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Minor tensions aside, City and County officials collaborate on housing plan

Vince Winkel

The city and county are working together on two major joint projects after years of financial contention. At an ad-hoc meeting on housing Wednesday, elected officials worked together to set priorities to solve the problem of affordability.

Officials on the ad-hoc committee spent an hour discussing what kinds of projects the city and county might fund, and how they’d fund it. Commissioner Deb Hays suggested buying a portfolio of hundreds of homes to rehabilitate and sell or rent to low-income families — a program similar to what the housing authority is already doing.

“I mean, 20, and 30 is great. Please don't get me wrong. That's wonderful," Hays said. "But the need is hundreds. Yeah. And we can preserve that, but in order to do that, we need money."

Funding was a major concern at the meeting. There were some awkward moments between the two government bodies, particularly when city officials like Councilor Clifford Barnett asked the county to kick in funds.

“Or or could I add to that, instead of a bond, would the county be willing to just upfront the money?” Barnett suggested.

$12 million dollars?” Hays responded incredulously.

“Easily, easily, we can get it from Rob,” Barnett joked.

Despite that tension, the group of officials determined that a housing bond may work best. The bond could also fund new construction of affordable housing, first-time homebuyer assistance, and gap funding for non-profit housing projects.

Barnett said he’s concerned voters won’t go for a bond, but staff said certain projects would be difficult without voter approval.

“ I guess the bottom line is you got to have the money. It’s the only way we're going to dig our way out,” he said.

Councilor Kevin O’Grady agreed that voter buy-in could be a challenge.

“You’ve got to sell it. And you’ve got to go out and be able to show them the posters of, this is where the swimming pool is going to be. Or this is where the homes are going to be. And who are the people we're going to help? And if you can't do that, people aren’t gonna go for it,” he said.

County staff told the officials that housing bond projects could work together to set low-income residents up for success. One example: a financial literacy program set up to get a resident into a good position to buy a home. Such a program might take several years, during which bond funds could be used to construct homes to make sure housing stock exists when the buyer is ready.

Several officials said the bond might not go far enough, particularly if the programs it creates need funding in perpetuity.

Councilor Charlie Rivenbark said, “as good job as we're doing the city, we're not even scratching the surface of the needs out there.”

The group also discussed an affordable housing tax credit, as well as zoning changes to incentivize more density, particularly near transportation corridors.

Despite a few awkward moments, the county and city representatives had a constructive conversation and generally agreed on most things.

The ad-hoc committee plans to have another meeting on May 19 before bringing their findings to the next joint meeting in early June.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.