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How low do we go?

Citizens asked to share their thoughts on affordable housing

In 2005, a task force charged with identifying affordable housing needs found that Lake Oswego lacks enough options for young families, senior citizens and many people who work in the city.

Years later, the city has seen only one affordable housing project completed.

Whether affordable housing comes back onto the public agenda could depend on an ongoing effort to update Lake Oswego's comprehensive plan, a roadmap for the community's future development.

'I think the community has to embrace the concept that different kinds of housing and housing choices are appropriate for and would increase the vibrancy of Lake Oswego,' Mayor Jack Hoffman said, noting past affordable housing initiatives encountered fierce neighborhood opposition. 'It makes sense to fold it into the comprehensive plan process, when we talk about creating great neighborhoods and housing.'

Hoffman said he has felt for years that the city should consider ways to encourage development of housing other than large single-family homes, whether that means reducing fees for builders working on those projects, changing zoning to allow more housing types or dedicating urban renewal money to affordable housing efforts.

'We need housing choices for people who want to age in place, for young families who want to move to Lake Oswego, for people who may want to have an aging parent live with them,' he said.

But he isn't sure publicly supported housing belongs in Foothills, a redevelopment effort between downtown and the Willamette River. The council-approved plan for the area calls for a new urban renewal district, which would spend millions of public dollars on new infrastructure.

It does not include a requirement for affordable housing - long discussed as a possible benefit of the project. Instead, the plan specifies the new apartments and condos - increasing the city's rental stock by nearly a third - would be at 'market rate.'

That's a problem for housing advocates like Tom Cusack, former director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Oregon field office and a Mountain Park resident for three decades. He now maintains the Oregon Housing Blog, http://oregonhousing.blogspot.com.

'If the market were the sole provider of housing that doesn't price out people who live in and work in many metro-area communities, then affordable housing would only be located in the least desirable areas, where it's cheapest to build,' Cusack said. 'Most people have recognized you're not really helping those families or creating opportunities for them; you are, in effect, creating a subsidized ghetto, which many people think is the wrong thing to do.'

Government housing programs can offset the cost of building affordable housing projects for developers. But a more simple option to make rents cheaper for low-income residents is to accept housing vouchers, he said. The approved Foothills plan does not require apartment owners to accept housing vouchers.

'I certainly recognize that private property owners get to decide whether they want to accept vouchers, but if you're going to give people multiple millions of dollars in public subsidies, it's not unacceptable to ask that they accept them,' Cusack said.

'Vouchers would still allow you to rent a market-rate unit to someone who doesn't qualify for (government assistance)' while accepting them from people who otherwise couldn't afford the rent, he said. 'And it doesn't cost the (developers) anything. … It's balancing public benefits that will result from increased property values, which are only going to happen because of the public infrastructure investment.'

Matt Brown of Williams, Dame and White, the firm that crafted the Foothills framework plan, said absent a citywide policy requiring affordable housing, developers can't do much.

'We've always said we're happy to look at that, to include that, but it needs to come in the context of citywide direction on affordable housing policy,' Brown said.

'I will say affordable housing requires financial resources. … Our experience has been that when you try to write into a code that 20 percent of your units have to be affordable at a certain level, that's really difficult to handle when you can't even get a market-rate project to pencil out.'

Affordable housing typically means households earning 80 percent or less of the regional median income pay no more than 30 percent of income on housing.

What does 'market rate' rent mean?

'Whatever the market will support, or what the market can afford,' Brown said. The cost per square foot of building new apartments will influence rent prices, but it remains unclear how big the average apartment will be, he said. And the first new buildings planned in Foothills likely won't be finished for seven or eight years.

The city's 2005 affordable housing report, developed over more than a year, identified several strategies to meet the city's growing housing needs, including:

n Establish a trust fund to create, preserve or maintain affordable housing;

n Ensure zoning doesn't preclude affordable housing;

n Establish a Lake Oswego Redevelopment Agency policy setting a minimum percentage of affordable units in all developments benefiting from public assistance.

Judie Hammerstad was mayor when those recommendations came to the council. At the time, she said, the high cost of land in Lake Oswego made affordable housing projects insurmountable: 'It would have meant very few homes could have been built because of the cost of the land.'

But times have changed.

'Property values have declined; we're in a different atmosphere than we were at that time,' Hammerstad said. 'I think it certainly would be a good thing for the council to review those policies on housing, especially as Foothills is redeveloped.'

The one affordable housing effort completed in recent years is Oakridge Park, a partnership between Lake Grove Presbyterian Church and nonprofit Northwest Housing Alternatives. The 45-unit apartment complex houses people 62 or older who earn less than 50 percent of the metro area's median income.

Northwest Housing Alternatives Executive Director Martha McLennan sent a letter to the council before it approved the Foothills plan in late 2011.

To afford the city's median rent of roughly $900, McLennan said, a household needs to earn more than $43,000, and that prices out many of the city's entry-level employees, as well as first- and second-year teachers, nurses, bank tellers and others who work here.

'All of these workers will need to live in other communities and put a burden on our transportation system and environment by commuting to Lake Oswego,' she wrote. At the same time, Foothills 'represents a substantial public investment.'

'Simple strategies that tie the public benefits gained by private developers to requirements that they provide modest amounts of affordable housing in their developments can help to meet community needs,' she said. 'By failing to include provisions for affordable housing, the Foothills plan misses a key opportunity to leverage private sector participation in creating a complete community.'



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