by: Illustration by Joan McGuire, Rethinking Portland: Is housing choice floating out of reach?

Many things define the foundation and character of a community. But few are as personal as where we live - our homes and neighborhoods.

In today's edition of Rethinking Portland, the Tribune takes a comprehensive look at the cost, availability and choices for housing in the metro area. We also examine how the cost of housing and efforts to keep pace with the region's population growth are influencing changes in personal lifestyles, neighborhoods, density and housing.

And as we do in each edition of Rethinking Portland, we offer recommendations for improvement.

As a city, Portland has done a fairly good job of expanding its affordable housing stock and increasing the focus of city agencies to provide affordable housing.

Nonprofits are making a difference as well. HOST Development Inc., for example, has set a goal of building and selling 1,000 affordable housing units by 2017. In Washington County, the Vision Action Network has joined with the county and businesses to create an affordable housing fund.

Affordability is the problem

While Portland-area housing is still less expensive than in other major West Coast cities, housing is more expensive here than the national average. And the gap is growing.

The difference between a median-priced home in Portland and the national average now stands at more than $75,000. That's because the median price of homes sold in Portland increased by 67 percent in five years - from $177,500 in 2002 to nearly $290,000 in the first three months of 2007.

These increases force homeowners to spend more and more of their income on housing. And a growing number of people who work in Portland are choosing to leapfrog its traditional suburbs and move to a more rural community.

All of this affects Portland and its suburbs - now and in the future. Certainly, the cost of housing will not decline. Fewer families will be able to afford to live in Portland.

As people move farther and farther from their workplaces to find affordable housing, Portland risks following the California model, where two-hour commutes are common in some areas.

Middle class needs help

What should we do?

For one, Portland and its suburban communities must expand their focus from simply providing for more low-income housing. Greater attention is needed to ensure that the middle class will have affordable housing choices.

That effort should be led by the private sector and assisted by government incentives, not regulation. It may take the form of refurbishing homes in well-established neighborhoods, such as Aloha, Parkrose, Oak Grove in Milwaukie or Rockwood in Gresham.

For another, developers, home builders, and government and nonprofit agencies should investigate ways to slow housing inflation. One way may be for a nonprofit to develop and retain ownership of new tracts of land for housing. Meanwhile, private individuals buy the home, not the land. This could slow the impact of inflation by taking land costs out of the equation.

Third, the region and the state need to determine how to deal with the rising cost and uncertainty of providing public infrastructure to accommodate future population growth.

The word 'housing' itself may seem to be impersonal vernacular. It should not. Where and how we live defines each of us and the communities in which we live and work. As such, it requires more attention and solutions by government, business and nonprofit leaders.

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