New housing bureau director on growth in Portland

Northwest native Kurt Creager talked to KGW about how much housing prices will rise, what he's doing to make rents more affordable, and why the parking situation will only get worse

As Portland experiences rapid growth, city leaders have to figure out how to add enough housing for all of its new residents while protecting neighborhood livability. The brunt of that job now rests on the shoulders of the new housing bureau director Kurt Creager.

A Northwest native, Creager took the top job at the Portland Housing Bureau in August, moving back to the Northwest after leading the housing authority in Fairfax County, Va. He previously ran the Vancouver, Wash. housing authority, was chief of housing and economic development in King County, and has held numerous leadership positions at universities, nonprofits and planning firms.

KGW met up with Creager at a the Abigail Apartments, a new mixed-income building going up in the Pearl, thanks in part to a $12.6 million investment from the city. It will include mostly affordable housing units along with market-rate apartments, and is a model Creager wants to see replicated across Portland.

Creager is paid just over $160,000 to manage a budget of around $94 million for the housing bureau. He talked about his plans to add more than 120,000 homes in the city, making rents more affordable, where the next hot neighborhoods will be, and why we should expect parking to get worse.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Housing prices in Portland have skyrocketed. Do you think we'll see prices fall?

I think you might see a series of notchy stair steps. Values are likely not to fall because banks are underwriting these projects and requiring developers to put their own money into these projects, unlike before the bubble where people were getting 100 percent financing. I do think there will be a leveling off. I think that's inevitable. I wouldn't wait and expect prices to fall significantly, however.

What are the next up-and-coming neighborhoods?

We do have a moment of time when land is still affordable in certain key locations. The transit corridors such as the Sandy Boulevard corridor, the Division-Powell corridor, and the Barbur Boulevard corridor leading all the way out to Tigard, would all be affordable opportunities in areas that are reasonably accessible. In the future, as transit improves in those areas, the values will just go up.

Are there plans to tackle Portland's parking issues as the city grows?

Portland is actually fairly liberal when it comes to parking standards. They require less [parking spaces per unit] than most other cities.

In the central city, it's really none at all. Whatever you think you need to build, you can build. But market-rate developers are finding they need to provide a decent supply of parking in order to attract market-rate tenants because they have sometimes more than one car.

I think there's a creative tension between what you can afford to pay for that parking, especially in a multi-story setting. Where you put the parking may not be actually under the same building. It might be half a block away.

Some residents are complaining that they are having more and more difficulty parking near their homes. Will it get worse?

A lot of people have a lot of cars. The successful neighborhoods, like Northwest 23rd Avenue, draw people from Beaverton, they draw people from Lake Oswego. And success may actually involve driving six blocks to find a parking space.

People need to recognize their car may not always be 20 feet from their front door. That's the price of living in an urban area. If they want their car to be that close, they probably need to be living in a neighborhood that has that capability.

Neighborhoods should be for people, not for cars. That might mean people have more shared cars. I take transit to work [from Ridgefield, Wash.]. It takes me half an hour on an express bus. I don't drive to work. That's just the reality of living in a city.

Are there any ways Portland could add parking options?

There can be some parking utilities and some ways to offset the cost of parking by providing community parking spaces. This would be publicly financed parking as a utility, not unlike the Smart Park, but Smart Park exists here only in the downtown core. You could have a hybrid approach to Smart Park at a neighborhood level that provides more distributed neighborhood parking as a city service.

Do you see Portland becoming unaffordable for residents in the future?

I think for a lot of the citizens it already is, especially in the transit-rich locations. We're seeing a lot of volatility in North and Northeast Portland because of the Interstate line. We're seeing quite a bit of speculation in the South and Southeast corridor all the way down to Milwaukie because of the new transit access. Public amenities create public value and property values increase as a result.

Portland is a very popular place to live. There are a lot of folks in-migrating from other areas. If they are from Seattle or San Francisco, these prices don't look that high to them. But if you are a lifelong resident of Portland with a moderately well-paying job, these prices look relatively steep. Moreover, the year-over-year increases of $100, $300, $500 a month [in rent] can be quite stunning for people and quite difficult to cover the rent.

How do you plan to tackle that problem for middle-income residents?

I need to be providing housing alternatives and housing choices for folks in a variety of incomes. We are coming forward to the city council with a series of recommendations – new policies, new funding streams in order to achieve that goal. As we need a full spectrum of choices, we also need a full spectrum of tools. Portland doesn't have very many tools. It has tax increment financing, we also have property tax abatement, but the city is proposing to add downtown incentives under zoning to provide developers greater incentives to develop affordable housing.

Cash that we have needs to be directed to people with low incomes. Building incentives can be directed to people with moderate incomes.

Will Portland see middle-class families leave?

I think it's already happening. Families with children are already finding it necessary to move both south and east. That means they're making a decision to incur higher transportation costs at the expense of lower housing prices.

It's a trade-off that every household has to make. Housing that looks cheap on the edge of town may actually cost you more than something close in once you add up your total cost.

What about affordable housing for low-income residents?
We have an unmet need today. We have about 1,350 housing units in our current pipeline. The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability has a comprehensive plan that envisions 123,000 new housing units to be built in the next 20 years, a minimum of 10,000 are specified to be affordable. I think that's a reasonable expectation.

You can't put affordable housing out in the middle of nowhere. You can't be cheap – it has to be durable, long-lasting. A place where people want to live for hopefully decades.

Mixed-income buildings like this [the under-construction Abigail Apartments] are an especially good idea. It mixes incomes in a way that is very positive; it provides positive cash flow to the owner of the building so they can provide services and amenities. It also provides a nice mix of households so everybody isn't in one particular income class. I've lived as a market-rate tenant in some of those buildings and I must say it's a wonderful place to live.

Do you think Vancouver will see the same type of growth Portland has seen?

The two communities will continue to grow together. But Portland, being the central city, will always have more amenities, will always be more compelling, I think. I don't think Vancouver is going to catch up to Portland anytime soon.

I would support a bridge [Columbia River Crossing], however that doesn't appear to be politically possible anytime in the next 10 years. I think that issue is really dead now under the current political construct. I think like Seattle, congestion will have to be worse before people are willing to pay for better transit connections.

What interests you most about this job?

I like the social value of helping people succeed, especially kids. I also like the community development activities of investing in neighborhoods, creating places that are memorable, creating places that really draw people, that provide a good quality of life.

To me, satisfaction comes from seeing children thrive and seeing children be able to stay in one school long enough to really succeed. There's a lot of national data that demonstrates stable housing – even if it's low-income housing, if it's stable housing – is better for kids than housing where they're constantly subject to disruption and turmoil.

Will achieving this be a challenge?

Yes. I actually like a challenge. If everything were sweetness and light, I wouldn't be interested in the job. I need a challenge in order to feel like I have an impact and a sense of fulfillment. So the fact that there are some barriers and there are some challenges makes the job more exciting to me.

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