Housing and transit

Portland, Oregon is one of the cities that is frequently used by pundits as an example of the direction Winnipeg should follow in its approach to public services and land-use. 

The former lumber town has transformed itself into a technology centre and has a population of 529,121 people, which is almost 150,000 less than Winnipeg. It may be smaller in population, but Winnipeg and Portland are both classified as medium-sized cities. 

Portland is a city that has placed an emphasis on public transit, affordable housing, limiting urban sprawl and promoting infill housing. These are all issues that Winnipeg has had some success with, especially in the affordable housing field in partnership with private-sector or community-based organizations such as the Winnipeg Real Estate Board-established Housing Opportunity Partnership, Winnipeg Habitat for Humanity and Lazarus House.

But, Winnipeg has been less successful in the other areas emphasized by the West Coast city. An example is infill housing which Portland promotes through a variety of means, including a recent design contest. Even a Winnipeg company recently won one of a number of Designs of Excellence in the contest for coming up with a home able to be built on a 25-by-100-foot lot — Winnipeg lots are typically 50-by-100 feet. Winnipeg architect Ed Calnitsky and graphic artist Greg Woloszyn designed a 1,138-square-foot single-family home with a raised basement that is only 15 feet wide. 

Promoting infill housing is one way Portland limits urban sprawl. Another way is by limiting growth within a border demarcated by the city and supported by state legislation.

Contrary to the emphasis in Winnipeg, an announcement last week provides an excellent example of how Portland has combined housing with public transit. Residents of Portland now have incentives to purchase a home near public transit through an initiative between mass transit providers, housing groups, mortgage lenders and Fannie Mae, the privately-traded and quasi-federal government company that insures mortgages in a similar way to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

If eligible home buyers choose a home within half a mile of a light rail station, or a quarter mile of a commuter bus stop, participating lenders will add a portion of their potential transportation savings to their qualifying income.

“Smart Commute is the perfect example of how innovative public-private partnerships can help to create livable communities,” said U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer, a democrat from Oregon who introduced the Portland Regional Smart Communities Initiative. “By providing incentives for people to purchase homes served by transit, this program will increase families’ personal wealth and decrease their transportation costs while it increases homeownership rates, revitalizes our neighbourhoods, and lessens the burden on our roads.”

These are all goods reasons for Winnipeg to promote a similar program. But, you must note that the program was the result of an incentive brought into being by a U.S federal politician. This level of co-operation is rare here. Canadian cities have no constitutional recognition and are creatures of the provinces who zealously protect their turf from federal encroachment.

Homeowners who receive a mortgage under the Smart Commute Initiative receive free passes for one month on TriMet buses and light rail trains, which is named for the three metro counties they serve. The light rail lines serve specific corridors, which is a system that Winnipeg does not possess. In addition, Flexcar, a nationwide car-sharing program, offers Smart Commute participants who join Flexcar US $100 of free initial usage credit.

Transportation savings are considered in the loan application and qualification process and can help buyers cross the homeownership threshold. Countrywide Home Loans originates the mortgage and Fannie Mae purchases the eligible loans. For loan qualification purposes, participating lenders are able to add a portion of the potential transportation savings to the borrower’s qualifying income — an addition of US $200 per month for one-wage-earners and US $250 per month for two-wage-earner households.

Countrywide may also be able to offer a low down payment of only three per cent on the purchase price of a home, or a down payment as low as US $500, depending upon the borrower’s income eligibility.

The only thing resembling this initiative in Winnipeg — though not in a monetary sense — is the proposed 25-acre Review Development in Lord Roberts on a narrow strip of land which would have run adjacent to the path of the bus rapid transport system, or BRT,  that has been quashed for the time being by city hall. The people living in the 1,375 housing units of the development would have had direct access to rapid transit through the proposed southwest corridor, which has been in the works for about 30 years.

‘Three decades of keen urban planning have reined in urban sprawl and given rise to a mini-metropolis with short, easy-to-stroll blocks. A superb light rail network and a new streetcar system are helping to make it a cinch to get around,” said a Money Magazine article which named Portland its No. 1 choice of the Best Places to Live.

It’s amazing that a city of Portland’s size possesses a public transit system of buses, streetcars and light rail. Winnipeggers can only imagine the convenience of such a system.