The Seattle Times talked with Portland State University land-use professor Marisa Zapata, who supports her city's affordable-housing policy.
Seattle intends to adopt affordable housing requirements on developers in another 27 neighborhoods, with a City Council vote scheduled later this month.
But Portland is one step ahead, in a sense. Whereas Seattle established requirements in a number of neighborhoods in 2017, the Rose City adopted them everywhere for large residential projects.
Seattle is allowing developers to build taller and denser in return for help with affordable housing. Portland also is giving away tax and parking exemptions.
So, how’s it going in the Pacific Northwest’s second-largest city? The Seattle Times talked with Portland State University land-use professor Marisa Zapata, who supports the policy.
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As of September 2018, the policy had been applied to 43 projects and had produced 362 affordable apartments.
Seattle’s policy, in place in the University District, downtown, South Lake Union, the Chinatown International District, Uptown and some Central District intersections, has produced 15 affordable apartments. It has also produced $13.3 million in fees, which the city estimates could help build about 150 affordable units.
Seattle Times: When did Portland start requiring developers to create affordable housing?
Marisa Zapata: Feb. 1, 2017
Q: What were the conditions that led Portland to adopt the requirements?
A: We’d had dramatic increases in housing costs and a lot of apartments built to serve the upper end of the market.
Rents across the city were increasing and the new housing stock was high-end apartments. Someone like me could choose where to live, but people living below the median household income had limited options. People with low incomes were being pushed into the suburbs.
Portland has a long legacy of displacement associated with communities of color, and the black community was experiencing disproportionate rates of movement.
Q: Was state law an issue?
A: Yes. In 2016, the Oregon state Legislature partially repealed a pre-emption on cities adopting affordable-housing mandates.
Q: What does Portland require developers to do?
A: Portland’s policy applies to projects with 20 or more apartments. It says 15 percent of the apartments must be reserved for people making 80 percent of the median household income.
Developers also can pay a fee. Or they can reserve 8 percent of the apartments for people making 60 percent of the median. Or they can build the affordable apartments off-site. The city created a lot of options.
The fees are supposed to allow the city to help build the same amount of affordable housing as the developers would otherwise have built.
The policy applies to projects everywhere in the city, but there are different rules for different areas. In the Central City and Gateway areas, the requirements are higher: 20 percent of the apartments must be for people making 80 percent of the median, or 10 percent for people making 60 percent of the median.
Q: Seattle’s policy applies to commercial projects, like office buildings. Does Portland’s?
Q: What did proponents say would happen?
A: They said the policy would create affordable housing without crashing the market.
Q: What did opponents say would happen?
A: They said the policy would have a dramatic chilling effect on the construction market.
Q: Seattle’s downtown-construction boom hasn’t stopped. What’s happened so far in Portland?
A: There was a slowing down of applications (for new apartment-building permits) last year. But right before the policy took effect, there were a number of developers who rushed to apply to avoid the policy.
Also, we have market saturation at this point for luxury apartments. There’s no indication that (the affordable-housing policy) is mostly responsible. That slowdown was already going to happen.
Could the policy be a factor? It’s too early to say conclusively, and there are other factors. Some developers are blaming the policy, but that’s a knee-jerk reaction.
Ultimately, we do have affordable housing being built, which is what we wanted.
Q: Can the requirements be adjusted?
A: Yes, you can always do that. There would be changes if there were serious indications the policy was going awry.
Q: With construction slowing, did Portland act too late to require affordable housing?
A: The state Legislature could have moved quicker but didn’t. There could have been more affordable units built. We’re trying to turn lemons into lemonade.
Q: What other housing strategies are under discussion?
A: The state Legislature is considering a bill that would eliminate all single-family zoning. It would allow multiple units everywhere. The Legislature also just adopted a rent-control policy (capping annual rent increases to 7 percent plus inflation, with new construction exempted for 15 years).