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The city’s downtown housing crisis, with the exception of one block in the West End, has gone largely unchanged since the 1950s.
To help solve that crisis, city leaders spent $1.7 billion on affordable units between 2008 and 2015. The result: a record 7,812 affordable housing units were built or renovated.
And yet the city’s downtown has remained a ghost town.
When developers buy up single-family homes, the buildings collapse, creating blight and driving out low-income residents. And that blight can spread to older homes and small businesses, as well as businesses at the core of the downtown core.
In this image from 2015, the West End, including its vacant lots, is illuminated by a sunset from a hotel rooftop at 13th and Columbus Ave. (Courtesy of a Portlander)
One thing that has not changed is the problem’s basic geography.
The single-family houses and other properties sit on a single block. The same goes for stores — whether groceries, pharmacies and bars — which remain clustered downtown.
“These properties all are right in this middle, which is where we see the greatest problem,” said David Hockenberry, a Portland attorney who’s been fighting for years to try to put more affordable units on the city’s core in part so they could get more business and attract more people.
What that means for a block is that the city’s zoning code effectively protects the few downtown properties that attract businesses, while relegating others to a state of constant state of limbo, said Kevin Hester, deputy director of the Portland Development Commission.
Hester said that he hopes Mayor Charlie Hales, his administration and the city Council will work with him on a “community-friendly” plan for the downtown core this year to preserve or restore some of the more valuable residential properties.
The city’s zoning code provides some flexibility for affordable housing, making it possible for developers to put up buildings at lower rates and build housing in other areas, including neighborhoods like the Eastmoreland district. But with about
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