Portland Commits to Poor

With public housing authorities (PHAs) facing the tightest federal budget squeeze in decades, much of public housing industry groups’ testimony before Congress over the past two years has been to the effect that PHAs, while desirous of full funding, could survive with greatly reduced funding if Congress would give them the flexibility to house higher income residents, especially those with incomes over 50 percent of the median, because this would produce the additional rental revenues needed to make up for the shortfall in federal operating and capital subsidies.

The PHAs’ main emphasis has been on preserving PHAs as organizations and on preserving “their” buildings, even though the program would no longer serve the very poor. In this view, public housing is primarily considered a real estate asset whose “performance” is to be maximized, not a social program.

Some members of Congress leapt at the opportunity to take PHAs at their word; it would cost nothing to give PHAs more flexibility and cut the strings of Washington DC control. The losers of this game, however, would be the very low-income people who need housing assistance the most. Is that what the American people and its communities want? At least one community, Portland, Oregon, now seems to be saying no.

The Housing Authority of Portland (HAP) on June 26, 1997 released a report, Facing the Challenges for More Affordable Housing. This report is the result of a dialogue with a wide variety of community leaders and representatives of housing interests in Multnomah County over the past year. The purpose was to learn how HAP could become a more community-based agency as federal housing programs are deregulated and as reductions in federal funding make affordable housing an increasingly local issue.

In spite of the severe federal budget crunch, the conclusions of the report, over the signatures of Howard Shapiro, Chair, HAP Board of Commissioners, and Dennis West, Executive Director, are “that we must: 1) maintain our commitment to those most in need of housing in the community: families with income that’s 30 percent or less of the area’s median income; and 2) participate more aggressively as a leader, partner and developer in tackling the community’s broader affordable housing agenda.”

It appears that in spite of the federal funding cuts, the broader community in Portland and Multnomah County still wants HAP to give highest priority to housing the poorest of the poor. At the same time, HAP will try to provide housing in a greater variety of ways, including reaching out and working with a broader array of organizations in the community, seeking to use a wider range of tools and options, and seeking to develop more affordable housing for somewhat higher income families so that the revenues generated by this housing can be used to assist more of the very poorest households.

This provides a coherent set of purposes for the Housing Authority. Instead of using federal funds appropriated under the public housing program to subsidize higher income families (as could very well happen, for example, under the HOPE VI program), the goal here would be to develop decent affordable housing that would provide revenues to help subsidize very low income families. The housing authority’s role, mission, and strategies would be expanded somewhat, but the priority would continue to be placed upon housing the poorest of the poor.

For copies of the Portland report, contact Joleen Colombo, Public Affairs Coordinator, HAP, 503-273-4521.

Wayne Sherwood, president of Sherwood Research Associates in Takoma Park, Maryland, is a consultant on public housing issues and from 1981 to 1995 was the research director at the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. Phone/fax: 301-608-2589; email: WayneSherwood@compuserve.com.


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