Excess land from MAX construction could become affordable housing

A TriMet MAX train in downtown Portland on Oct. 26, 2016. (

Leftover land from the construction of TriMet’s next light rail line could become a land bank for affordable housing.

The transit agency usually has extra land left over when it opens a new line, either from buying larger-than-needed parcels for tracks and stations or for construction staging.

In the past, it’s sold that land to the highest bidder, with a big chunk of the proceeds going to the federal government to pay back its contribution to the project. In the coming project, TriMet will give the Portland Housing Bureau the first shot at the property and sell it for a discount — just enough to pay back the feds.

It’s an effort to head off what happened after the MAX Yellow Line opened in 2004. The rail project was designed to serve some of Portland’s poorest neighborhoods, but those neighborhoods gentrified rapidly in the following years.

"On some level we’re a victim of our own success," said Marshall Runkel, chief of staff for city Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees the Transportation Bureau. "The light rail was part of the story, but the market forces made it so it’s no longer the poorest part of the city. How do we account for the additional pressure associated with the next light rail line?"

Portland transportation officials say they’re not aware of a similar effort in another city.

The disposal of surplus land is strictly regulated for federally funded transit projects, in part because it’s often acquired through eminent domain. Only recent federal legislation has made viable for that land to be sold at a discount to a local government rather than highest bidder.

The line would connect downtown Portland and Bridgeport Village in Tigard, passing through an area of Portland that contains 11,400 homes that are within reach for low- and moderate-income renters, according to a Portland State University study.

Most of those affordable homes are unregulated, however, and could disappear if the light rail line pushes property values higher and draws more high-income residents to the area.

The preliminary agreement between various government agencies involved in the project calls for TriMet to set aside room for at least 600 units of affordable housing in Portland and at least 150 in Tigard on the surplus land. Other initiatives in the works would preserve more affordable rentals near the line.

"We’re looking at potential impacts while building the project, not just waiting until the end," said Leah Robbins, TriMet’s director of the Southwest Corridor project, as the agency calls the line for now.

TriMet recently has started working with affordable housing nonprofits to develop some of its other surplus sites. Reach Community Development Inc. is set to build 198 affordable apartments on a TriMet-owned site in North Portland, and the agency is preparing to sell two Southeast Portland sites to affordable housing developers.

If voters approve funding for the $2.6 billion to $2.9 billion rail line, likely in a 2020 ballot measure, and if the federal government agrees to fund the remainder of the project, it could open in 2027.

By that time, however, speculation could push land prices much higher than they are today. That’s why agencies are eager to secure land early, before construction gets underway.

The surplus land is one part of a broader affordable housing strategy that in part calls for a new urban renewal district encompassing hundreds of acres in Southwest Portland to help pay for it.

Urban renewal districts issue debt to pay for projects within its boundaries, then pay it back with property taxes primarily resulting from new development.

Depending on the size of the urban renewal district, it could make available between $47 million and $119 million to spend in the district. Some would go toward the light rail line itself, but at least 45 percent — $21 million to $54 million — would go toward housing projects.

The effort could also use money from Metro’s proposed $652.8 million affordable housing bond, if it’s approved by voters next week.

The multi-pronged plan the agencies have developed could create up to 2,300 affordable homes in Portland and Tigard, a number still far short of actual need, which a recent city report pegs at 4,100.

— Elliot Njus

enjus@oregonian.com
503-294-5034
@enjus

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