Getting It Done

[Photo 1: The grand opening of the Admiral Apartments]
The grand opening of the Admiral Apartments

PORTLAND - Governments make lots of lofty, ambitious promises. So many, in fact, it's hard to keep track of whether they've been kept. Which may be why so many folks think government never gets anything done.

Maybe they should think again. Three years ago housing prices in downtown Portland were soaring, effectively shrinking the supply of affordable housing, forcing those who couldn't pay out of the area. With assistance from HUD, the Oregon Department of Housing & Community Services, the Portland Housing Bureau launched its "11 by 13" initiative, promising to stem the tide and preserve the inventory of affordable, privately-owned and publicly-assisted housing in downtown.

Looks like the promise was kept.

HUD provides rental assistance to some 5.4 income-eligible million American households each year so that they need spend no more than 30 percent of their limited incomes for housing. That's a lot of people until you realize that for every household receiving HUD rental subsidies there are another four families eligible, but not receiving them.

Recently, for example, the Seattle housing authority opened its application window seeking 2,000 applications to freshen its waiting list. It received 24,000 applications. Almost everywhere, the demand for affordable housing far exceeds the supply.

Neither gold nor silver, rental assistance is nonetheless a precious commodity. Especially in Portland. With a 3 percent vacancy rate, the rental market's tight. Almost all of the 3,900 under construction this year will rent at the upper, not the affordable end of the market. That's precious.

[Photo 2: Man painting at Chaucer Court]
Man painting at Chaucer Court

Hence, the City's "11 by 13" initiative. HUD delivers its rent subsidies three ways - through units owned and operated by public housing authorities, through Housing Choice Vouchers issued to households who use them to rent privately-owned units and through "project basing," providing subsidies for 20 or 30 or 40 years to privately-owned apartment buildings on the condition they remain affordable to HUD-eligible families.

Late in 2009, early in 2010, the City realized that the long-term, project-based agreements between HUD and the private owners of 11 apartment complexes were set to mature in 2013. If they did, their owners would have every right and, in a booming rental market, lots of incentives to convert them to market-rate properties, leaving nearly 1,000 low-income households - mostly the elderly and persons with disabilities - looking for a new place to call home. "11 by 13" was designed to keep those 11 complexes affordable.

By April 2nd, 2013, it had as the non-profit REACH Community Development Corporation announced that it had acquired the Bronaugh Apartments in downtown Portland. Built in 1902, The Bronaugh is on the national Registry of Historic Places and is home to 51 elderly and disabled residents on fixed incomes. As with most of the "11 by 13" complexes, REACH will substantially renovate the property for the first time in 30 years. The Bronaugh was the last of the 11 buildings to be bought and preserved under the "11x13" Initiative.

With help from local, state and federal governments and non-profits like REACH CDC, Northwest Housing Alternatives, the Network for Oregon Affordable Housing "11 by 13," clearly met all its milestones - keeping not just the 11, but 12 buildings affordable, saving the homes of nearly 1,000 low-income households and generating up to an estimated $160 million in HUD rent subsidies for Portland residents for decades to come. And all of it accomplished well before the clock ticked zero.

And the pay-off? "This year's report" by the Northwest Pilot Project on affordable housing in downtown "gave us something to celebrate," Portland City Commissioner Fish recently wrote in a blog. "The report shows that 2013 is the first year in 30 years with an uptick in affordable housing in downtown Portland. A large part of the upswing is because of our successful "11 by 13" initiative."

A promise made. A promise efficiently, effectively kept. A promise, well worth celebrating.


Content Archived: February 9, 2015