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Keep Portland Housed: Research Informing Local Housing Policy
Keep Portland Housed: Research Informing Local Housing Policy

It’s a story we’ve heard before: investors and developers swoop in to buy up the city’s stock of affordable, multiunit housing, renovate the buildings and raise rents, effectively pricing low-income families out of a market already stretched so thin that rental vacancy rates in Portland are among the lowest in the nation. Dr. Lisa Bates, Urban Studies and Planning professor, is working on locally focused research that is aimed at informing policy development to preserve the availability of affordable housing in the city of Portland. 

“Over the last few years, we’ve seen a few big, building-wide evections here in the metro region,” said Bates.

While the city’s recent adoption of a new housing policy caused a stir earlier this year, raking in headlines and lawsuits alike, according to Bates, there’s also a lot of work being down behind the scenes to protect low-income families and preserve affordable housing in Portland and the greater metro region.

In partnership with Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS), Metro, and a community-based equity advisory group, Bates is looking into options for preserving the city’s “naturally occurring affordable housing”: rental units that are affordable, but unsubsidized by state or federal programming and regulations. One idea is to maximize the value of dollars that support affordable housing in the region by investing in the purchase of affordable, multifamily units when they come on the market. Then, rather than renovating those units to attract more affluent families and higher-income earners who can afford higher rent prices, preserving them (and the rent) as they are so they remain affordable to low-income families.

“In circles working on issues related to equity and affordable housing, the new catchphrase is ‘preservation is the new construction,’” Bates said.

For her part, Bates is taking stock of the metro region’s naturally occurring affordable housing market and the families and individuals who take part in it, with a focus on housing units along the proposed Powell-Division and Southwest (Portland to Tigard light rail) transit corridors. She is also exploring what other cities and states are doing to preserve affordable housing. In Minnesota, for instance, the nonprofit Greater Minnesota Housing Fund addresses issues of affordable housing through strategic investments that aim to preserve naturally occurring affordable housing. San Francisco recently launched its own program to purchase and preserve existing affordable housing.

“This work is looking at what folks around the country are doing to preserve naturally occurring affordable housing, and gathering input from community stakeholders to develop a plan for the metro region,” Bates said. “The region is gearing up to invest billions of dollars along these transit corridors. Our goal is to help align transit investments with housing preservation investments so that as we develop these corridors, we’re not displacing low-income families, or making it more difficult for them to access the opportunities that those transit investments will bring to their communities.”

By Shaun McGillis