When is new housing not new? When it’s reprogrammed

From the Dec. 12 special affordable housing edition, “In need of a new deal.”

Portland’s efforts to build a net gain of affordable housing for its lowest income residents have failed more than the city bureau charged with creating that housing would like you to know.

In 1978, 5,183 units in Portland’s downtown core were affordable to people living at 0 to 30 percent of median family income (MFI), considered low-income. In 1984, the city’s Central City Plan mandated that at least that number would always be affordable downtown.

In an effort to get back to that number, the Portland City Council approved a No Net Loss Policy in 2001 calling for rehabilitating, preserving, and creating affordable housing in the central city through regulation and additional financial resources.

Since 1994, the non-profit Northwest Pilot Project, which serves the elderly homeless and low-income, has inventoried downtown affordable housing. The last inventory was published in 2007, and counted 3,330 affordable units in the downtown area, well below the 5,183 units the City has committed to retain.One of the bedrocks of the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness is permanent supportive housing to house Portland’s chronically homeless. (Following the federal government guidelines, chronically homeless individuals are people who have a disability and have been homeless for at least one year or who have had several episodes of homelessness over the course of several years.) As its name suggests, permanent supportive housing provides case management and other supportive services.

In its fourth year, the 10-Year Plan includes the goal of creating 2,200 units of permanent supportive housing by 2015.

Those 2,200 units would close the net loss created by the past 20 years and bring downtown’s affordable housing inventory closer to the 5,183 unit goal.

According to its second quarter report, issued in June 2008, the Bureau of Housing and Community Development (BHCD) boasts the creation or imminent development of 1,073 units of permanent supportive housing over the last four years.

While BHCD has presented those 1,073 units as new, multiple documents published by the Portland Development Commission (PDC) providing inventories of the number and location of low-income affordable housing units, BHCD’s own list of the permanent supportive housing unit locations, and interviews with affordable housing advocates suggest that BHCD’s interpretation of the numbers is much more generous.

“I don’t think they’re creating new inventory,” says Micky Ryan, a housing advocate and an Oregon Law Center lawyer.

To meet its 2,200-unit goal, BHCD intends to create 1,200 units through new construction. The other 1,000 units will be created out of existing units. Those units “will be re-programmed as (permanent supportive housing) by attaching rent subsidies and services,” according to the BHCD.

What that means, says Bobby Weinstock, Northwest Pilot Project’s housing consultant, is taking existing units already serving poor people and “prioritizing one group of poor people over another group of poor people.”

“A problem is how we’re counting the number of housing units that we’re creating,” Weinstock says. “Until we address this, we can’t end homelessness.”

“They’re not a net gain for us,” says Susan Emmons, Northwest Pilot Project’s executive director.

Every three years, the PDC conducts an inventory of rental and ownership units in the downtown and inner quadrants of Portland, defined as the central city. According to the PDC’s 2005 housing inventory, the latest report available, 2,712 units of affordable housing were in existence for low-income people living in the central city.

The PDC’s 2005-2006 Housing Production Report documents how much rental and ownership housing has been built throughout the city. The report shows that in that fiscal year no new units of low-income housing were built within the central city.

The 2006-2007 Production Report, published in April 2008, documents 236 new units for low-income people built within the central city – 176 units from the renovation of the Rose Quarter’s Ramada Inn, 22 units at the Clark Center Annex, and 38 units added when the Estate Hotel was rehabilitated. However, the Ramada Inn project isn’t expected to come online until Spring, 2009.

Although the PDC’s 2008 Housing Inventory is not expected to be published until early 2009, according to PDC housing program manager Sara Culp, adding the 2005 Housing Inventory’s numbers together with the Production Reports provides a rough estimate of the number of low-income units currently existing in the central city.

That number comes out to 2,948 units. 2,543, or 86 percent, of those units exist in the Downtown and River districts, the same geographic area inventoried by Northwest Pilot Project.

By those figures, there has been a net loss of 732 units since Northwest Pilot Project’s 2007 Inventory.

“It doesn’t surprise me that there’s some net loss,” says Beth Kaye, BHCD’s public affairs manager. “We are losing ground overall.”

One of the many reasons ground has been lost, sources say, is because BHCD, rather than producing the new net units the 10 Year Plan promises, has taken already existing units and re-programmed them into permanent supportive housing units.

