Workforce housing is a well-intentioned idea, but a relative of mine’s recent experience with the program did not live up to its promise. At best, the experience was opaque, and, at worst, very disheartening.

My relative is neurodivergent. They love Portland, where they were born and raised; unfortunately, the city has not loved them back. Like 80% of adults with autism, they have experienced chronic underemployment, this despite two degrees and both volunteer and paid work experience that they stayed at for years.

They have been working at part-time, minimum-wage jobs well below their skill level for more than a decade, an experience often euphemistically referred to as “experiencing barriers in the workforce.” This doesn’t begin to capture its impact on a person’s sense of self, confidence, or personal and financial autonomy.

Repeated requests for advancement opportunities in Portland have generally been ignored or denied. Still, this is the place my relative wants to live and work, which is wonderful for me.

Through the city’s workforce housing program, I recently had the opportunity to try to help them purchase a one-bedroom condo in downtown Portland. I’ll save the suspense: They were rejected.

This affordable housing program was established in 2015 and the first workforce housing unit was built in 2018. Unfortunately, to quote this newspaper, “… developers have offered to pay the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees rather than put units on the market that qualified as affordable under the ordinance.”


The city’s “workforce housing” informational webpage is 98 words long and lists the following eligibility criteria: income guidelines, requirement of primary residence, no other residential ownership.

We were working with buyer and seller agents, and we were informed that a formal offer had to be made prior to having our eligibility determined by the city. After checking the scant information provided on the website, we determined that applying was worth the effort.

We could not have been more wrong.

My relative met all of the criteria listed and filled out the forms and provided the requisite documents. The agents navigated the process with the city on our behalf.

The turnaround time was very fast. The upshot was that a buyer could not be gifted or loaned money by a third party for the sole purpose of purchasing the condo. They called it “working around the ordinance,” and “going against the intent of the program.”

My relative wrote a direct appeal revealing their disability and highlighting those aforementioned “barriers in the workforce.”


“… I am not attempting to subvert the intent of the workforce housing program; rather, I am asking you to consider that situations can be more nuanced than they may appear at first glance.

“… I think that my record of paid and volunteer work, schooling, and money-saving shows that I am a worthwhile investment, and precisely the kind of person that workforce housing was intended to level the playing field for.”

The following sentence from the rejection email felt like a punch in the gut to us all.

“I am sorry that this particular unit is not available for your [relatives] to purchase on your behalf …”

This response referenced a common prejudicial belief about people with disabilities: that they are a burden to their family members.

I support workforce housing in principle, even if my loved one is ineligible for it. I also think that Portland’s program needs to be reviewed, refined and made more transparent and more humane.

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