The Challenge of Affordable Housing in Portland


The Challenge of Affordable Housing in Portland


Over the last few mayoral candidate debates I looked out from onstage and saw dozens of signs and banners about tenants’ rights held by serious people unafraid to meet the candidates’ eyes. These people go to all the debates to force everyone to recognize that creating affordable housing is a critical, if not the most critical, issue in this election. People are realizing this. No matter who hosts the debate, whether it be the Regional Arts and Culture Council, Restore Oregon, Union Gospel Mission, or the Native American Youth and Family Center, the event is dominated by talk of affordable housing. All the candidates agree something must be done. We speak about tenants’ rights, inclusionary zoning, auxiliary housing units, density growth, and many other ideas, but our elected officials and some of the candidates just don’t get it.

What does “affordable” mean to someone who doesn’t understand the insecurity of living without any security net? What is “affordable” to someone who doesn’t understand that most of us have no savings and if for some reason we miss two months rent we’d be on the streets?


We know the numbers: in 2010 the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $880 a month, and today it’s $1456. That’s $17,472 annually while the median income for a black family of three in Portland is $27,923. According to these figures, at least half of the black families of three or more must pay over 60% of their income to rent. The annual median income for Native Americans in Portland is $22,247, and we have the ninth largest population of Native Americans in the country. 80% of their income is spent to live anywhere within our city limits without doubling up families or sleeping in someone else’s garage.

Knowing how difficult it is for the majority to simply survive in this city is the most important part of this process, but it’s only the beginning.

Our city and state government, through incentives, penalties, and legislation, are trying to build more affordable housing to move toward a solution. And while their efforts sound great, what they’re telling developers and property owners is only perpetuating the problem. They’re telling them to make houses affordable at a rate of 80% of the median income while the federal rate is 50% of median income. The problem is their definition of “affordable.” Essentially, they’re saying, “Oh, you can’t afford this rent? Here’s a place that’s only 20% less expensive,” but in reality it is even worst than that.

Any family making 80% of the MFI, or median family income, can move into their units. This means the developer will take 80% of the MFI and charge 30 percent of that number as rent because the guidelines say the most they can charge for rent is 30 percent of a person’s income. Let’s see how this looks:

The MFI of Portland in 2015 for a family of three was $56,510, so to be eligible for affordable housing a family of three must make $45,208 a year (80%). 30% of $45,208 is $13,562 and divide that by 12 to come up with a monthly rent of $1,324. That’s only 15% less than the price of the average two bedroom apartment in Portland right now. Is this really what we consider to be affordable housing? Paying this rent would be difficult for the majority of families in Portland, and outright cruel to impose upon any of the disadvantaged minorities living in our city. Even weirder, regarding our definition of “affordable,” these rough calculations suggest that for a family to be considered eligible for affordable housing, they must make close to $22 an hour where many are working barely over minimum wage.

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Most of our elected city officials are not getting it because they don’t truly represent the people living here. Our officials make big deals with developers to get big money, but many of these deals are pushed through and end up costing more money than they expected. A recent example that lost Portland millions of dollars is the park on the South Waterfront with the trails to nowhere. What other job can you have in this life where your mistake costs 10 million dollars more than you said it would and you don’t get fired? Is a simple apology enough? If someone making the median income had made that mistake, wouldn’t they be in prison?

Our current leaders don’t see our reality, and because they don’t see our reality they can’t realistically approach a solution for problems like affordable housing. They use big money to fix holes in the budget, but what about fixing the holes in our communities? What does a community look like to them? We’ve examined their definition of affordability. We can only imagine their definition of community.

I don’t believe all politicians need to have lived in poverty to properly understand those who do, although that would definitely help. There is a lot a mayor can’t know first-hand, but it is the mayor’s job to do his or her damnedest to understand. The mayor must accurately represent the people.

The truth of the matter is only the most affluent run for political offices the majority of the time. Look at Portland’s current mayoral race: when you have a State Treasurer from a rich family and a very-well-off economist as your top two candidates, you’re betting on electing a mayor who sees dollar signs before seeing people, spreadsheets over neighborhoods. They might have the best intentions but when all you have in your toolbox is a hammer every problem is treated like a nail. Solutions require more than numbers or percentages or dollars, especially when it comes to fixing our housing crisis.

Every mayoral candidate could put out their own unique solution but, unless their definitions are in line with our own, the reality won’t change. A tenant’s Bill of Rights is a good start, but it must be enforceable and without the City Council’s vote it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. Telling people in a debate you’ll create a new bureau is just as ineffective. We must realize that Inclusionary Zoning isn’t a magic bullet that will solve all the housing problems. It is simply one tool in a very large tool box.

What we can do: right now, the city of Portland has 18 different building incentives. Developers get tax breaks or fee reductions if they include bike racks, eco roofs, areas for childcare, restoration, or over a dozen other conditions in their plans. Creating affordable housing in only one of these conditions. We need to prioritize these incentives and even cut a few so we can focus on the biggest problems in our city. We must ensure that when the State finally passes the Inclusionary Zoning law we work with our home builders so they will abide by our policy and build inside the city and not create sprawl if the Urban Growth Boundary expands. Because the IZ house bill that may pass is a part of a four bill package and one of those bills does in fact give the city the ability to expand the UGB in five different subregions. We need to increase density, not grow out. If we don’t the outskirts of our town will become even more homogenized.

Look, I have many specific ideas on how to move toward a real solution to this problem, but the truth is, the voters have to vote in a mayor who cares about this issue AND council members who will take this on. We need to elect candidates that we trust will follow through on the issues and not only talk about them during election cycles. We need to elect candidates that don’t owe political favors to developers due to campaign contributions. I challenge you right now to look at the two “frontrunners” campaign donors. Here is the link:

Under committee/filer name put in Friends of Ted Wheeler, or Friends of Jules Bailey. Then Google those names. See where that money is coming from. The vast majority are developers who are salivating for the chance to come in and build. You see, the reason why this election is so important is because the Comp Plan. Growing to accommodate 800,000 people means millions, if not billions, for them.  

There are too many close relationships between developers and current council members. Dike Dame, who is a felon for his role in a savings and loan scandal and a huge developer in Portland, seems to have his own door to the mayor’s office for meetings. He’s also one of Ted Wheeler’s biggest donors and the head of the development company that sold the city the South Waterfront land that cost us ten million dollars with the paths to nowhere.
We need people in City Hall that share our priorities because without that we’re building sandcastles while the tide’s coming in. We need bold ideas, of course, but our ideas need to be shaped by the same language of the people affected by them. Then we can start talking. Then we can shape meaning. Then we can let Portland be Portland.


By Sean Davis

Sean Davis is the author of The Wax Bullet War, a Purple Heart Iraq War veteran, and the winner of the Legionnaire of the Year Award from the American Legion in 2015 and the recipient of the Emily Gottfried Emerging Leader, Human Rights award for 2016. His stories, essays, and articles have appeared in the the Ted Talk Book The Misfit’s Manifesto (Simon and Schuster), Forest Avenue Press anthology City of Weird, Sixty Minutes, Story Corps, Flaunt Magazine, The Big Smoke, Human the movie, and much more.

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