By Midge Pierce

Despite the recent addition of some 4,000 living units to Portland, a surprising shortage of affordable housing remains. Observers say rents are up more than 7 percent. Homeownership is at its lowest level in two decades.

Build it and costs still go up. Too few condos constructed along commercial strips, skinny houses squeezed onto split lots or executive homes that replaced starter homes are affordable to working class Portlanders.

Indeed, a significant percentage – perhaps half – of Portland’s population may be house-burdened, meaning they pay so much for a roof over their heads that they have too little left over for food or even school sports.

If there was any doubt about the need for affordability, it was quickly dispelled by the overwhelming response to April’s Keep Portland Affordable Workshop at a SE Francis St. community center. The 150 seat event was deluged by 500 requests from participants eager to learn more about “inclusionary” lower income housing. The workshop was hosted by SE Uplift, OPAL Environmental Justice Center and the Welcome Home Coalition.

“We need housing for our nurses, teachers and firefighters,” according to Katy Asher, SE Uplift neighborhood outreach coordinator. “Our dedicated workforce shouldn’t be pushed to the fringes of the City.”

The workshop featured a presentation on House Bill 2564,  wending its way at this writing through the Oregon Legislature in an effort to remove a statewide ban on inclusionary housing. The ban effectively prohibits towns from implementing requirements to set aside a percentage of housing for purchase at below market rates.

Only two states have this ban –  Oregon and Texas and critics say it institutionalizes economic segregation.

Lifting the ban would make Portland more accessible to people of all income levels and backgrounds, according to proponents of the bill. If it passes, it would restore local authority so that Portland can develop its own home ownership housing development policy.

SE Uplift posits that inclusionary housing is a basic land use tool used by over 500 jurisdictions across the country to combat displacement and establish homeownership opportunities. It works by setting aside a certain percentage of units in new developments for low-to moderate-income households.

To encourage builders to provide below market rate housing options, incentives could be offered to offset loss of profits. Considerations could include density bonuses, fee reductions, faster permitting or relaxed parking requirements.

Growth continues to push demand for housing. Portland anticipates one to two percent growth annually for the next 20 years. An influx of California climate refugees may add new housing stresses.

SE Uplift hopes the workshop sparks a conversation about how to create a city everyone can afford. By integrating affordable units into new development, Asher says inclusionary housing gives all incomes access to the same amenities, services and opportunities, such as good jobs, good schools, transportation and healthy living environments.