Portland moves to preserve affordable homes near new MAX line

TriMet’s MAX light rail passes Southwest 170th Avenue in Aloha just off West Baseline Road. (

By the time MAX trains start to wind their way through Southwest Portland, some residents think they’ll be long gone. But the city released a plan Thursday for trying to keep them in the neighborhood, a rare haven for affordable rentals.

It calls for buying up apartment buildings that provide low-rent housing and banking land for future affordable housing developments. A new urban renewal district encompassing hundreds of acres in Southwest Portland could help pay for it all.

The new proposed light-rail line would connect downtown Portland and Bridgeport Village in Tigard. If voters approve funding in 2020, the line could open in 2027.

But it would pass through a part of Portland that boasts some 11,400 homes within reach for low- and moderate-income renters, according to a Portland State University study.

Those homes could evaporate quickly, especially if the new light-rail line acts as a draw for higher-income households seeking easy access to downtown.

The plan – a joint idea by the cities of Portland and Tigard – represents "an effort to address early on the systemic, institutional and even market forces that come into play in large infrastructure investments like the Southwest Corridor," said Allan Lazo, the executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon and an adviser for the proposal.

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 plan would create up to 2,300 homes between the two cities, a number still far short of actual need, which the plan pegs at 4,100 affordable homes.

The housing programs are designed to help residents like Amina Omar, who has lived for much of the last decade in Southwest Portland. There, she and her family are surrounded by other members of Portland’s Somali community, many of whom settled there after being priced out of Northeast Portland.

"We have a really nice environment here. My kids go to school here. They feel comfortable," she said. "We just don’t want to lose our community."

But rents have more than doubled in that time, and that’s without the added pressure a new light-rail line might bring.

Omar and other residents are asking the city to buy some of the many sprawling apartment complexes that provide so-called "naturally occurring" affordable housing, which is unsubsidized and not subject to long-term rent restrictions.

The Portland State study found that the vast majority — 93 percent — of apartments the Southwest Corridor area are naturally affordable, and the area accounts for a tenth of the entire Portland area’s stock of those units.

But the recent construction of new, high-end apartments in the area suggests it’s ripe for redevelopment or upscaling existing homes, which would price out low-income residents.

The plan presented to the Portland City Council lays out a framework, but it remains unclear whether the city will fund the housing programs it outlines. Those decisions will be made in the coming years.

The city isn’t the only agency involved. Metro, which is leading early planning of the Southwest Corridor project, is funding a suite of housing and job-training programs for current residents.

And TriMet, which will buy parcels of land to support the construction of the rail line, has agreed to sell some of that land to the Portland Housing Bureau for the construction of affordable housing. That land could support 600 or more housing units, said David Unsworth, the transit agency’s director of capital projects.

— Elliot Njus

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

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