“They may have been serving a different part of the homeless population, but they were serving people,” Emmons says. “I think it doesn’t make sense to have a plan to end homelessness if we can’t show a net gain in units.”

One building PDC’s 2006-2007 Production Report lists as new is the Jeffrey Apartments, which has 50 of its 78 units affordable to low-income people.

However, its construction represents no net gain, since the developer built it to replace the Jefferson West, an apartment complex that housed 50 low-income people before it was demolished.

Rather than being a net gain in affordable housing, it is exactly what Emmons, Weinstock, and others call a replacement.

The Morrison, a mixed-use apartment complex operated by the Housing Authority of Portland (HAP), is also a replacement building. Providing 45 of its 140 units to low-income people, the Morrison replaced affordable housing at the Civic when it was converted to condominiums.”They’re great buildings, but its hard to say they’re a net gain,” Emmons says.

In the current fiscal year, the Portland Development Commission has closed loans for rehabilitation projects on the following low-income buildings: the Oak Apartments, which has a HUD subsidy, the Grove Hotel, which is owned and operated by the HAP, and the Musolf Manor, which is project-based Section 8 building and recently marked an open house on Dec. 4. The total number of those units is 255.

Additionally, the PDC helped preserve the Clay Tower, which would have expired as a Section 8 building without the preservation. All but two of its 235 units are affordable for low-income people.

Altogether, that equals 488 units. But despite the fact that BHCD touts the permanent supportive housing units in those buildings as new, housing advocates say all of those buildings and their units previously existed. A document obtained from BHCD listing the buildings where the permanent supportive housing units are located in downtown confirms that fact.

“(They’re) not new,” Weinstock says. “It’s preservation.”

Weinstock does not think that preservation projects such as those currently closed by the PDC should count toward the 10-Year Plan goal, because those buildings have always housed low-income people.

“It’s good that we’re preserving what we have,” Ryan says. “It’s certainly less expensive to preserve it now.”

“Those units would be lost minus any involvement from the city,” says Ryan Deibert, one of BHCD’s homeless program coordinators.

In instances such as the Grove Hotel, the benefits of having the building out from private management are clear.

“It was a dumpy place, but it had low rents,” Ryan says. But to say the units are new? “I do think it’s misleading,” Ryan says.

Kaye asserts that BHCD’s interpretation of the numbers are not misleading. “The units are newly dedicated to serving the most vulnerable of the homeless population,” she says.

Kaye also says the units should be considered new because they are newly developed and concentrate more resources and services into the units and the units’ residents. “It’s more than re-programming,” Kaye says.

“There were always services provided [in those buildings],” Weinstock says. “Now they’re formalizing it.”

“That’s fine. Let’s call it what it is.”

Re-programming the units into permanent supportive housing, according to Deibert, provides the opportunity for homeless individuals who are unable to independently seek out housing or services to have a decent quality of life.

“The push for permanent supportive housing is an effort to make sure that the people who need the housing the most can access it,” Deibert says. “I think the 10-Year Plan supports that.”

Deibert points out that some people were able to independently advocate for themselves and seek out services and housing while others less capable remained homeless. “There has always been some prioritization for the homeless,” he says.

Yet, Ryan says, there are many other poor and vulnerable populations that do not fall into the category of “chronically homeless,” and do not necessarily have problems in addition to their homelessness or their poverty.

“They are at risk of homelessness all of the time,” Ryan says.

“The fact that we’re putting so many resources into permanent supportive housing means that there’s another part of the homeless population that’s losing out,” Emmons says.

According to Martha McLennan, the executive director of Northwest Housing Alternatives, the non-profit that owns and operates the Oak Apartments, after the Oak finishes undergoing a “light rehab,” 30 of its 90 units will become permanent supportive housing.

The reason 30 of the Oak’s units will turn into permanent supportive units is that, McLennan says, the only way Northwest Housing Alternatives could get the $3.2 million PDC loan for rehabilitation was to enter into an agreement with the city saying that the units would be re-programmed into permanent supportive housing.

“I can’t be in the development business without making a commitment to house chronically homeless people,” McLennan says.

Criteria will be attached to the units ensuring its future tenants will have histories of chronic homelessness. And because individuals are required to engage in services to be placed into permanent supportive housing, individuals who do not need the services do not have the option of seeking out that housing.

