Blowing Past a Deadline, Portland’s Housing Bond is Beset by Delays and Doubts

Mayor Ted Wheeler defends the process. But two former housing commissioners are frustrated.

(Fonzy Nils)

Ted Wheeler entered the Portland mayor's office saying housing was his priority.

It sure doesn't look that way.

The mayor has blown past a deadline his own office set for starting to spend a $258 million bond approved by voters last November to build and rehab affordable housing units.

Funds have been available since July 1. But a growing number of critics are complaining Mayor Wheeler is taking too long to buy land and address the city's shortage of affordable housing.

Wheeler won't greenlight the first project until October, at the earliest. That puts City Hall at least three months behind its own schedule—Wheeler's office had promised to be ready to start the purchases by July 1.

The city's two previous housing commissioners are frustrated by the sluggish pace.

City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversaw the bureau until Wheeler took over in January, says he's baffled by the lack of progress.

"You got me," Saltzman says. "I have no idea. It's frustrating to me. We're in an affordable housing crisis. I think it should be on a much more accelerated scale, as befits having a housing crisis."

His predecessor supervising the bureau, Commissioner Nick Fish, is also frustrated, but says Wheeler deserves some slack after a tumultuous first six months in a city beset by protests and violence.

"In putting out fires all over the place, this thing just slipped a little bit," says Fish, but he remains "eager to get money out the door. We have this bad habit of reinventing the wheel every time."

Related: Wheeler entered office saying housing was a priority—but not a rent freeze.

Saltzman's and Fish's mild criticisms are the strongest public rebuke yet from City Hall about Wheeler's leadership.

They echo harsher grumblings behind closed doors.

Three sources familiar with the project selection spoke to WW on condition of anonymity. They say it has been waylaid by Portland's obsession with public process, fumbling by the Housing Bureau and inattention from the mayor.

A community advisory group that the mayor formed to recommend how to select projects ballooned to 20 members and was given little direction. Meetings started only in April, and dove into questions that were supposed to have been answered during the bond campaign, including how many units to build.

Wheeler has yet to attend a meeting.

As he sometimes does when pushed, Wheeler challenged the premise of the question when asked about Saltzman's remarks calling for "accelerated" work.

"Accelerated what?" he said. "We're almost into August. The advisory committee is winding down the last of their meetings."

The mayor's spokesman, Michael Cox, says the delays are ultimately insignificant, and the Housing Bureau is moving forward with non-bond purchases. "If you're asking if we have missed deals in the meantime," Cox says, "the answer is no."

The stakes are high for the city to make a dent in the shortage of publicly subsidized housing. In the state legislative session that ended this month, Salem failed to move on key housing initiatives, including new tenant protections.

Related: The Oregon Legislature pledged serious housing reforms. How lawmakers fell flat.

"Portland is going to have to step up regardless of what the rest of the state is doing," says Israel Bayer, executive director of the homeless newspaper Street Roots. "We have an opportunity to do that."

The bulk of that burden for Portland rests on the housing bond. During the campaign, proponents said the $258 million would fund the construction or purchase of 1,300 units—a number many developers thought was too low.

Wheeler oversees the Housing Bureau personally—a sign of how central the issue was to his mayoral campaign and is to the city as a whole. But he has shifted his priorities elsewhere.

Alma Flores, Wheeler's senior policy staffer responsible for housing, lasted less than three months in the job. (She told WW it was a family decision to return to her old job at the city of Milwaukie.)

When she left in March, housing policy fell to lower-level staffers. That meant those closest to the mayor weren't the ones fully briefed on housing.

"It was probably a pinch point along the way," acknowledges Wheeler. "It was disingenuous to say that losing our top housing person didn't slow it down, but by the same token I think we've responded very well."

In March, WW inquired about similar delays. Affordable housing developer Rob Justus was greeted with a monthlong silence when he asked to meet with the mayor's office about a proposal to build units for the housing bond at nearly half what the city had paid in the past. Justus reports having "positive" meetings with Portland Housing Bureau leaders since that story.

Related: A developer pitches 300 affordable apartments to the mayor—and waits for a reply.

In a brief phone interview with WW on July 17 from New York, the mayor appeared unfamiliar with the basic details of the delays.

"October doesn't seem like an unrealistic time frame for me personally," Wheeler said, but added that the city could speed up its process. "That doesn't mean we couldn't start laying out potential opportunities."

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