Metro role in affordable housing is tricky
The Metro regional government is best known for running the Oregon Zoo, handling the Portland area's solid waste, and managing the urban growth boundary. So voters might be surprised a year from now if they see the agency, instead, asking for $500 million to help solve the problem of sky-high housing costs.
The Metro Council, made up of seven elected representatives, has decided to talk with other local leaders about placing the property tax bond measure on the November 2018 ballot. It's good that Metro intends to have extensive conversations about this issue before officially moving forward. One of many concerns that must be addressed is whether Metro is the appropriate agency to raise more money for affordable housing.
The decision to consider a housing bond in 2018 follows a protracted discussion about the interrelated topics of housing and transportation. Originally, TriMet was supposed to head to the November 2018 ballot with a measure to raise local matching funds for a new light-rail line between Portland and Tigard. But the proposed Southwest Corridor MAX expansion got bogged down in a debate over what impact it might have on housing costs along the route.
The dreaded G word — gentrification — was raised by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and others. Wheeler asked TriMet to add a housing component to its transportation measure — something TriMet (a transportation agency) is unable to do legally. In the end, TriMet decided to delay its ballot measure and defer to Metro (an urban planning agency), which will consider a housing measure in 2018 followed by a transportation measure in 2020.
We aren't persuaded that postponing the rail line is a smart move, given the growing congestion problems in Portland's Southwest quadrant. But it's clear the train is stalled for now, and it's also obvious that the rising cost of housing is an issue of paramount importance to many Portland-area residents.
Whether it makes sense for Metro to lead the movement for affordable housing is another question. To their credit, Metro councilors and staff have done extensive research on the topic.
According to estimates, Washington County is 14,000 units short of affordable housing; "affordable" is defined as housing that costs no more than 30 percent of household income.
Area residents don't have to look far to find households straining to keep a roof over their heads. And, as Metro Councilor Sam Chase notes, "People expect us to take action."
Of course, action already is occurring to address different facets of the housing problem. Portland dramatically increased its spending on housing and then took the extra step last year of passing a $258 million bond measure that's intended to increase the supply of affordable housing. The housing authorities in Washington, Multnomah, and Clackamas counties own, manage and support thousands of units of subsidized housing.
At the higher end of the spectrum, the market has responded with thousands of new apartments in towers and midrises that have increased supply and have begun to put downward pressure on rents. At the lower end, local governments and nonprofit groups are partnering to build shelters, tiny houses and other accommodations to get homeless people off the streets.
Even if you accept the idea that another $500 million raised through higher regional property taxes is needed to fill the housing gaps, a number of questions must be considered.
Housing affordability crosses local boundaries, which is why Metro sees it as a regional issue. But Metro, as Chase acknowledges, should not be in the business of building and managing housing. That means it will work with local agencies — cities, counties, housing authorities and nonprofit groups — to distribute money raised by a bond measure.
But some cities will want more affordable housing developments while others will not. And no city is likely to want more than its fair share, as low-cost housing adds little to a tax base even as a city is required to provide services. It will be tricky to devise a formula that's equitable to everyone — including those in need of cheaper housing in a place they want to live.
Metro also has a history of growing its domain in the name of worthy causes. Its open space bond measure, approved in 1995, was followed by another open space bond measure in 2006, which was followed by 2013 and 2016 levies to provide access and maintain those open spaces. Once the door is opened to a housing tax, are more to come? And what would that mean for the affordability of homes subject to the property tax?
Given the complexities of the issues and the number of discussions it should have with the region's 24 cities and three counties, it's ambitious for Metro to meet its goal of having a well-designed proposal ready for the November 2018 ballot.
This region's voters have shown they are willing to invest in specific projects to improve livability. A recent poll conducted for Metro bears out this willingness when it comes to a hypothetical housing bond measure. But Metro should not proceed based on the voters' goodwill without first gaining the complete support of its regional partners and being ready to say precisely how the money will be spent.