Category: affordable housing

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Portland’s Affordable Housing Bond: Nothing for Money

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Remember that song about getting money for nothing? In Portland, it’s the opposite. We’re getting nothing for money.

This week, Portland’s City Council will get the first annual report on how the city is spending its affordable housing bond money. The four-page report—yes, it’s really only four pages—is colorful and has lots of pictures but nothing about actual results. So, I did some research.

Turns out, by the end of 2018, the city spent almost $38 million and built exactly zero new units of affordable housing. Sure, Portland bought two buildings. But, the buildings were already built or almost completely built, which means the money did nothing to actually add any new units.

Once the city spends millions more on the four other buildings in their pipeline, Portland might have only 250 additional units of affordable housing.

Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to reform the country’s social welfare programs. He said, “We put a crazy amount of dough into our social benefits and poor people are still poor.”

The same can be said for Portland: We’re spending a crazy amount of money on affordable housing, but we’re not actually building much new affordable housing.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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What’s Causing Oregon’s “Housing Affordability Crisis”?

By Miranda Bonifield

Here’s a question for you: Why is housing so expensive in Oregon?

Government at all levels has attempted to address the issue of housing affordability for years with tax credits, occasional expansion of the urban growth boundary, multimillion dollar bond measures, and now statewide rent control in Oregon. But rather than making life easier for Americans, state and local policies play major roles in the affordability crisis.

Economist Dr. Randall Pozdena recently authored a report published by Cascade Policy Institute that analyzes the decline of housing affordability, with a particular focus on Oregon. His research confirms what any developer can already tell you: Housing is less affordable because land is less available.

Easy access to land up until the 1970s meant housing price increases roughly tracked increases in household income. But in the ’60s and ’70s, planners and environmentalists dreaming of European-style density began lobbying against automobile-driven suburban sprawl. These measures gained enough traction that by 2000, the Brookings Institution found, state ballots around the country contained 553 “anti-sprawl” measures. Supporters expected higher density to decrease the need for public spending, improve traffic conditions by facilitating the use of transit, and lower development costs.

Instead, housing is escalating further out of reach every year. Oregon, California, Hawaii, and Washington, D.C. have the worst affordability scores in the country. An expensive market might make sense in D.C. and Hawaii, as both have extremely limited land available for development. California’s problem is the bureaucratic state whose regulations keep developers from meeting demand. But it’s Oregon that has the worst score for affordability out of the fifty states: Our housing prices rose 32% faster than our incomes between 1992 and 2007. This puts housing affordability in Oregon behind every one of the other 49 states.

With some exceptions, Oregon’s income growth has generally kept pace with the rest of the nation. We have plenty of developable land and a capable, productive community. Our housing is unaffordable because we’ve embraced some of the most aggressive “anti-sprawl” policies in the country. Dr. Pozdena finds:

“The higher the rank of anti-sprawl policy in a state, the poorer is the affordability rank of the state and the lower has been the availability of additional development sites relative to population growth. The confidence that these associations are not random is 99.99 percent. This is strongly indicative of a causal relationship between implementation of anti-sprawl policy, land conservation, and the affordability problem.”

There is no market and no economic philosophy in which reducing supply while demand increases leads to lower prices. In reality, Oregon’s policies have increased public spending, damaged public service quality, made no sizable impact on the number of automobile commuters, and worsened congestion.

It’s encouraging to hear policymakers acknowledge that we need to expand urban growth boundaries and encourage more development; but until a fundamental shift occurs in the philosophy behind growth policy, these statements are all flash and no substance. Oregon’s land use regulations don’t align with the way Oregonians actually live. They worsen traffic, crowd cities, and decrease quality of life.

Oregon must address the true causes of housing affordability problems, not just the symptoms—or the crisis will never end.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Press Release: Report shows Oregon’s “smart growth” policies make housing less affordable for Oregonians

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
John A. Charles, Jr.
503-242-0900
john@cascadepolicy.org

PORTLAND, Ore. – Cascade Policy Institute has released a new report examining the links between anti-sprawl, “smart growth” regulations and increasing housing costs in Oregon. The report measures the extent of supply restrictions in Oregon and their impact on housing prices. It concludes that “smart growth” policies contribute substantially to the decrease in affordable housing and single-family housing options in Oregon.

