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County needs to plan for affordable housing

A recent Oregonian investigation of housing segregation in the Portland metro area suggests regional political leaders and the housing development community are not serious about complying with the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, which requires jurisdictions to adopt proactive policies to end race-based and class-based housing discrimination.

Historically, the African-American population in Portland was deliberately segregated in northeast Portland in the Albina neighborhood after the Vanport flood in 1948, which destroyed an integrated residential community attracted to Portland to work in the ship building industry.

Now, the gentrification of northeast Portland is pushing low-income residents into outer southeast Portland.

In Washington County, with its large Latino population and large low-income population, the demand for affordable housing has been acute for 20 years. There are more than 5,000 people on the county Housing Authority's wait list. They will be on that list for three to five years. We also have an increasing homeless population.

In an area where land costs are high, it’s challenging for public housing authorities and developers to build low-income housing without heavy subsidies coming from federal and state agencies.

A bad economy, however, makes public housing subsidies a challenge, as do state laws which allow the rejection of Section 8 vouchers (to low-income folks) and prohibit inclusionary zoning. This leads to "clustering" of low-income housing in low-income areas in the region. Such policies "ghettoize" the poor regardless of race.

So where can we house such vulnerable people, their families and children in Oregon's richest county and the hub of the hi-tech and agri-business industry?

As new housing developments are built, one would think it would be logical to set aside housing for low-income residents, creating racially and economically integrated communities.

Despite talk, nothing much is happening.

The newest development coming online in Washington County is the Arbor Oaks development in North Bethany. But with a price point starting at $300,000, low-income people are left out of the equation.

Tom Brian, the former chair of the Washington County board, is now a lobbyist for the developer. Despite supporting fair-housing goals while chair, he now terms such guidelines as "coercive."

North Bethany could be a game changer if there was the will to do so.

County Commissioner Greg Malinowski, who represents the Bethany area, recently said that "if this becomes a community where you have to make $100,000 per year to live here, then, yeah, it's not much of a success" in meeting fair-housing standards. This is a classic example of institutionalized racial and economic discrimination.

But where there is a will, there is a way. State Rep. Tina Kotek (D-Portland), proposed a bill to stop landlords from refusing to rent to people with Section 8 vouchers. The bill failed in the GOP-dominated 2009 House, but Kotek vowed to bring it back if the Democrats take the House this fall.

Minus such tools, other options exist. In 2010 the Washington County Commission created "opportunity maps" that highlight areas of potential housing development near public transportation, retail stores, schools, libraries and parks. These also are close to major big-box employers in the hi-tech and retail business community. Well-planned housing helps prevent urban sprawl and clogged freeways.

That’s why, since 2002, Metro assumed North Bethany would include affordable housing. Metro and Washington County agreed that 20 percent of owner-occupied housing should be affordable to families making less than 80 percent of the area's median family income ($58,000 for a family of four) and that 20 percent of rentals should be set aside for those making 60 percent of the median income ($43,000).

While the Washington County Board adopted these guidelines, nothing has happened. Without carrots, most developers are not interested in reversing de-facto housing segregation; it doesn't fit their business plan.

Brad Hosmar, of West Hills/Arbor Homes, disagrees with Brian, indicating his company is committed to providing a diversity of housing.

But talking the talk and walking the talk are two different things. Maybe it's time for county housing and social service advocates to take their cue from Seattle and dust off a much-discussed plan for a county levy to fund housing, human services, children and veterans.

Russ Dondero has been a housing advocate in Washington County and Oregon since 1991.




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