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Westside Economic Alliance audience told that a unified effort is needed over the long term; 'our housing challenges are not going to be addressed in a day'

The president of an employer group in California's Silicon Valley offered advice about housing to leaders in Oregon's Silicon Forest, where a 2016 study estimates that Washington County is at least 14,000 homes short for lower-income people.

Carl Guardino said public, nonprofit and private sectors must work together over many years to provide more affordable housing. But Guardino also said a unified effort, such as that embodied in Housing Trust Silicon Valley, can achieve tangible results.

"At the first meeting we had one rule: Leave your guns at the door. It was people who are fierce opponents, but who were finding common ground on the need for homes that our families can afford," Guardino said Tuesday, Nov. 14, at a breakfast forum of the Westside Economic Alliance at Embassy Suites in Tigard.

The trust covers aid to first-time home buyers, renters and those without shelter or in danger of losing their homes.

Like the Silicon Valley Housing Trust, the Westside Economic Alliance — which has a broader focus — draws members from government, nonprofit agencies and businesses.

Guardino was introduced by Courtney Martin, Oregon public affairs director for Intel, the semiconductor maker based in Santa Clara, Calif., and the largest private employer in Washington County and Oregon.

Martin said when the cost of housing exceeds the 30 percent of household income that federal guidelines define as "affordable," businesses find it more difficult to recruit or retain workers.

"We're starting to see this as an issue of economic competitiveness," she said.

Guardino offered these comparisons between Washington County and Silicon Valley:

Median home price, with half above and half below that mark, $410,000 and $935,000; median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment, $1,875 and $3,185; median household income, $74,700 and $119, 400.

The estimate of a shortage of 14,000 homes comes from a 2016 study conducted by Portland State University and commissioned by Washington County and its separate housing authority. The shortage applies to households earning less than 50 percent of the county's median income.

In a brief interview after his talk, Guardino said there is no single answer.

"We need an arsenal of answers to solve these seemingly intractable challenges," he said. "It's not just a challenge about affordable homes at all price points. It ties in to our traffic challenges — and we've got to keep those two linked."

Silicon Valley effort

As a young chief executive of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group — which represents 400 employers, including many of the nation's leading technology companies — Guardino spoke to a similar Oregon audience in 2000.

At that time Guardino was among those trying to raise $20 million to get the housing trust started.

"Even then, people felt we had a housing issue," he said, as the surge in technology — known as the dot-com boom — raised housing prices during the 1990s.

Polling indicated there was little support among voters for public money for it. But the first $4 million came from Santa Clara County — home to San Jose — plus Intel and several other companies. The fundraising drive topped its $20 million goal within two years.

Today the trust has raised $145 million, which has leveraged $2.6 billion in private investment, and has helped almost 28,000 people with 15,490 homes.

Responding to a question by Wilsonville Mayor Tim Knapp, Guardino said the housing issue requires help from both government and the private sector.

"It's not 'either/or,' but 'and' — and more," he said.

Housing advocates like Guardino were encouraged when the California Legislature approved both new money and regulatory streamlining earlier this year.

Tale of two states

To raise money for housing, California created a document recording fee for real estate transactions starting at $75. Oregon has had such a fee since 2009, when it was set at $15, and boosted it by $5 in 2013 for veterans' housing. The Oregon Legislature's budget committee shelved an effort to raise it by another $20 earlier this year.

California lawmakers also set a $4 billion bond issue for housing — $1 billion for veterans and $3 billion for low-income households — on the November 2018 ballot. Guardino was involved in successful campaigns for a $2.1 billion bond in 2002 and a $2.9 billion bond in 2006.

Though Oregon has had no statewide measure, Portland voters approved a $258 million bond a year ago, and Metro has had some preliminary discussions about a similar bond on the November 2018 ballot.

Commissioners in three metro-area counties also are reviewing potential actions.

Guardino said California's legislative package also contained measures to reduce delays in building low-income housing. "It makes it more likely that developers have a streamlined path when building affordable homes," he said.

Guardino said "streamlining" does not mean a waiver of building codes or health and safety standards.

Guardino said housing advocates worked hard to attract bipartisan support.

"Democrats don't always like (regulatory) reforms when it comes to issues that affect key constituencies in labor and the environmental community," he said. "Republicans often don't like revenue when it comes to new taxes and fees. We challenged them in a proactive way to work together."

Perception matters

Guardino said after his talk there is no quick solution to housing issues.

"Just as Rome was not built in a day, so our housing challenges — whether Silicon Forest or Silicon Valley — are not going to be addressed in a day," he said.

Guardino was careful not to describe housing in terms of "units" or "projects," the latter he said evokes the image of massive public housing developments built in the 1950s and 1960s that generated social problems.

"They failed to produce what well-meaning people wanted them to produce. We don't use those terms," he said. "Words matter."

Virtually all of the new housing built with help from Washington County — aid ranging from transfers of surplus land to offsets of systems development charges — are not in the "project" category.

Many years ago, Guardino found himself alone at a San Jose City Council meeting when he supported but neighbors opposed a rental housing development. The council approved the plan unanimously, and after the dedication ceremony five years later, two of the leading opponents came up to him.

"They told me: We want you to know if we had had any idea that this was what they called 'affordable' homes — and these are the families that need affordable homes — we wouldn't have been opposing them that night."

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