedrooms and 18 will have three bedrooms. Two-thirds of those family-size units will be set aside for tenants earning 30 percent of median income or less.

“We are really starting to meet the critical need for family-size units with this project,” Jolin said. “There’s an intentional emphasis.”

County-owned land on North Williams Avenue that's been donated to the City of Portland for housing.
Long road to anti-gentrification partnership

The Board took its first steps toward the development and land donation back in 2015, after agreeing to team up on the opportunity with the Portland Housing Bureau. That followed a years-long chain of events that brought the property on Williams under the County’s control and then saw it emerge as a leading contender for affordable housing.

The County approved $2 million in revenue bonds in 2000 to help Port City Development Center renovate the Williams site for use as a vocational training center. The County relied on payments from Port City to pay the bonds back.

After Port City warned it would default in 2013, the County took possession of the property and declared it surplus. In 2015, after community members strongly urged affordable housing for the site, the Board voted to work with Portland.

At the time, Portland leaders were working to invest urban renewal funding in North and Northeast Portland to reverse the displacement of African Americans and other longtime residents who were driven away.

For decades, racist housing laws and lending policies forced African Americans into North and Northeast Portland by preventing them from living in other parts of the city. Later, thousands of African Americans were cleared out by urban renewal and infrastructure projects that targeted their neighborhood at the expense of others. More recently, housing cost increases because of gentrification and economic development have continued to push people out.  

With the County’s land, Portland could offer funding for an affordable development that would help with its goal of addressing displacement. Twenty of the units at North Williams Center will set aside for people with historic or family ties to the area who wish to return to the neighborhood.

“We know that affordable housing is essential for creating communities. But it’s not sufficient,” said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, whose district includes North and Northeast Portland. “When we think about what’s happening in North and Northeast Portland, we’ve got to put affordable housing in there, but we also have to create and re-create some of the other community aspects for a community that was torn apart.”

County’s commitment to affordable housing

Chair Kafoury said the County chose to use the land to create housing with its public partners despite market pressure to sell the land outright or lease it to a business.

“Projects like this don’t happen because they’re a good idea. It takes prioritization,” she said. “The only way we’re getting out of this crisis is by prioritizing. And housing is at the top of this list.”

In all, the development includes $20 million in public and private funding. Partners include not only Portland and Multnomah County, but also Oregon Housing and Community Services, Meyer Memorial Trust, US Bank, Metro, Prosper Portland, and Barings Multifamily.

Commissioner Lori Stegmann said the high cost of  planning and construction can often keep affordable developments from penciling out. Offering land to make projects possible is “one of the greatest things we can do.”

“This is one parcel the County can bring forth. Do we have any more?” she said. “This is what the County should be doing.”