Lents neighbors and others question PDC housing set-aside

When Peter Finley Fry says that city Commissioner Erik Sten is alienating his political base, Fry should know - he's a charter member of that base, and he feels alienated.

Sten's most recent housing initiative 'is ill-conceived and a shotgun approach to something that needs finesse,' said Fry, a planning consultant with a strong interest in housing. 'A lot of Erik's own constituents are upset about this.'

The topic is a policy that the City Council tentatively approved in April calling for the Portland Development Commission to, in each of its urban renewal areas, devote 30 percent of its spending there to affordable housing.

Not only is Sten drawing a late round of criticism for the plan - the details of which were finalized Wednesday by the PDC - but so is another supporter of it, Commissioner Randy Leonard.

Leonard, like Sten, is taking heat from part of his base - past allies in the neighborhood with which he is most closely associated, Lents. Dewey Akers, president of the Lents Neighborhood Association, argues that the city policy will add low-income housing to a neighborhood that already has more than its share.

'What will Columbia Villa look like in 20 years?' Akers said in a recent meeting of his group, referring to a mixed-income housing complex in North Portland. 'I don't want the same thing to happen in Lents.'

Akers, like critics in the Central Eastside Industrial District, also is concerned that the increase in spending will go to nonprofits, thus taking property off the tax rolls.

'I didn't understand that there was a lot of concern there,' Leonard said. 'At times I find that advocating for Lents means that I have some blunt conversations with my friends in Lents … . Sometimes your friends are the ones that tell you the things that others are afraid to tell you.'

Similarly, Sten said he was not aware of the depth of Fry's concerns. He said he 'loves' Fry, but that he is being 'dogmatic.'

South Waterfront set off rule

The resolution written by Sten in April was issued shortly after a hearing in which Sten expressed displeasure over the PDC's failure to plan for affordable housing in the new South Waterfront renewal area south of downtown, thus spending millions more than necessary.

Since the passage of the resolution, the PDC has done outreach, but less outreach than some felt was called for. Tim Holmes, a photographer who is president of the Central Eastside Industrial Council, said: 'They say there was a public process, but the only public that was privy to it was the housing folks. That's not quite right. I think that's what people are hot about.'

Sten said Holmes' group, for which Fry does consulting, needs to take a more citywide perspective.

'It's an enormous benefit to have an urban renewal district,' Sten said. 'And one of the trade-offs now is that some of that money is going to go into affordable housing.'

Both Sten and Leonard predicted that once the critics become more familiar with the details of the policy, fears will subside.

Funds also go to ownership

Leah Greenwood of the PDC noted that the policy for each urban renewal area overseen by the PDC had been tailored to that neighborhood - in part due to the criticism it heard in Lents, where it boosted the amount of spending planned for affordable homeownership.

'I think their input will be taken seriously,' she said of the criticisms. In Lents, such input 'has already led to changes … so we have been listening.'

Mark Rosenbaum, chairman of the PDC, noted that the policy was passed over PDC objections, saying, 'This is City Council policy, let's be real clear about that.' However, he agreed that the criticisms may turn out to be overblown. 'I think this money can be used to help the existing neighborhood, to upgrade the housing stock that's there.'

Wednesday, the PDC approved the details of the spending plan by a split vote of 3-2. Board members Sal Kadri and Bertha Ferrán dissented, saying not enough money was slated for homeownership.

But even though the policy was adopted, Fry said he still believes changes will have to be made.

'I think it's broken upon takeoff,' he said of the policy. 'It's going to have to be revisited immediately. The plane is broke. It's not going to fly.'

Sten said the policy is 'not set in stone,' but he still thinks the neighborhood concerns are not grounded in reality - for instance, he said, look at the River District, which includes the Pearl District, where affordable housing has not hurt neighborhood revitalization efforts.

'It is hardly hurting property values,' Sten said.

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