The report, The Housing Affordability Crisis: The Role of Anti-Sprawl Policy, was written by Randall Pozdena, Ph.D. Pozdena is president of QuantEcon, Inc., an Oregon-based economics consultancy.

Over the last fifty years, many states have adopted “smart growth” or “anti-sprawl” policies. Enough time has elapsed for the effects of these policies to be studied. The evidence shows that many urban areas now have housing prices that make either home ownership or rental increasingly unaffordable.

In the face of resulting “affordable housing crises,” cities and states are currently considering additional regulations and subsidy policies to attempt to provide residents with more affordable housing options. There is virtually no public policy discussion of whether regulatory interventions precipitated the housing crisis in the first place, let alone consideration of abandoning these damaging policies.

In The Housing Affordability Crisis, Pozdena examines the links between anti-sprawl regulations and the spectacular increases in housing costs and the virtual disappearance of affordable housing in many markets. Specifically, he measures the extent of site supply restrictions and its impact on housing prices using an economic model of housing markets, data on the economic conditions in housing markets, and trends in development revealed in satellite inventories of U.S. land uses. At the national level, using state and Metropolitan Statistical Area data, Pozdena concludes:

  1. Twenty-three of the 50 states studied fail to provide housing units at a volume adequate to keep housing prices and incomes growing at a rate consistent with affordability. On average, these states under-provided housing units by 6.4 percent of their current stock of housing units.
  1. Those states that fail the affordability and supply adequacy test are overwhelmingly those with documented adoption of one or more aggressive anti-sprawl growth regulatory initiatives.
  1. Annual housing price inflation exceeded annual income growth by 14 percent each year during the study period in those states that failed to provide housing in sufficient quantity to keep it affordable. Extrapolating the findings to the nation, the housing stock is smaller by as much as 4.5 million housing units than it should have been to preserve affordability.

Cascade Policy Institute President and CEO John A. Charles, Jr. said, “Oregon land-use planners have long pretended that Urban Growth Boundaries and other site restrictions have no real effect on housing supply. Dr. Pozdena’s analysis clearly shows that this is wrong. We cannot solve the housing crisis by simply ‘throwing money’ at public housing projects; growth controls need to be reduced or repealed if we want to make the American Dream affordable.”

The full report, The Housing Affordability Crisis: The Role of Anti-Sprawl Policy, can be downloaded here.

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s free-market public policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.

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Metro’s Bond Measure 26-199 Raises Taxes on Homeowners, Requires No Accountability for Money Spent

By Miranda Bonifield

Metro claims Measure 26-199 is designed to address affordable housing, but the 652.8 million dollar bond measure raises taxes for homeowners without ensuring that it will accomplish its goals.

Metro claims these bonds would fund up to 3,900 low-income housing units. However, the measure doesn’t require a minimum number of units: Metro could build a few units, spend the rest of the money on “services,” and fulfill the requirements of Measure 26-199. The text of the measure even says these bonds may be used for things like grocery or retail space without limitation. In other words, there’s no guarantee the measure will make even a small improvement to housing affordability.

There is no deadline ensuring Metro provides these units in a timely fashion. There is no requirement for Metro to change its practices if auditors find Metro is failing to accomplish its goals. 26-199 asks you to trust Metro’s intentions without any accountability to encourage success. Meanwhile, urban growth boundaries and endless red tape keep Oregon’s housing supply from meeting the needs of our growing population.

Any major project needs firm deadlines and specific goals to have any hope of success, but Metro’s measure provides neither.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Private Developers Leading the Way for Affordable Housing

By Rachel Dawson

The Metro Council voted June 7 to place a housing bond measure of $652.8 million for only 3,900 units on the ballot this fall. The regional government estimates the cost of new projects will be around $253,000 per home. But as there is no cap on cost per dwelling, project costs could be much greater. This bond will spend too much money on too few homes. However, private developers in the Portland region have shown it’s possible to build more residences at a lower cost compared with Metro’s proposal.

