At 6 a.m. Friday, Jim Long sat in his Bend office finishing environmental reviews for a few proposed affordable housing projects.
Long will retire Tuesday from his job as Bend’s affordable housing manager after 13 years. It’s been a successful tenure — the city managed to turn about $12.5 million in funds from fees and federal block grants into nearly 1,200 new affordable homes — but Long said he’s still melancholy about leaving.
“The hardest part is some of the projects that are in process,” Long said. “We’ve got some dang good projects coming down the pipe.”
An affordable housing crisis is rocking communities nationwide and especially on the West Coast, exacerbated by lingering effects of the Great Recession. American cities and rural areas alike have fewer builders, more renters and higher rents and home prices than they did before the recession began in 2007.
Bend’s geographic isolation and incredible growth rate contribute to making the affordable housing crisis a little more acute, said Lynne McConnell, Bend’s affordable housing coordinator.
McConnell, who previously worked at the nonprofit organization NeighborImpact and will take over for Long as affordable housing manager, said Bend’s had an edge in the fight for affordable housing because of Long’s work and creativity.
“Pretty much everything that has led to affordable housing in the city has in some way led back to him,” she said. “… I have really big shoes to fill, and I’m going to miss him terribly.”
One of the most important programs the city implemented during his tenure was an affordable housing fee, which collects one-third of 1 percent of the total valuation on all building permits submitted to the city, Long said. Since it started in 2006, the city’s affordable housing fee has collected more than $6.4 million.
Developers can take out low-interest loans from the fund created by that fee and use those loans to leverage additional grants, loans and tax credits from other public agencies and private groups — $106 million to date. The city’s affordable housing fee directly contributed to 770 affordable homes.
“That was the game changer,” Long said. “That allowed us to punch above our weight.”
With help from the affordable housing fee, which has enabled the city to lend $14 million to developers, Bend created more affordable housing units in the past decade than all other Oregon cities except for Portland.
“We killed it,” Long said. “We did more units than our region and the rest of the state combined.”
And that success comes while the city of Bend receives less money per capita from a federal block grant program meant to support low-income residents than any other entitlement city in Oregon. Bend receives about $446,000, or $5.12 per person, annually through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant. Portland, which has about seven and a half times Bend’s population, receives more than 28 times the funding.
That grant money can’t be used to build new homes, but it can be used to rehabilitate existing buildings, buy property and assist nonprofit organizations, such as the Bethlehem Inn homeless shelter or Central Oregon Veterans Outreach, that help low-income people. Since 2004, the city of Bend has received $6.1 million from the block grant program, used it to secure an additional $21 million and created 336 affordable housing units.
The city’s affordable housing fee brings in more money during boom times, when more homes are built. In down years, like those during and after the recession, the city’s affordable housing fund helps keep builders working.
Long started at the city of Bend about two years before Bend home prices hit their pre-recession peak in 2007 and has been there through the recession and a subsequent uptick in growth. The city’s still trying to keep pace with a rising demand for housing, he said.
“We’re going to play catch-up for the next 10 years,” Long said. “It’s not even just affordable housing. We’re going to be playing catch-up with all types of housing.”
A relatively new tool in the city’s inventory, and one Long and McConnell said will help a lot, is a wholesale exemption of system development charges — the fees developers pay to cover the additional costs new buildings have on the city’s roads, sewer system and water infrastructure — for new affordable housing projects. That saves affordable housing developers about $15,000 on each new single-family home.
“People don’t realize how big that is,” Long said. “That’s huge.”
Other initiatives have a smaller impact. The current Bend City Council has been good at setting aside surplus land for affordable housing, Long said, and even parcels as small as the 0.1 acre the council is expected to dedicate on Wednesday help.
“We’ve made a big difference in the lives of a lot of people by getting them into affordable units,” he said. “That’s the thing I’m going to miss most, getting to see the families that move into places.”
Before his 13 years with the city of Bend, Long worked on affordable housing issues for 13 years at the city of Salem and three in Springfield. He also served for four years and eight months in the U.S. Navy, which sparked his interest in working with Central Oregon Veterans Outreach to help homeless veterans. The medical benefits he receives as a veteran also made it possible for Long to retire at 58.
Long can be intimidating at first, said Cheryl Howard, the city of Bend’s volunteer coordinator. But he also has a sense of humor and a knack for practical jokes that bring a levity to the often-serious city work.
Howard started working at the city about seven years ago, after spending 20 years as a stay-at-home mom and volunteer. She was nervous about starting her first office job in years and didn’t want to interrupt anyone, so she left a bunch of cardboard boxes outside her door with plans to talk to the facility manager about what to do with them the next day. By the time she got in the next morning, Long had deconstructed the boxes and turned her office into a child’s fort.
“For me, that was really welcoming, having my office turned into a cardboard fort,” she said.
Over the years, Long also added a sign labeling the storage closet under the stairs in city hall “Harry Potter’s room” and used a plastic bag, several balloons and the windowed door in City Manager Eric King’s office to make it look like King’s office had been filled with balloons in his absence, Howard said.
“At the end of the day, we’re doing really hard jobs and there are days when it can be really difficult,” she said. “Having people who can make it fun helps.”
Long is a constant presence in city offices who knows when to make light of things and when to take them seriously, said Bend Economic Development Director Carolyn Eagan, who’s been his boss since 2015 and previously worked side-by-side with him for 2½ years. She said she’ll miss his sage advice and his quips.
“It’s constant inspiration,” she said. “He constantly inspires us to be smarter, to have a higher level of integrity.”
Long’s commitment to helping people didn’t stop outside the office either, Eagan said.
“He was the guy who people would call and say ‘Hey, my faucet is leaking,’ and he’s say ‘OK, I’ll be there at 5,’” she said. “When he leaves Central Oregon, there will be a lot of people with leaky faucets they won’t be able to fix and people with snowshoes they won’t be able to borrow.”
Long isn’t planning on leaving Central Oregon just yet, but he does want to take time to learn how to relax. His longest vacation in the past 30 years was 10 days.
And he expects to start doing some consulting work for other cities that want help dealing with their own affordable housing issues.
“It’s fun doing this stuff,” he said. “You get to do good things and see good results, and that’s not too many careers.”
— Reporter: 541-633-2160; firstname.lastname@example.org