Affordable Housing Bond – Update by John Elizalde

Last November Portlanders agreed to give the city of Portland the authority to sell general obligation bonds in order to build housing affordable to people earning up to 60% of the average median income for the Portland area. The bonds authorized were $258 millions dollars and included an amount for administration. That’s a ton of money to this writer. However, projections at the time were that only 1,300 homes could be build with this amount. Since then construction, labor and material costs have continued to rise as the housing boom lingers (and now the national housing industry will be responding to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the related destruction). The voter approved measure also called for a citizen oversight committee to assure that the bond funds are invested in housing that will meet the needs of struggling Portlanders. It is important that the bond can only be used for housing that will be owned by the city. Hence, public values will be made manifest by the use of the bonds. The city housing bureau created a ‘stakeholder group’ to create a policy framework for bureau and oversight committee to use when making investment decisions. (The Interfaith Alliance on Poverty Advocacy work group will follow the oversight committee work.)

The draft framework hit the streets for public review on August 18 and the comment period closed on September 23. The Interfaith Alliance on Poverty Advocacy work group had been attending stakeholder group meetings and following the development of the draft policy framework. We submitted comments.

The framework does a good job of describing the demographic groups that should receive priority housing; generally these will be folk who haven’t been targeted for such housing and have suffered the consequences of racism and exclusion. High priority locations are called out in the framework so housing will go near where people live now or at least so as to avoid displacement or in school areas where children move in and out too frequently for their educational needs. Not surprising there are tradeoffs in these objectives and the framework is designed to allow explicit decisions about location, demographics, displacement, etc rather than leave decisions to a random process.

The Interfaith Alliance on Poverty comments focused on costs that seemed to get short shrift in the draft. We thought there needed to be site specific criteria for cost based decisions; there is no mention of site specific cost analysis in the draft. We are concerned about the city’s ability to meet the goals for the bond funds: 1,300 total units, 650 units for family size units (2 or 3 bedroom), 600 units deeply affordable for incomes up to 30 AMI.

The policy calls for 300 units to receive significant services for residents but it was unclear whether bond funds could be used for construction of facilities for such administrative work. And, it was unclear as to the use of the rents collected for the units. Portland property owners will pay of the housing bonds but we don’t know where the rents do and what sort of oversight there will be of those funds.

Lastly our comments addressed the idea of the bond funds being used to buy land. We are concerned that construction costs may make new construction difficult given the cost constraints of the bond. So purchasing land and allowing other developers to build affordable housing on that land using other funding could stretch bond dollars. The draft policy didn’t address this.

In general, we found the process used to create the framework to be inclusive, open and thorough (and slow, very slow). Sometimes intensive public involvement is a time consuming task. Keep in mind the vote on the bonds was November 8, 2016 and the framework will go the city council for their consideration 368 days later. And, this is in the middle of a housing crisis.

Of course, realistically the bond fund housing will make but a small contribution to solving the housing crisis. The city needs some 20,000 affordable units for struggling families. The wheels of progress move slowly but at least for the housing bond they are moving.

Find the draft policy framework here:  For a copy of the Interfaith Alliance on Poverty comments write to

John Elizalde, Advocacy Workgroup