A national housing expert told city councilors Wednesday that Portland’s housing crunch mirrors national trends.

“You are not alone,” said Christopher Herbert, managing director of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. “There are no silver bullets. That’s why so many communities are wrestling with this.”

Herbert was invited to Portland to provide a national perspective to the City Council’s new Housing Committee, which was formed to develop recommendations this year to help ease the problems of low supply, high demand and increasing rents.

The housing crisis was explained in detail in the Portland Press Herald’s “No Vacancy” series and has been a concern since the city began getting an influx of development of market-rate housing, after more than a decade of low-income and affordable housing development.

For its first meeting, the committee also invited several local experts to provide their perspectives. Issues raised by that group include the loss of housing to short-term rental services like Air BnB, the amount of neighborhood opposition to development, and a warning that development isn’t necessarily the answer.

“We don’t want you to step on the market by overregulating, but we recognize you have a role to play,” said Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Hall, who, like others, asked the committee to think about housing on a regional level.

Herbert drew several parallels between what’s happening here and nationally. He said the number of renters has increased dramatically over the last 15 years. Much of the demand is being driven by young professionals, and by baby boomers who are downsizing and homeowners who were forced out of their homes when the housing market collapsed.

Herbert said people are having to devote more of their income to housing. Fifteen years ago, 39 percent of renters paid more than 30 percent of their gross income for housing. Thirty percent is usually considered affordable.

Now, about half of all renters are paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing, he said, and 25 percent are spending 50 percent or more of their income.

Herbert said the cause is not only rising rents, but the fact that incomes haven’t kept pace with inflation. Since 2000, incomes have dropped 9 percent relative to inflation, while rents have increased 7 percent.

“The gap has been growing and that has been driving the gap in affordability,” Herbert said. “Those cost burdens are moving up the income ladder.”

Portland has 11 financial programs, ranging from tax breaks to federal grants, and about 12 policies aimed at providing affordable housing. One of those policies – inclusionary zoning – requires developers of 10 units or more to keep at least 10 percent of the units affordable to middle-income earners. Another policy requires developers who remove units of housing to pay into a special Housing Trust Fund, which now has a balance of $468,500.

Since 2000, the city has spent about $13.5 million in local and federal funds to create about 999 affordable housing units in 31 buildings.

Herbert applauded Portland’s use of housing resources and policies like inclusionary zoning to promote housing, calling it “an impressive list.”

However, he said the city should look at ways to preserve units that are already affordable by offering incentives, such as property tax abatements, to landlords or nonprofit groups to keep them from being converted to market rate. It should also look at ways to reduce the cost and time it takes to permit projects.

The committee also heard from people representing subsidized-housing groups, tenants, businesses, real estate developers and brokers. Those groups said the housing pinch is being felt by everyone, with low-income housing problems stemming from a reduction in state and federal subsidies.

Avesta Housing President and CEO Dana Totman said one barrier to housing is the amount of neighborhood opposition when a proposal emerges.

Jonathan Culley of Redfern Properties, a market-rate housing developer, said the city should do away with all parking requirements, because of the cost, and have minimum height and density standards for land that is in or near the downtown area.

Mayor Ethan Strimling has made addressing the city’s housing crunch a top priority, setting a goal of permitting 2,000 new units of housing in the next five years.

However, Strimling has been criticized by some Stroudwater residents for his support of rezoning 7 acres of residential land, which could have held over 200 units of housing, for an office park.

Strimling also set up the committee to focus solely on housing issues, stacking it with five councilors, which increases the likelihood that its recommendations will have majority support on the council.

The committee will meet twice a month, twice as often other committees, which have three members.

The committee’s next meeting is scheduled Feb. 10. It will be a chance for tenants to address the committee about their personal experiences trying to find and pay for housing.

This story was updated at 9:51 a.m. on Thursday, January 28, 2016, to correct the spelling of the name of Chris Herbert which was misspelled on the city’s agenda.

 


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