By Nancy Tannler

Over the past 18 months, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) has been working on a project called Expanding Opportunities for Affordable Housing.

The code change project was funded with a grant from the Metro Planning and Community Development program and voted on by the Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC) in March. It was subsequently presented to City Council on May 14 by Eric Engstrom, Principal Planner and Nan Stark, NE District Liaison BPS.

In essence, the proposed code and map amendments will remove regulatory barriers for faith and community-based organizations that want to develop affordable housing on their surplus land. Currently 75 percent of church property in Portland is zoned single-family use.

Across America, membership in faith-based congregations has been declining. This reality prompted faith institutions to refocus their mission to find ways to participate in social change. One asset they have is property. With the nationwide housing affordability crisis, some faith institutions are open to creating affordable housing using their own properties.

Nan Stark took the lead on this project, working with Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (EMO), community members and technical experts to write the code to exempt these sites from Conditional Use review when housing is proposed on them.

In order to obtain the information necessary to write the code change, BPS began by identifying the faith and community-based organizations interested in the development of affordable housing.

Once this was established, BPS provided design and finance consultation for three organizations as a prototype to prepare them for what a future affordable housing development project would look like. From this preliminary study, BPS determined what the barriers to development were and how these could be addressed and/or streamlined.

At a hearing on May 14, Mayor Wheeler began by acknowledging House Speaker Tina Kotek, whose relentless pursuit of affordable housing in Oregon makes this project one she is in favor of. After Stark presented the recommended Zoning Code Amendment, the floor was open for people to testify.

First to testify was Jan Musgrove Elfers, President of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (EMO). She first expressed a thank you from the organization for the efforts Stark put into this project and how helpful she was to work with them. Her other statement was they want to be a part of the solution to our housing crisis.

Julia Nielson of Portsmouth Union Church thinks this amendment will make it possible for 600 acres of available land throughout Portland to be utilized for affordable housing, lowering the permitting cost and expediting the process.

Most of the faith-based organizations interested in using their property for affordable housing supported the amendment.

As with any new idea about land use in neighborhoods, there is opposition.

During the hearing, there was strong opposition by the community to the development of the Cedar Sinai Park property. The main concern people expressed was increased traffic on narrow streets and its effect on livability.

Stark said not every property will work for development and that in this instance, the request to develop can be withdrawn. Other testimonies were of similar content; concerns for how it would work in a neighborhood since these are mostly residential zones.

Commissioners Eudaly and Hardesty asked that the Expanding Opportunities for Affordable Housing project precisely state what percentage of the units developed would be designated affordable and that the parking be determined by the size of the individual development. The amendments to code and zoning will be addressed by the BDS.

City Council is expected to make a decision on May 27.