There is no better example of this than local private developer Rob Justus. With Home First Development, Justus has helped build a total of 431 public units for an average cost of $90,230 since 2011. Home First likes to call this “affordable-affordable” housing. Before a project begins, the company keeps itself accountable by working backwards: They contain the costs of the project so apartments can be rented to tenants at a price that works for them. This philosophy has allowed Home First to increase the number of homes they are able to build.

In concert with the Portland Habilitation Center, Justus built 78 affordable residences in 2015 in Portland at $65,000 per unit. In 2017 he offered to build 1,000 homes in Portland at $85,000 per unit if the city could gather $20 million, but Portland officials rejected this proposal. These homes would have cost 66% less than Metro’s housing bond estimates.

Justus has made low costs possible by building in less expensive neighborhoods and using non-union labor. These homes may not be the largest dwellings in the best part of town, but they are affordable to those in the lower 30% of area median income who are in need of a home.

Along with wages and location, the materials used can greatly affect the price of a project. A Catholic charity attempted to build the complex known as St. Francis Park in 2015 using an inexpensive siding called HardiPlank. When the project went through Portland’s required design review, city regulators decided to choose a more expensive siding, which drastically increased the cost of the project. This additional cost caused the city to increase taxpayer subsidy to the building. Ironically, in 2006 a housing complex in Vancouver using the same inexpensive siding that was rejected by the city of Portland received a national development award.

The fatal flaw in this bond measure is that there is no cap on cost per home, which the city of Vancouver has demonstrated is possible to have. Vancouver passed their own Affordable Housing Fund in 2016 which caps the amount spent per housing unit at $50,000. Money from the fund would add to a project’s “capital stack,” rather than fully funding the complex. This forces project applicants (one of whom was Home First Development) to search for multiple sources of funding instead of relying on the Vancouver City Council to foot the bill.

The Metro Council could build cheaper apartments by using less expensive materials and contracting with private developers to decrease labor costs. Without a cap on cost per unit to keep themselves accountable, Metro is able to write a blank check with taxpayer dollars for every project.

Housing can be made affordable to both taxpayers and renters. Metro can do this by withdrawing the bond measure and redrafting it to include a cap on costs. Doing so would allow them to follow the lead of private developers like Rob Justus to make “affordable-affordable” housing a reality.

Rachel Dawson is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on July 26, 2018.

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Metro’s November Bond Measure Would Make All Housing More Costly

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Metro recently decided to refer a $652.8 million bond measure to the November ballot. If approved by voters, it would authorize Metro to borrow money either to purchase existing housing units or to subsidize the construction of new ones. The loans would be paid off by higher taxes on every property owner in the region for the next 30 years.

Unfortunately, of all the things Metro could do to reduce the price of housing, borrowing money is likely to be the least effective.

For one thing, new construction is expensive. Many public housing projects in recent years have cost more than $250,000 per unit. If Metro is lucky, the bond measure might pay for a total of 2,400-3,000 new apartments. Since the Portland region produces over 10,000 units of new housing every year, Metro’s intervention would not even be noticed.

In addition, borrowing $652.8 million and paying it back with interest (for a total of over $1 billion in debt service) would make every current home and apartment more expensive. We can’t tax ourselves to prosperity.

The basic weakness in the Metro bond measure is that it misdiagnoses the problem. When the Metro Council adopted its long-range growth management plan in 1995, it made a conscious decision to limit the physical size of the urbanized metropolitan region. That limit is imposed through Metro’s control of the Urban Growth Boundary. The planning goal was to “grow up, not out,” in order to prevent rural development and create the population density needed for light rail.

While that vision may sound appealing to some, there is a tradeoff: It limits the supply of new housing. Metro has always known this. As the agency’s economists wrote in 1994, “…the data suggest a public welfare tradeoff for increased density, more transit use, and reduced vehicle miles traveled. The downside of pursuing such objectives appears to be higher housing prices and reduced housing output.”

Metro controls the regional land supply and doesn’t want lots of cheap land for housing. Metro actually needs land to be scarce and expensive, because that’s the only way to justify its vision of high-density housing projects and light rail transit. Inevitably, this will be self-defeating; higher home prices will push more and more people out of Portland, where they will become even more auto-dependent.

