Jennifer Hudson, then-24, was nearly six months pregnant when she finally managed to rent a one-bedroom apartment to share with her boyfriend in 2013. They'd been stranded in motel rooms and at the Oxford Street Shelter for a year while searching for a permanent apartment.

Under a new policy being proposed in Portland, housing developers who benefit from financial help through the city would need to set aside a portion of the units in their projects for people living in local shelters.

Under the proposal, developers who use certain tax increment financing, city-administered Community Development Block Grants or federal Housing and Urban Development funds would be required to reserve 10 percent of the units in new projects for shelter users. The city would continue to provide case management services for those individuals, including help identifying programs and resources available to help them pay monthly rent.

The developers would be allowed to rent those units out to other tenants if the city doesn’t offer any shelter referrals within 30 days of the apartments opening up, according to the proposed policy language.

“If you’re receiving a financial resource from the city to create housing, as part of that agreement for receiving that money, we’re proposing you set aside a certain percentage of units to partner with the city and provide housing for people staying in the shelters,” Mary Davis, director of the city’s Housing and Community Development division, told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday. “It’s one step we’re trying to take to relieve the housing issue, especially the people in our community who are the most vulnerable.”

Davis said “two or three” projects each year would be affected by the policy, given recent development trends, but each project could create four or five units for the homeless.

Davis first outlined the proposal in a memo delivered to the City Council’s housing committee late last week. Davis said city staff will brief the committee, chaired by longtime City Councilor Jill Duson, Wednesday and seek a vote by the panel at its April 27 meeting.

The policy proposal comes as the city grapples with a well-publicized housing crisis. Residential vacancy rates are reportedly between zero and two percent, and demand has pushed rents up more than $500 per month beyond what average city tenants can afford to pay.

The situation has added a layer of difficulty for city case managers seeking to find permanent accommodations for shelter users, in what has been a concerted effort in recent years to move relieve overpopulation in local shelters and put more at-risk Portlanders in stable housing.

More than 200 people seek to stay at the city-owned Oxford Street Shelter each night, which has a capacity of 154, according to the city’s most recent figures. Those who don’t fit at the Oxford Street facility, which is designated for single adults, are typically given thin mats to sleep on at the floor of Preble Street’s nearby community center or chairs in the lobby of the city’s general assistance office.

Those numbers don’t include people staying in accommodations for homeless families or teens, nor those in overnight mental health or substance abuse programs in the city. Including those numbers brings the overall per-night shelter population in Portland up to an average of 433.

In January, the most recent month for which city data is posted, city case managers and other local service providers were able to find permanent housing for 71 of those individuals, a number that includes 10 families representing 43 of those people.

“That’s at least 10 families that have an opportunity to move from the shelter into stable, permanent housing,” she said. “Financially, our resources are limited, so we have to be creative in what our solutions are.”

The measure is being recommended less than six months after the City Council approved what’s known as an inclusionary zoning ordinance, requiring housing developers — even those who aren’t accepting city money — building projects with more than 10 units to make at least 10 percent of those units qualify as “affordable housing.”

What do you think of this idea? Let us know in the comments.


Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.