Portland’s City Council has once again identified affordable housing as a high priority. The addition of new councilors and the recent change in the city manager create opportunities for policies and actions to create much-needed housing for low- and middle-income members of our community. Key issues involve barriers in Portland’s code, redevelopment of public land and policy fundamentals that skew affordability efforts away from targeted households. I offer four suggestions where the city can take immediate action that will yield long-term housing results.

Portland currently defines “affordable” as a percentage of the area median income. This figure is based on the median income of the Portland metro region, which includes wealthier surrounding communities, instead of accurately representing the incomes of Portland residents. As a result, limited Housing Trust and HOME funds are being used to subsidize housing for households that make more money than the average Portland household. The new council should pick up the work begun by former Councilor Kim Cook and require that Portland’s median income be referenced in all affordability formulas so that our limited housing funds actually improve the lives of those in need.

In 2015 the City Council unanimously approved the redesign of Franklin Street. This new design would improve safety and mobility for motor vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists on a key peninsula gateway. While the Franklin Street redesign is a transportation plan, it also sets the table for up to 6 acres of redevelopment opportunities in the urban center. By pushing the travel lanes together, the new roadway design creates new parcels of land adjacent to existing East End neighborhoods, downtown businesses and other public land.

This newly freed-up land is publicly owned and would have an estimated value of over $10 million. These new parcels could be sold for private development or developed publicly, providing truly affordable housing for lower- and middle-class families. The new design strategically links new parcels to adjacent land held by public agencies, including Portland Housing Authority, Cumberland County and the city itself, all of which have the capability to direct community-centered redevelopment. Additional parcels create development opportunities for abutting landowners. Redevelopment of the corridor could also generate future municipal revenue to finance the reconstruction of the roadway.

A third opportunity the council can pursue is at the barren site of the midtown project in Bayside, recently reclaimed by the city. This failed plan linked the development of an unnecessary parking garage with the development of high-rise housing. The 10-plus-year effort to realize this misguided plan yielded little more than lawsuits and debt, as Portland residents continue to pay interest on a Housing and Urban Development loan for the non-existent garage. Former City Manager Jon Jennings admitted that these funds could probably be redirected to jumpstart the development of housing on this site. Another peninsula parking garage would invite more traffic, whereas residential or mixed-use development, near jobs, schools and services, would contribute to creating the walkable neighborhood originally envisioned in the Bayside Plan.

Finally, Portland’s evaluation of its land use code, an important step in the ReCode process, has finally been released for public review. The former administration dragged its feet on this essential effort to better align city code with the comprehensive plan. This process needs to be accelerated, particularly reforms that seek to remove barriers and spur opportunities to build more housing. Low-hanging fruit here includes eliminating restrictions on multi-unit development.

Portland has seen plenty of development in recent years, but not nearly enough to address the needs of the working-class residents who vibrant cities depend on. We cannot afford to continue nibbling around the edges of our housing problem; Portland needs bold policies and actions to take charge of this crisis. There is no quick fix, but there are solutions that will chart a new course and leverage untapped assets to produce long-term results for the people and businesses of Portland. It’s time for our City Council to take this challenge head on.

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