In addition to its control of the regional land supply, Metro also imposes a tax of 0.12 percent on all new housing construction, with the exception of projects where the value of land improvements is less than $100,000. The tax revenues are used to pay for planning required on lands that might be used for housing in the future. The City of Portland also imposes its own tax for a similar purpose, at a much higher rate. It should be obvious that taxing new construction makes the housing problem worse.

The only way to significantly reduce the price of all homes in the region—both current units and new ones—is to make it easier to increase the supply. The best thing Metro could do would be to systematically inventory every artificial barrier to housing production, such as zoning ordinances, planning requirements, building codes, system development charges, and hidden taxes—and figure out a way to reduce or eliminate them.

In other sectors of the economy where supply is unregulated, the market does a wonderful job of providing us with the products we want at reasonable prices. The same thing will happen in housing, if we allow it.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on July 3, 2018.

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Is Metro’s Affordable Housing Plan Really That Affordable?

By Rachel Dawson

The Metro City Council voted June 7 to place a housing bond measure of more than $600 million dollars on the ballot this fall. The regional government estimates the cost of new projects will be around $253,000 per unit. There is no cap on cost per unit, so project costs could be much greater, and have proven to be with past bonds.

However, it is possible to decrease the costs of these projects. Rob Justus, with Home First Development, has built a total of 431 public units for an average cost of $90,000 since 2011. He offered to build the city 1,000 homes at $85,000 per unit in 2015, but Portland officials rejected his proposal.

The city could build cheaper apartments by using less expensive materials and contracting with private developers to decrease labor costs. Placing a cap on how much is spent per unit would ensure that the city held itself accountable on project costs. Doing so would decrease the size of the bond and the burden it places on taxpayers.

There is a way to make housing affordable to both taxpayers and renters, and following the lead of private developers like Rob Justus is a way Portland can do just that.

Rachel Dawson is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Portland Worries About Homelessness, While Metro Makes Housing Less Affordable

The Portland City Council has decided to allocate $20 million to solve a perceived crisis with “homelessness” and another $67 million to subsidize “affordable housing.”

As usual with Portland spending, these numbers were pulled out of thin air; they have no connection to an actual strategy. If the Council had done some thinking, it might have realized that Portland’s housing crisis is the result of many factors, including ongoing government policies that are making things worse.

First and foremost is excessive government regulation. Any private investor trying to build more housing faces a gauntlet of barriers, including planning requirements, inspections, density mandates, parking restrictions, environmental overlays, and punitive fees. Many of these interventions serve no purpose other than to ensure that top-down mandates of planners replace market preferences. All of them impose delays and add costs to construction.

To make matters worse, Metro is recommending that no new land be added to the regional Urban Growth Boundary. When this recommendation is finalized next month, it will ensure that the already-high price of buildable land continues to increase.

Government is not the sole cause of the housing crisis; poor decision-making also causes many individuals to become homeless. But deliberately creating a shortage of buildable land through government regulation guarantees that the affordable housing crisis will get worse.

 

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A Prescription for Affordable Housing in Portland

A new issue faces Portland. City Hall is considering waiving development fees for developers of market-rate housing in the Old Town Chinatown district. Chinatown is Portland’s oldest neighborhood and has earned an unpleasant reputation. City Hall claims that waiving these fees, which cover a project’s impact on urban infrastructure, can stimulate building in Chinatown. In the past, only developers of so-called “affordable housing” have been granted this waiver.

Critics argue that this is an expensive subsidy for big businesses which aren’t providing affordable housing. However, they assume that market-rate rent is permanent, no matter how much housing is built. This may not be true. As the supply of market-rate apartments increases in Chinatown, the market rate can be expected to decrease. Essentially, housing is made affordable by supplying more of it.

Waiving fees deprives certain city bureaus of funds; but perhaps these funds could be better spent, in this case, by private developers. If the City wishes to revitalize Chinatown, it needs to encourage more people to live there, and the best encouragement is lower rent. This can be accomplished by decreasing development fees and encouraging construction. More housing and lower rents could be good for Portland.

Everet Rummel is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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