County’s Kafoury looks into leading charge for housing levy

From the Dec. 13 edition.

Talks expected on potential of 2010 ballot proposal

Street Roots reported in last week’s “Housing advocates consider push for housing levy” that County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury expressed strong interest in seeing something similar to Seattle’s Housing Levy on the ballot in 2010.

In an hour-long interview with Street Roots last week, she did not back down.

Kafoury says she is still interested in actively pursuing putting a bond or levy that would generate revenue for affordable housing on the ballot in 2010.

And if advocates came to Kafoury asking to be the politician leading the charge for a bond of levy campaign, Kafoury said she would be interested in hearing what they had to say.

“I’d say let’s sit and talk,” Kafoury says.Michael Anderson, the executive director of the Oregon Opportunity Network, says that in the past week, Kafoury has contacted him to talk about a levy.

And Sam Chase, City Commissioner Nick Fish’s former chief of staff who is now doing contract work with the Portland Housing Bureau, has contacted Anderson as well. “He said what he wanted to talk about were ideas for a levy. We have been playing a very stupid, silly game of phone tag that is now on day six,” Anderson says.

Anderson says that the interest from politicians recently being shown is far different from even a month ago, when the issue seemed dead. “It seems like there is some exciting momentum (being built),” Anderson says.

Fish has said that he did not support putting a bond or levy for affordable housing on the ballot for another “three to five years.” He was unavailable to comment for this story, but Daniel Ledezma, his housing and homelessness policy adviser, says that has not changed.

“Commissioner Fish is very supportive of moving forward with a levy or bond,” Ledezma says. “(But) he is not willing to risk losing the opportunity unless we’re ensured of a successful outcome.”

That, Kafoury says, is an important part of the immediate discussion to have with advocates.

“I would have to look into the practicality of getting something passed,” Kafoury says. “The worst thing we could do is put something out there in haste and not have it pass.”

Realizing that the interest groups pushing for a parks levy — something Fish is working on as the commissioner in charge of the Parks Bureau — have worked on it for two years, Kafoury thinks that a housing levy or bond should not be excluded from this election cycle.

“Times change and we do need priorities,” she says. “I would prioritize housing our citizens, making sure that everyone has a decent, affordable place to live.”

Kafoury, however, said she hasn’t talked to Fish lately about a levy or bond. “We have been focusing on the emergency problems that are facing us right now. That’s what we talked about in the last week,” Kafoury says.

Securing shelter and emergency services throughout the winter for homeless individuals is, Kafoury says, the one thing that stops her from “jumping out there
110 percent” when it comes to starting a bond or levy campaign for affordable housing.

“Sometimes (immediate concerns) take priority over long-term thinking,” she says.

All sides agree that getting a levy or bond campaign off the ground will take a lot of work.

Securing financial support, polling, determining whether it should be a bond or levy, how much money to ask voters for, what specific projects will be funded, and whether it would be a county- or city-wide levy or bond are all things that would have to be hammered out before the actual campaign of persuading the public to vote in favor of it began.

Ledezma says that Fish “wants to make sure we move forward in a way that is thoughtful.”

“There would be some significant work to mobilize folks,” Anderson agrees.

Citing the successes the housing and homeless communities have had in recent years — such as securing the document recording fee, the 30 percent set-aside from tax increment financing districts, and preserving the Portland Housing Bureau’s budget year after year — Anderson doesn’t think getting a successful campaign started less than a year before voters go to the polls is impossible.

“We’ve shown that when we have a clear target, we can organize and do the work necessary to make policy changes happen,” Anderson says. “It seems with the emerging political leadership that the time to start organizing ourselves is now.”

“Housing advocates alone don’t have the political capital or the resources to make this happen,” Anderson says. “But if the interest from elected leaders and other community leaders is building, then it’s really up to the housing advocates to help capture that momentum.”

A levy would generate revenue through property taxes, collecting a certain amount of money per $1,000 of assessed property value (in the case of Seattle’s Housing Levy, 17 cents per $1,000 of assessed value is taxed, meaning that the owner of a $450,000 home contributes $79 a year to the levy).

A bond would raise revenue by borrowing against the future, essentially. Any revenue raised by a bond would have to be paid back by revenue that is generated through future taxes.

Bonds have limitations. One is that the money can be spent only on capital projects that are publicly owned entities, such as the Housing Authority of Portland, which would prohibit nonprofits and private developers from using the funds.

A levy would not have that limitation. The funds could be used by nonprofits and for-profit developers alike, and revenue could also go towards other services, such as rent assistance and land acquisition. However, because of Measures 5 and 50 in Oregon, which limit how much property can be taxed, levies are particularly hindered by compression.

In Oregon, properties can be taxed to a maximum of 10 percent per $1,000 of assessed value. If there are too many levies seeking revenue through property taxes, the amounts that those levies generate shrinks, or compresses.

“The compression issues around a levy concern me,” Anderson says. However, he points out, many other interest groups pursue levies — such as the children’s levy and the zoo levy that was passed in 2007.

With that in mind, Anderson prefers pursuing a levy because of the flexibility of the funds, and the ability to use those funds on top of other resources that Portland has at its disposal, such as the 30 percent
set-aside from tax increment financing and revenue from the state document recording fee.

“Just looking at the challenges that the TIF set-aside has had,” he says.  “We need other resource to augment the set-aside.”

“One of the things that gets me excited to see the interest of Commissioner Deborah Kafoury is that it is fair to say that, because of the growth and improvements within Portland, we’ve seen a 15-year trend where poor people have been priced out of the city again and again and again,” Anderson says. “It needs to be more than Portland. A county-wide levy is … an absolute necessary step.”

Ledezma did say that Fish will convene a meeting in early January with stakeholders in the housing community to discuss what resources exist for affordable housing, and which ones are needed, with, Ledezma says, “an eye towards action.”

When asked if Fish is categorically opposed to putting a bond or levy for affordable housing on the ballot in 2010, Ledezma would not rule it out. “That may be a recommendation (of the January meeting),” she says.

If there will be a campaign for an affordable-housing bond or levy, the last date to file and be on the 2010 ballot is Sept. 2.

By Amanda Waldroupe, Staff Writer

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