The Fight for Low-Income Housing Has a New Complication: City Commissioner Amanda Fritz’s Push for Expensive Water Meters

The Portland City Council passed the aggressive new housing policy Aug. 12 by a 3-1 vote. Its goal: to increase density and add affordable housing.

Advocates worry that the city of Portland's residential infill project, passed just a month ago after five years of intense debate, may already be in trouble.

The Portland City Council passed the aggressive new housing policy Aug. 12 by a 3-1 vote. Its goal: to increase density and add affordable housing to many Portland neighborhoods that contain mostly single-family homes.

The policy rezoned such lots to promote development of accessory dwelling units and multiplexes—up to six units of housing—on lots where previously only a single home could be built.

Officials expect it will generate 24,000 new housing units over the next 20 years.

But now, groups that worked in support of the policy say Commissioner Amanda Fritz, the only "no" vote on RIP, could undermine it.

Fritz's opposition to RIP has led advocates to question whether a proposal she's advanced to require an expensive water meter on each new dwelling—so four meters on a fourplex—is an indirect way to undercut the new policy.

"Amanda Fritz has been vehemently opposed to RIP for five years," says Ezra Hammer, a lobbyist for the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland. "Now she's using the political power she has to make it less feasible for the development of middle housing and ADUs."

Fritz denies she's trying to submarine RIP. "Win or lose, you make the best of things," she says. "If [RIP]'s about affordable housing, let's make sure it continues to be affordable."

The conflict highlights a characteristic of Portland's unique form of city government, in which city commissioners both formulate and approve policy as quasi-legislators but then implement that policy in their roles overseeing city bureaus. In this case, Hammer says, Fritz is using the Portland Water Bureau, which she commands, to block RIP.

It's not just the homebuilders who are alarmed: Housing nonprofits, including Habitat for Humanity and Proud Ground and the land-use group 1000 Friends of Oregon, have all raised similar objections with the city in recent weeks.


Fritz is a longtime ally of neighborhood associations, many of which fear RIP will bring demolitions and rapid-fire growth. After voting no, she reiterated her long-standing objection that RIP would hasten gentrification and increase Portlanders' dependence on automobiles.

"Putting new homes where they never will have transit, never have sidewalks, never be close to jobs and services will mean we won't be able to meet the climate emergency goals we all voted for a few weeks ago," she told the council Aug. 12. (Environmentalists have scoffed publicly at that idea and generally embrace RIP.)

After the vote, Fritz proposed an initiative for the Water Bureau, which is in the process of updating its code.

Fritz's idea: Any new housing unit, from an ADU (one meter) to an eightplex (eight meters), should have its own water meter.

Critics say that's unnecessary and expensive: about $8,000 per meter. (Fritz agrees with that cost estimate.)

Fritz says her goal is to save low-income ratepayers money. Rezoning the city to create more housing isn't enough, she says. The city should also ensure residents can actually pay their bills.

Currently, the Water Bureau, which has some of the highest rates in the country, offers discounts depending on income. (Households that earn 60% or less of median family income can receive a refund of nearly $750 a year for combined water and sewer bills.)

Groups such as Self Enhancement Inc., Latino Network and the Native American Youth and Family Center that work with low-income renters have complained to the Water Bureau that without individual meters, renters cannot qualify for the discounts.

"The idea is to make sure new housing is affordable ongoing and not just to build," Fritz says.

Her second argument: If residents don't have meters, they have no way to monitor their water usage, which could lead to excessive consumption.

"As the world gets hotter and hotter, saving water is increasingly important," Fritz says.

Supporters of RIP say there are better ways to grant subsidies that won't add to the cost of development in a city where housing is already too expensive.

"Sadly, this proposal is a terrible step in the wrong direction," says Diane Linn, executive director of Proud Ground, which helps low-income Portlanders purchase homes. "We implore you to find an effective solution to provide needed discounts without driving the cost of development higher and discouraging homeownership in the process."

David Sweet, land use and transportation chair for the Cully Association of Neighbors, says Fritz's goals can be accomplished in other ways without jacking up the cost of housing. (Notably, individual meters are not required for apartment buildings larger than eight units.)

He says it's irrational to require a developer to spend $8,000 a unit so a tenant can qualify for discounts of $750. "The exact same thing could be accomplished by sending the eligible family a cash rebate," Sweet adds.

As for Fritz's point about conservation, Sweet notes that many landlords already use submeters to measure tenants' consumption. Those cost about $200, a tiny fraction of city meters.

Steve Messinetti, director of Habitat for Humanity Portland/Metro East, which helps low-income families buy homes, says the policy would punish families on the margin of being able to afford a new home.

"We see this over and over: Governments create policies that have implications on people of color and create barriers to homeownership," Messinetti says. "The consequences may be unintended, but we really need to be careful."

In a  letter to the Water Bureau, Hammer the homebuilders' lobbyist says Fritz's proposal "flagrantly violates state law and discourages the development of much-needed middle housing." (He's referring to House Bill 2001, which prohibits local jurisdictions from passing rules that would place "unreasonable costs or delay" in the path of affordable housing.)

Fritz acknowledges there's a lot of pushback to her idea. She says she's open to other means to accomplish her goals, including the city subsidizing meters or using less expensive new technology to track consumption.

Those and other ideas are likely to get an airing at a council work session on the meter issue planned for Oct. 27. "I'm not wedded to doing this," Fritz says. "It's an important conversation that we ought to have."