Goose Hollow resident Stuart Emmons believes city is rejecting better ideas for housing crisis
Stuart Emmons, who has devoted most of his career to affordable housing, is appalled by local government’s handling of the issue.
Emmons, who lives in Goose Hollow, is one of nine candidates running for the City Council seat to be vacated by Dan Saltzman. If no one receives a majority in the May primary election, the two leading vote recipients will run off in November.
Portland’s housing cost crisis sucked Emmons into the 2016 council race against incumbent Steve Novick, a race that in retrospect he believes he could have won because Chloe Eudaly came out of nowhere to unseat Novick largely over anger about housing displacement and soaring rents.
Emmons believed he had a better idea for low-cost housing, but no one in local government would listen.
In 2015, Emmons designed a nine-unit, Section 8-eligible apartment building in the Lents neighborhood using stackable modular units. It was a prototype for the Portland Housing Bureau, and he felt it was successful. Emmons said he and his partners learned from the experiment while affirming that a development of perhaps 40 such units could be financially feasible.
He reported his findings to the Housing Bureau, but got no feedback. He testified at City Council and still got no response“I was so frustrated,” he said. “That’s why I ran in 2016.”
Two years later, the housing crisis has tightened and the local response has been even more blundering, in his opinion.
“Don’t get me started on the housing bond,” he warns, referring to the $258 million ballot measure passed in 2016 to create 1,300 units of affordable housing.
“I’ve testified, I’ve written papers, I’ve screamed,” Emmons said of his efforts to derail an approach that will “barely address 5 percent of Portland’s affordable housing need.”
Instead of pouring nearly $200,000 of public subsidy into each unit, as the bond project proposes, Emmons recommends combining private and public funds to produce perhaps three times as many homes for the same public investment. Blending funds in this way—which is done in the state of Washington—would require an Oregon constitutional amendment.
Construction costs would also be reduced by innovative construction techniques, efficient unit design and reducing the size of each unit, Emmons believes.
Stuart Emmons developed a nine-unit modular apartment building in Lents 2015 as a prototype for the Portland Housing Bureau, which he said never followed up.
Instead of stretching the bond’s capacity, the city dedicated $6 million of it to the cross-laminated timber Framework building in the Pearl, which will cost $651 a square foot to build.
Emmons does not condone the targeting of neighborhood associations as obstacles to development. As a partner in housing development, he has seen obstructionist behavior from local residents, but he says cooperation is possible. He swapped sites for one of his projects at the recommendation of a neighborhood association and found the result preferable for all parties.
He says Portland people can work together if given the chance. He suggested putting the likes of homeless advocate Ibrahim Mubarak and businessman Tim Boyle on the same committee, and expecting them to produce workable solutions.
Housing is Emmons’ top three priorities. His website breaks it down as homelessness, affordable housing and the cost of housing.
Like Homer Williams, the developer who proposed a large homeless shelter at Terminal 1, he believes the country has only seen the tip of the iceberg. As more baby boomers hit retirement without adequate savings, homelessness will soar even further. He disagrees with Williams on one point: He wants to put everyone in their own home, even if it is a single-room apartment, instead of in group shelters.
Rob Justus, founder of Home First, a nonprofit developer that has built 464 affordable apartment units in the Portland area, says the established approach to affordable housing locally is wasteful and ineffective.
“You can build rentals for people having 60 percent of median income and below without subsidy,” said Justus, who has tried in vain vainly for years to share his ideas with public officials and nonprofit housing developers.
“Stuart is the only candidate that has taken the time to not only look at what Home First is doing but also sees the changes we need to make to solve the affordable housing and homelessness crisis.”
Bill Failing, a philanthropist and historic preservation activist who supports Emmons’ campaign, said, “The Portland City Council could use an architect’s eye and sensitivity as ‘density’ becomes its only rallying cry for development.”
“The council is one-dimensional on development initiatives,” Failing said. “Stuart can become a filter to that lens.”
Through last week, the campaign reported raising $107,281 in contributions.