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Housing affordabilty big issue at first growth plan session

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Housing affordability emerged as a major issue Tuesday during the City Council's first work session on the comprehensive land-use plan update that will guide Portland's growth during the next 20 years.

The council also admitted it will take longer to approve the update than expected last week. The final vote probably won't take place until May — at the earliest.

During a Jan. 26 meeting, Mayor Charlie Hales and all of the commissioners expressed concern about rising housing costs that are pricing both low-income renters and middle-income home buyers out of the city.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who is in charge of the Portland Housing Bureau, was adamant that the final version of the Comp Plan — as the city's long-range land-use plan is commonly called — must include incentives for building a range of affordable housing, from rent-controlled apartments to lower cost single-family homes.

"We need to focus like a laser on affordable housing. I need to know where it's going to be [in the Comp Plan]," Saltzman said during the discussion with staff from the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which drafted the update recommended to the council by the Planning and Sustainability Commission last year.

Walkable neighborhoods

By coincidence, the discussion took place the day after a report was released showing Portland had the nation's highest one-year home price increase in November. Portland prices rose 11.1 percent, compared to just 5.8 percent for 20 cities included in the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home price index.

The report was the latest in a series of real estate reports showing that Portland housing price increases are among the highest in the nation. The situation caused the council and the Multnomah County Commission to declare housing states of emergencies last year and promise more funds for homeless shelters, transitional programs and affordable housing.

The affordability concern prompted the council to set housing as the only subject for the next Comp Plan work session, scheduled for next Tuesday. The Feb. 2 agenda has originally included both housing and policies governing employment lands.

The new agenda will include both housing costs and residential density increases, a hot topic during the five public hearings before the council that preceded the work sessions. Commissioner Steve Novick said housing densities must increase in Portland to accommodate the 250,000 additional people projected to live here by 2035. Novick said that will largely be good for the city because it will result in the creation of more "walkable neighborhoods" where housing, jobs, shopping and recreational opportunities are close together.

But Novick acknowledged that many residents are worried that residential infill projects are already destroying the character of their neighborhoods. He said the additional housing does not have to be the large apartment buildings that are springing up along major streets, but could be such "middle housing" as duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and lower apartment buildings with courtyards.

"We need to encourage a wide range of housing," Novick said.

Employment sites

Portland's update is required by state land-use planning laws, which says all cities must have comprehensive land-use plans that will accommodate 20 years of population and employment growth inside their urban growth boundaries.

During Portland's discussions, Commission Amanda Fritz sought to assure neighborhood associations that they were still an important part of the public involvement process required by the state as part of the update. Some neighborhood leaders complained that the associations are being pushed aside by newer community organizations encouraged by the city that are comprised of minority and underrepresented Portlanders.

"Neighborhood associations are still the foundation of our citizen involvement process, along with other community organizations," said Fritz.

And the council appeared willing to increase projected employment increases related to the Portland Harbor from the low- to the medium-range forecast. The low-range forecast in the recommended update was based on city staff estimates at the time. Since the Port of Portland has provided more information on investments in its facilities that are expected to increase employment during the next 20 years.

The council was assured the increase would not require the redevelopment of West Hayden Island as a marine terminal by the port, however. Environmentalists and nearby resident are lobbying to preserve it as a natural area, and the council seemed relieved they did not need to deal with it.

Even before the discussions began, the council agreed the update will probably not be approved by the end of April, as last estimated. Work sessions are now set for Feb. 2, Feb. 23 and March 1, with a public hearing on the amended update tentatively set for March 14. Hales said additional hearings are likely, however, and city staff it could take a month of more to prepare the final version for a vote after the last amendment is adopted.

For more information on the update, visit www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/57352.