No magic wand

Years in the making, the affordable-housing crisis can’t be solved by developers alone.

Housing is the political issue du jour in Oregon. Essentially ignored for at least a decade, it’s now bubbled to the top of state priorities, right up there with fixing public schools and creating jobs in rural Oregon.

“Three years ago, it was jobs, jobs, jobs. Now it’s affordable housing, affordable housing, affordable housing,” says Tom Kemper, executive director of Housing Works, the housing authority for Central Oregon. “Bend is one of the worst markets, but it’s a crisis across the state.”

Housing experts say the state needs to ramp up the current pace of affordable dwelling construction simply to avoid losing ground. The question is: Who is going to build the thousands of new units cities are clamoring for? The state’s housing development community is more than willing to do so — under the right conditions. But without some basic changes to the state’s zoning laws, and new incentives that could shift the affordable-housing movement into high gear, most developers say they can’t include too many affordable units in their plans.

And even with such concessions and policy changes, it could be years before the state makes a dent in the gap between those who need an affordable home and the number available to them. “This is a very complicated problem,” says James Winkler, president of Winkler Development Corp. “You can’t just wave a magic wand and make it go away. We need to create thousands of affordable units at the base level, and support the people who live there with social services and educational opportunities. Very few understand how much certain policies that most of us support are responsible for the problem.”

Myriad factors have played a role in creating the huge gap between Oregonians who need affordable housing and the number of units available to them. In a recent speech, Tina Kotek, speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, enumerated the convergence of factors that led to the crisis.

“A perfect storm put us here: Not enough new housing supply was built during the recession, and demand is up because of population growth and an influx of new residents,” she told the audience at the Oregon Leadership Summit in Portland in December. “It’s not as easy to buy a home now, either because of tighter lending requirements or too many people’s credit histories were ruined in the recession. So more people continue to rent — all of which is inhibiting mobility in the market. And then we have very low vacancy rates and wage stagnation. What is being built isn’t affordable workforce housing. This perfect storm has swept across the state — from Portland to Bend to Boardman.”

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