One-on-One with BRIDGE on Affordable Housing in Portland

Kurt Creager, executive vice president of BRIDGE Housing, on the challenges and rewards of owning and developing affordable housing in Portland.

Kurt Creager, Executive Vice President, BRIDGE Housing. Image courtesy of BRIDGE Housing

Kurt Creager, Executive Vice President, BRIDGE Housing. Image courtesy of BRIDGE Housing

With more than 30 years of experience in community development and finance in both the public and private sectors, Kurt Creager currently serves as executive vice president at BRIDGE Housing. Creager has a firm grip on the Portland, Ore., multifamily market—prior to joining the company, he served as a director of the Portland Housing Bureau, where he managed a $215 million annual budget and a pipeline of 3,000 affordable dwellings and roughly 14,000 rent-regulated apartments. 

What are the reasons behind BRIDGE’s focus on building affordable communities when most developers are targeting high-income residents? And what is the most challenging part of developing affordable housing? Creager elaborates in the interview below.

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What led you to build affordable housing projects when most developers are building upscale units?

Creager: Affordable housing is a niche market that fulfills our mission of service to the community and allows us to create durable partnerships throughout our core markets. From our inception in San Francisco, BRIDGE Housing has partnered with local and state governments to use public land and public finance to produce permanently affordable housing. Initially, BRIDGE undertook projects on surplus public land and was well-positioned to expand when the Low-Income Housing Program was created nationally in 1986.

As Bay Area Rapid Transit was a durable community partner, BRIDGE became the largest transit-oriented development project sponsor on the West Coast and has since expanded into Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle and Portland. TOD connects people to opportunity, and we partner with several market-rate developers and transit agencies to create sustainable and resilient mixed-income communities. 

What’s most challenging about developing affordable housing properties? 

Creager: Managing complexity is the biggest challenge we face in the affordable housing industry. Many of our projects have six to 12 funding sources, each with different expectations and requirements. Some studies have attributed the multitude of funding sources to increasing costs up to 20 percent compared to simpler private financing. We also operate in an inherently political world that requires achieving consensus. Affordable housing is a niche market that fulfills our mission of service to the community and allows us to create durable partnerships—if not outright consent—throughout our core markets, often in a transparent public process that addresses land use approvals, land conveyance and budget appropriations. That can be challenging, as elected officials may change throughout the course of developing a complex project.

How can Portland’s affordable housing stock be expanded? Are there any local laws that encourage developers to build more housing for low-income residents?

Creager: In Portland, the unmet need is about 26,000 households under 60 percent of the area median income. Regionally, it’s a much bigger number—about 48,000 in the three-county metropolitan area. On Aug.13, 2020, the Portland City Council approved the Residential Infill Program, which is a step in the right direction. RIP allows up to four—and in some cases six—residential units on single-family lots, which encourages more urban infill in established urban areas. The RIP reverses 96 years of exclusive single-family zoning in 70 percent of the land area of the city of Portland by opening up manifold opportunities for investment and development.

Accessory Dwelling Units are permitted outright and some jurisdictions, notably Portland, provide tax incentives to encourage ADUs to further expand the housing supply and better utilize urban land for housing. By waiving impact fees and construction excise taxes for ADUs, Portland has increased the number of ADUs citywide, encouraging better land utilization and compact urban form. Some jurisdictions, notably Portland, do not require parking in high-capacity transit areas. Most of the national best practices in affordable housing policy and practice are presently being deployed in Portland.

However, the downdraft in the regional economy inspired the Portland Business Alliance’s Land Use and Housing Committee to proffer a 14-point regulatory reform agenda to help spur development. PBA has advocated that the city of Portland conduct a review of the effectiveness of financial and nonfinancial offsets under the City of Portland’s Inclusionary Housing Program, which went into effect in February 2017.

READ ALSO: 4 Things Affordable Housing Owners Can Do Now

BRIDGE recently opened The Vera, a 203-unit fully affordable community with a focus on sustainable features. Please tell us about these features and why they make the project stand out. 

Creager: The Vera Riverplace is named for a visionary and dynamic former mayor of Portland, the late Vera Katz. Most notably, The Vera is entirely affordable to a spectrum of incomes with 90 units reserved for households between 0 percent and 30 percent of AMI. The remaining rents are tiered up to 60 percent of AMI, all people typically priced out of Portland’s Central City. The building is situated within the South Waterfront, an eco-district that includes Oregon Health & Science University. Properties within the eco-district recycle domestic greywater and stormwater managed in a certified salmon-friendly manner to ensure low impact development. The 13-story building, designed by Ankrom Moisan Architects and built by Hoffman Construction, is at the nexus of regional light rail, the Portland Streetcar and a dedicated bicycle route to downtown Portland and the nearby suburbs.

Location efficiency is very high, and The Vera scores well for access to opportunity due to its proximity to Oregon jobs and services. The building earned LEED Gold certification; residents enjoy energy savings—projected to be 18 percent less than Portland’s minimum energy code requirements—by using LED lighting, Energy Star appliances and low-E windows. A full 88 percent of the construction debris was recycled and the concrete formwork has a high recycled aggregate content. Wood doors were locally sourced. Thermal comfort and sealing the building was a high priority to ensure minimal infiltration and a quiet, restful environment.

What makes Portland a good metro for multifamily investment?

Creager: Portland has several appealing qualities for multifamily investors. First, its geographic proximity to the higher cost markets of San Francisco and Seattle make it a comparative bargain across all asset classes. Portland is serving as a lower-cost alternative for advanced technology enterprises that want to be close to Silicon Valley and Seattle, but whose employees find it difficult to afford housing in closed-in desirable locations.

The Portland metro area is also well connected by a mature system of high capacity transit, enabling a high degree of regional mobility. It is possible to live in Portland without a private automobile. Oregon Land Use Law provides a degree of certainty as projects consistent with the general plan are entitled for development. Compared to California and Washington, the process of securing land use entitlements for new development is more certain and less costly, as long as the site is within an urban service area.

How has the pandemic affected Portland’s multifamily sector overall? What about the company’s projects?

Creager: The City of Portland has extended the expiration date of land use approvals that were at risk of elapsing due to the slowdown caused by the city’s COVID-19 permit review and inspection protocols. Affordable housing was designated an essential business and given priority permit processing. However, other important private developments were subsequently delayed, and the city council wanted to mitigate the harm experienced by developers—due to the pandemic—and to help keep the economy moving forward.

BRIDGE has ten new construction projects and two occupied rehab projects underway. We’ve seen some schedule slippage due to the social distancing requirements on the job site and the difficulty of managing relocation during the shelter-in-place orders. We’ve experienced some supply chain interruptions, but no projects have slipped more than a few weeks. City staffing levels have been impaired by reductions in revenue from taxes and fees.

Looking ahead, what are your expectations for the Portland multifamily market? 

Creager: Local and regional voters have approved more than $1 billion in public funding for affordable housing and services for people and households experiencing homelessness. These measures provide ample capital funding for projects for the next three to five years. If the voters are satisfied with the return on investment, these funding sources may be continued further, helping to serve the unmet need. This is a renaissance period for affordable housing in Portland that challenges us to move the needle on cost-effective solutions to the need for affordable housing. 

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