By Marina Starleaf Riker

The Bulletin

Jason Graham and his wife couldn’t scrape up enough money to afford a home of their own.

Graham is a visual and performing artist, and his wife worked two part-time jobs so she could spend more time with their three young children on Bend’s west side.

But because the couple did not have traditional sources of income, their loan applications were always denied, even though, as Graham said, “My wife and I were able to feed our children and keep them warm.”

Fortunately for the Grahams, Bend Area Habitat for Humanity stepped in to help them build a home of their own. But thousands of other Central Oregon residents aren’t as lucky and struggle to find an affordable place to live in a region faced with a severe housing shortage.

Figuring out ways to solve Bend’s affordable housing crisis drew hundreds of people to Riverhouse on the Deschutes in Bend on Thursday, where the City Club of Central Oregon invited local experts to weigh in on the problem. Right now, just more than 1,700 units of affordable housing are available for thousands of people living in poverty throughout the region. Meanwhile, developers are faced with the challenges that come with paying for housing projects that are sold or rented for less than what it cost to build them.

But money isn’t the only problem.

For Graham, the stigma surrounding low-income housing brought its own challenges. Even though Graham and his family had lived in Bend since 1992, he said it felt as if they were slipping away from the “acceptable” class in society as Bend became more affluent.

“There’s a stigma that comes with (low-income housing),” Graham said. “It’s always been a class issue.”

Many Bend residents say the city needs more affordable housing but protest the projects when they’re planned in their own communities. Last year, neighbors living near two vacant city lots on NW 17th Street and NE Ninth Street spoke against the properties being used for affordable housing — whether the lots were going to a single-family home or a multi-unit cottage community.

During Thursday’s forum, John Gilbert, local housing developer, explained the types of people who need low-income housing: Home health aides, preschool teachers, bank tellers and others who make less than $35,000 per year, he said.

“These are people who are working and contributing to society just like I am,” he said.

Gilbert, who heads Pacific Crest Affordable Housing, said it’s going to take the entire community’s support to increase the number of affordable housing units, which are offered for rent prices lower than fair-market values. Ensuring that housing is affordable means people pay no more than 30 percent of their income on rent — that’s about $895 per month for a family making about $35,000 per year.

But keeping rents low means developers are faced with a large gap between the cost to build an apartment complex and revenue it earns. To close that gap, developers compete for limited state and federal grants, some of which are unstable, Gilbert said. If Bend wants to be sure it can pay for future affordable housing projects, it needs to get creative, Gilbert said.

“If we just rely on this traditional source of funds, we’re probably going to only get one affordable housing project every six years,” Gilbert said.

Negotiating with local companies to invest in projects in exchange for a certain number of units is a potential option, Gilbert said. Similarly, working with government agencies such as school districts to provide vacant land in exchange for a certain number of units for their employees could also be a solution, he said. Bend could also look into programs to allow investors to pay up front costs in exchange for a return on their investment; once the investors were paid back, the units could be rented for prices under fair-market values, he said.

Some solutions may also come from new state rules. This year, Oregon lawmakers have introduced several proposed laws in the legislature aimed at boosting the number of affordable housing units. One bill would allow cities and counties to designate zones for high-rise apartments, while also allowing certain projects to receive tax exemptions. Another bill would extend the length of time that developers can receive tax credits for building affordable housing.

­— Reporter: 541-633-2160,