As Oregon pushes to expand affordable housing, low-income units slip away

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — Three decades ago, the federal government launched a program that incentivized property owners to provide affordable housing for people with lower incomes. Now, all these years later, some owners have an opportunity to bow out of the program, and many are taking advantage of it.

For low-income renters in the Portland metro area, it’s a terrifying prospect — one that carries the very real risk of leaving them homeless when housing prices and homelessness are already an intractable problem.

The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit is supported by the federal government and operated by the state. It first launched in 1986, becoming permanent in 1993.

With the credit, property owners get a tax break that lasts between 10 and 60 years, depending on the project. In exchange, they reserve some of their units for low-income renters.

The program was wildly popular across the U.S., growing to include more than 50,000 projects nationwide containing 3.4 million units, either apartments or houses.

But the deal has always included a built-in countdown. Once the time is up, owners are allowed to raise the rates for those low-income units up to the market rate.

That’s precisely what has happened to some apartment complexes in Oregon. The Woodspring Apartments in Tigard, which KGW reporter Blair Best covered last week, are one example. They had a 30-year deal that started in 1991.

Federal regulations require owners to let low-income residents stay in their homes for three years after the deal expires — a grace period, more or less. For the senior tenants at the Woodspring Apartments, that time runs out at the end of this year. Past that point, the owners will be hiking the prices up to market rate.

The price hike will impact about 70 units at Woodspring. Lois Keck, now 80 years old, has lived in one of those units for 20 years.

“I feel like I want to cry. Because if they can’t or wont — I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Keck told KGW. “It’s just not right. When you have something seniors can afford, but you take that away from them … but you say we’re going to build all this new development for (the) homeless — why in the world are they sending us out on the street when they can, for a fraction of the money, keep us housed instead of having to start all over again?”

Keck said that she currently pays about $1,200 a month for her one-bedroom apartment. The market rate will be closer to $1,800, which she cannot afford.

Shelly Perez is another renter. She and her husband waited a year and a half to get into a low-income unit at Woodspring. She had no idea that it was all going to change so soon.

“We have fallen in love with our neighbors,” Perez said. “And they’re not neighbors, they’re our friends now. And we don’t want to have to go anywhere. We want to stay there. But you can’t when you can’t afford it.”

Oregon Housing and Community Services estimates that the low-income requirements for about 4,400 units will expire within the next 8 years.

The Oregon legislature set aside $500,000 last year to help in situations like this. The state housing authority is taking about half of that money for administration and staff time. The remaining money goes toward one-time payments of $3,000 to low-income renters in danger of being priced out, like the seniors at Woodspring, either helping them to move out or pay the increased rent.

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