Westside suburban leaders hold housing summit to frame policies
Discussions at a Washington County Housing Summit held in Beaverton last Friday sounded a lot like those in Portland on the same issue.
Those in attendance called for more subsidized housing for low-income residents. They talked about the advantages of building apartments along existing transportation corridors. They favored neighborhoods where people live near jobs, shopping and recreation. And they urged the adoption of a new revenue source to help pay for such projects as soon as next year.
When someone asked what such a new revenue source would look like, Glen Montgomery of the Vision Action Network replied, "It looks like a tax." Portland voters increased their property taxes last year to pay for a $285.4 million affordable housing bond.
But, unlike such discussion in Portland, participants also talked about meeting the demand for single-family homes, including "executive homes" for the wealthy. They said many families still want a traditional suburban lifestyle, and providing more of it would reduce the competition for the existing supply of homes on the market.
"Supply is your best friend. If you're trying to cut the price down, supply is helpful. It doesn't have to be all affordable housing to more the supply more affordable," economist Jerry Johnson of Johnson Economics said at the beginning of the summit.
But several factors are currently making it hard to build all kinds of new housing, said Brenner Daniels, development director of Holland Development, which has built a number of projects at Orenco Station in Hillsboro and other parts of the region.
Speaking on a panel on housing costs, Daniels said they include a limited supply of development-ready building lots, increasing labor costs because of a shortage of skilled workers, increasing government development fees, and lengthy government permitting policies that drag out the time it takes to build such projects.
"We need to expedite the process as much as possible," said Daniels, echoing Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler's repeated lament.
Don Hanson of the Otak Inc. development company went even further, detailing some recent development costs in Washington County. He said land in the South Cooper Mountain area where many new homes are slated to be built cost between $450,000 and $500,000 an acre. And that was without improvements. When government road and utility costs are included, the cost comes to $275,000 per buildable lot.
With costs like that, even multifamily projects are difficult to finance, Hanson said. For example, his company is working on a 28-unit apartment building that costs $6 million — or more than $214,000 per unit. Hanson said the only way to make such apartments affordable to low-income residents is for government, nonprofit and charitable organizations to subsidize the construction, a complicated financing arrangement that can take years to finalize.
"All new construction is expensive, and sometimes affordable housing projects are more complex," Hanson said.
The summit was organized by the Westside Economic Alliance, a public-private partnership to encourage economic development in Washington and western Clackamas counties. It is the first of a series of events focusing on housing this month by the organization. Executive Director Pam Treece said the goal is to develop a series of specific policy recommendations WEA can endorse and pursue.
The summit was held in the Beaverton Building that houses city offices and the Council Chambers in The Round. It was attended by well over 100 people, included elected officials, business owners, affordable housing advocates and social service providers. They included Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle, Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden, Tigard Mayor John Cook, and Wilsonville Mayor Tim Knapp. Sponsors included Metro, the elected regional government, which was represented by councilors Sam Chase and Kathryn Harrington.
Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley kicked off the summit in the Council Chambers with a call to protect existing federal affordable housing programs from cuts proposed in President Donald Trump's budget. Merkley said creating more affordable housing has always been one of his top priorities. He recalled working for two nonprofit affordable housing organizations before winning election to the Oregon House of Representatives, the start of his successful political career.
"Housing has always been near and dear to my heart. It is essential to the success of families," Merkley said.
As Merkley and others noted, since the end of the Great Recession, housing costs in the Portland metropolitan region have increased at record rates, pricing many people out of rentals and owner-occupied homes.
"It's an enormous challenge. You see people living on the streets, camping under freeway overpasses," Merkley said.
The other panels addressed the social aspects of housing and the relationship between housing and employment. Participants met in separate rooms but everyone reconvened in the Council Chambers to present final recommendations.
Among other things, those at the summit urged support for the transportation funding package under discussion at the 2017 Oregon Legislature. Participant Joe Esmonde, the business representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 48 and a member of the TriMet Board of Directors, said it includes funds to increase transit service and reduce traffic congestion, a significant problem in Washington County.
Participants also urged that federal affordable housing programs be preserved, that new housing be built in "complete communities" where people with all incomes can live, and that the complexity of public-private construction financing be reduced.