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Three days after activists declared a “state of emergency” for Portland tenants, a panel of experts said increasing rents and “no fault” evictions are regional problems, but there are no quick or easy solutions.


“We need multiple strategies. If there was a silver bullet, we would have found it by now,” said Elisa Harrigan, an affordable housing initiative program officer at the Meyer Memorial Trust.

In fact, Harrigan said the problems could get even worse if landlords begin converting apartments to condominiums, something that happened before the housing bubble burst, triggering the Great Recession in December 2007.

“Many renters don’t have the additional money it takes to buy their units,” Harrigan said of condo conversions.

Harrigan spoke at a Friday morning panel held by Metro to address rising housing costs. By coincidence, that followed a Tuesday rally organized by the Community Alliance of Tenants to protest what they called a crisis of increasing rents and “no fault” evictions for renovation to justify even higher rents. The discussion drew a standing-room-only crowd to the Council Chambers at Metro’s headquarters building at 600 N.E. Grand Ave.

The panelists agreed landlords are raising rents because the number of tenants is outstripping the available supply of apartments, despite the numerous construction projects underway. Around 33,500 people moved to the Portland region between 2013 and 2014, according to the Portland State University Population Research Center. Landlords are raising rents in response to the increased demand, and in some cases evicting tenants to remodel units and justify even higher rents.

In addition to Harrigan, the panel included local economist Joe Cortright; affordable housing builder Eli Spevak; and Kim-Mai Cutler, a reporter who has covered the even more dramatic housing cost increases in San Francisco. They all suggested things that could be done but will take time.

All supported the construction of more income-restricted housing units, with some favoring a property tax measure that would need to be approved by voters at a future election. Some suggested rent controls, although they are currently prohibited by state law. Harrigan favored vouchers to cover rent increases. Spevak said the city should change the building code to encourage the construction of smaller, less expensive homes. And Cortright argued for an end to free parking along city streets to discourage cars, which he said drives up housing costs.

The discussion was the public kick-off of the Equitable Housing Initiative launched by Metro, the elected regional government, to encourage the construction of affordable housing choices throughout the tri-county area. It was championed by Councilor Sam Chase, who represents portions of North and Northeast Portland, which has the highest percentage of publicly subsidized housing in the region.

Chase opened the discussion by saying rents have increased 63 percent in the region since 2006, while incomes have increased only 39 percent.

“People are struggling, things are getting worse, we are falling behind and we have a lot of work to do,” Chase said.

The initiative is not designed to come up with one or more quick fixes for the problem. Instead, it is intended to be a forum for sharing knowledge within the region about best practices for increasing the supply of diverse and quality affordable housing. It will include research and several more public forums before a regional equitable housing summit in the winter of 2016. That will be followed by recommendations to the Metro Council for next steps and future direction.

Friday’s panel was intended in part as an opportunity to look at the experiences in San Francisco, another West Coast city with even higher rental costs than Portland. Much of the background presented by Cutler was in marked contrast to the local situation, however. There, large companies like Apple are headquartered in suburban communities that are not allowing much new construction for local employees. As a result, many of the company’s employees have moved into San Francisco, driving up rents and commuting to work every day.

In contrast, Hillsboro is working hard to build more homes for employees at Intel and the other tech companies there. The South Hillsboro project, currently in the final planning stages, will include a mix of housing, including homes aimed at corporate executives.

The San Francisco City Council has put a $300 million measure on the ballot to build more affordable housing. Cutler said it was only likely to result in about 500 new units, however, because land costs are so high there. In contrast, Portland has already built 2,300 income-restricted units in the Pearl District with urban renewal funds.

Cutler also suggested the region should consider a tax on increases in property values to fund affordable housing projects.

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