Noting that the 10-Year Plan “(categorizes) people in finer detail,” McLennan thinks categorizing people – someone chronically homeless sleeping under a bridge for a year, sleeping under a bridge for two weeks, addicted to alcohol, mentally ill, medically vulnerable – and assisting them differently under the 10-Year Plan, fails to recognize that all have “very similar stories.”

Turning some of the Oak’s units into permanent supportive housing, McLennan says, makes waiting lists longer, and ultimately, it becomes more difficult for people who are simply poor to find affordable housing.

“I don’t want to displace the pensioner with the newest version of homelessness,” McLennan says. “They both have equal needs.”

None of the Oak’s tenants will be forcibly evicted in order to place chronically homeless people into supportive housing.

The loss of affordable housing, McLennan says, should be a “clarion call” to addressing the greatest needs of Portland’s low-income residents.

No advocate thinks the call is to re-program units. “Why do that?” McLennan asked. “They’re all suffering.”

Multiple challenges exist to creating low-income housing. Kaye cites the high cost of development and the economic recession, which has prompted Mayor-elect Sam Adams to warn all city bureaus of a 5 percent slash in the 2008-2009 funding cycle.

And because low-income people pay either nothing or very low rents, buildings need massive public subsidies and tax abatements for development and operating costs.

“I don’t think we’re going to see a net gain of affordable housing downtown,” Kaye says, adding that BHCD will continue to tow the line it has for the last four years. “I think we’re going to see more permanent supportive units downtown geared towards the population it’s going to serve.”
Weinstock says that the main focus of any plan, if it truly is designed to end homelessness, should focus its resources and efforts on building new units of affordable housing.

“I actually believe we can end homelessness,” Weinstock says. “We can’t get there by re-programming. That’s not a strategy that’s going to get us to the goal.”
One project and might be a beginning for a net gain in downtown Portland: the Resource Access Center.

Because it will not replace a previously existing building, the Resource Access Center, will be a net gain of low-income affordable housing, with the number of Section 8 and public housing units currently projected at 150.

Some of the solutions bandied about to increase the net gain of affordable housing,
McLennan thinks, are “pretty radical,” including rent control and an ordinance banning rampant condominium conversion.

A document recording fee, which would create a state-wide housing fund from the recording fees of real estate documents, is expected to pass the Oregon Legislature this year after falling three votes short of passage two years ago.

“It’s going to take a bigger investment and I think we’ve been doing it on the cheap,” Weinstock says. “The total price tag would be scary to the public.”

“In our country, and in Portland, people don’t see housing as something people are entitled to,” says Ryan. “They don’t think people have a right to have decent housing.

“It would be great if a politician could say we’re preserving things that we have…but unless we get some real money…we can’t create any new units.”

by Amanda Waldroupe

One response to “When is new housing not new? When it’s reprogrammed

  1. It’s not just Portland. And why does downtown need to keep their homeless downtown? when many just gravitated there looking for some way to survive. they weren’t born there! They were looking for cheap rent a long time ago and it happened to be downtown, close to their favorite amenities (certain walking distance bars etc). Downtown no longer has anything for poor people anyway, why do they have to stay there?
    I am poor, but i would avoid downtown like the plague.
    Anyway, it’s interesting that Northwest Housing Alternatives (mclennan) also has other apartments, where people from the Bridges to Housing program, homeless people with supportive services, also live. They are displacing other very low income people in the suburbs too. One notable place is River Glen Apartments in Gladstone. Managed quite badly by Guardian Management, they have a fake wait list yet they never allow anyone in but the Bridges people. Why? because here is the key: that program pays about twice as much for an apartment, than what is normally charged to other low income residents. So even the current tenants who need to move to a larger unit, are not allowed to. Those larger units pay more through the Bridges supported program, so the current residents have to stay in tiny apartments with growing families and overcrowded conditions. It isn’t even legal by HUD regulations but Guardian does this and NHA either has no clue or looks the other way.
    These apartments routinely turn away lots of people who are homeless or desperately seeking a place on very low incomes.
    So yes these types of programs rob peter to pay paul. Taking the cheap housing from grama to get the recovering drug addicts into it instead. Etc.
    The solution of course is to create a LOT more very affordable units and keep those income limits low. Right now people with plenty of money get to stay in the subsidized units even after their incomes go over the limits, that is NOT ok. But there is no good reason why they have to be directly downtown anymore, since downtown has changed over the last 20 years and is no longer viable for poor people anyway.

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