As a longtime Portlander, I've seen our city go from one of the most affordable cities on the west coast to one of the least. Many people of modest means have been pushed to the east or out of the city entirely.
I'm at the tipping point of being there myself.
The bursting mortgage bubble in 2007 and the explosion of rents has accelerated the problem over the past few years.
When I moved to Portland almost two decades ago, I found a remarkable city where people of various income levels seemed to live side-by-side, as one community.
Perhaps my memories of those days are overly rosy. There were people struggling then too, and there were wealth disparities in plenty of our neighborhoods then too. Certainly there was already much angst about newcomers and their impact on affordability.
I have no issues with Portland's new arrivals. They just want what we all want. They came here for the same things we all did. Who can blame them?
Actually, I take that back. In one respect I do begrudge them: They never knew the Portland I knew. They probably came from places where enclaves of wealth were common, where gated communities were assumed, as were geographic pockets of poverty. Maybe they think that's how every city always was and always will be.
Because they're new here, maybe they can't fully understand what Portland is losing. Perhaps they don't feel the same urgency I do to prevent it from happening.
But this isn't about newcomers versus oldsters. That fruitless debate has gone on as long as there's been a Portland, and I can already imagine the eyerolling I'm getting from those who predate me. We're all Portlanders, and there's never been a better time to indoctrinate the newbies into what used to be called "the Portland Way" --the inclusive, creative and bold problem solving that was such a vital part of our civic identity in a less cynical era.
Mayor Hales recently identified $20 million to be spent over the next five years on helping to preserve some semblance of housing affordability in North and Northeast Portland's Interstate Urban Renewal Area. I attended the first public meeting a few weeks ago to give my two-cents on this new initiative.
As seems to often be the case with such events, the gist of my thirty-second comment to the chaotic assembly didn't seem to translate well onto the butcher paper at the front of the room, and I have little faith that it will have much life left in it when translated into an appendix to whatever bland report the process spits out six months from now.
For that reason I'm writing this letter to you to flesh out my thinking on housing, affordability and community in Portland, circa 2014. I hope you won't mind me sharing it with the fosterunited.org community, since they, like me, are at the tipping point of many of these issues too.
Like many people in the Foster Road community I did a stint as a member of the Board of Directors of ROSE Community Development. In some ways it was a frustrating experience. Not for the time spent watching and working with the residents of ROSE's affordable housing communities --they were terrific and inspiring. And certainly not for having witnessed the dedication of people like Nick Sauvie, Mike Masat, Vivian Satterfield, Liz Hutchinson and Luke Bonham --all of whom I respect more than they can possibly ever know.
But it was frustrating for my rising awareness that the existing process of affordable housing creation is never going to stem the forces that are pushing low income people out of our community.
The way affordable housing in Portland works is that the Portland Housing Bureau and the Portland Development Commission identify some public money to be spent on housing. Maybe it's $1 million. Rarely is it more than $2 million. In the case of the Mayor's North/Northeast Portland initiative, it's an unprecidented $20 million. That sounds like a lot of money, right?
The smart and creative people at organizations like ROSE then go off, find whatever additional funds they can, put a proposal together, and if they're awarded the funds by the city, they set to work building decent housing.
Then people move in and hopefully live happily ever after.
Many wonderful and deserving families have gotten a roof over their heads as a result of this system. The people who work every day to make it all happen are truly doing God's work in this city --and I'm an atheist.
But the problem is that this approach can never come close to really addressing the displacement of low-income people in Portland. The 100, or even 200, new units that might result are a tiny spit into the face of a tidal wave. There will never be enough purpose-built affordable housing to change the trajectory that Portland's going in right now. That's because the vast majority of Portland's renters live in privately-owned, market rate units, and their rents are rapidly approaching New York City and San Francisco levels.
So, Mayor Hales, City Council, members of the Portland Housing Bureau and Portland Development Commission, and neighbors: It's time to get serious about regulating the private rental market.
I know... you'd rather have all your teeth extracted than to have this conversation. Politically impossible. It will upset the city's landlords, developers and land speculators. People will yell at us.
That's too bad.
If this community is serious about avoiding a San Francisco scenario, we'll need broader solutions than one or two new subsidized apartment towers.
And if that means a hit to the wallets of the people who have reaped the most benefit from decades of city largess, and have pocketed the biggest windfall from our current housing crunch, well... let's just say my heart isn't breaking.
With the clock moving faster than any of us would like to admit, I ask the city to aggressively pursue the following three policy initiatives as a modest first step toward keeping Portland Portland:
1) Inclusionary Zoning
The idea here is that the city would require future privately-built housing projects to include a certain proportion of units that would be rented at less than market rates. Since 1999, Oregon cities have been prohibited from passing these requirements, making Oregon one of two states --Texas is the other --where inclusionary zoning is illegal. Many great local groups, including Opal Environmental Justice, the Community Alliance of Tenants and the Center for Intercultural Organizing, have been working on removing this state pre-emption for the last several years.
Bills have been introduced twice, but in both cases opposition from developers led to the legislation dying in committee without being brought to a vote. In 2013, the bill failed despite bipartisan support and endorsements from several downstate cities. The City of Portland wouldn't take a position on the bill
In March, City Commissioner Dan Saltzman told the Oregonian that he would be bringing a voluntary inclusionary zoning proposal to the City Council this year. So far as I can tell, nothing's shown up yet.
This summer a work group appointed by House Speaker Tina Kotek seemingly took the issue off the table for 2015's legislative session, although others tell me there will be a bill after all.
The City should unequivocally support it and the legislature should pass it. If downstate Republicans grumble, remind them that they're supposed to be all about local control. If Portland wants this, we should find a way to get it. And once gotten, the City should act to implement their new authority, and soon.
2) Rent Control
Oregon state law also forbids cities from passing rent control, and if inclusionary zoning seems like an uphill climb, a rent control ordinance seems like the equivalent of the moon landing. Still, it would nice if our city council would actually support the idea, at least.
Rent control would cap rents and only allow increases at a certain modest rate, which hopefully is less than the double-digit rate increases renters have been seeing annually for the last couple of years. It's demonstrably helped stem the displacement of middle and low-income people in high-rent places like the aforementioned NY and SF.
Neo-libertarians will say that landlords should be guaranteed exorbitant returns on their investments, rather than merely modest ones --because "socialism"!!
Why do they get to decide anything? How about this city take care of its own? Stabilizing our community is more important than windfall profits for speculators. It's not as if the conservatives won't call us the "s-word" anyway.
3) Condo Conversion Reform
For most of the 2000's, Portland's developers were building condos as fast as they could throw them together. Once the mortgage bubble burst and many of the people who might have been buyers before became today's renters, those same developers moved into the rental game.
But despite the soaring rents they're charging, that's not where the developers want to be --it's not where the real profits lie. Those developers have very shrewd accountants hard at work, watching the marketplace, and when the time is right they'll begin converting all those new apartments into condos, displacing thousands of working class Portlanders in the process.
And our current laws allow it. The existing nominal protections for renters who are being displaced by a condo conversion are laughable.
For example, current state law requires that tenants get a 120-day notice if their unit is being converted to a condo. But unless they have a lease, the requirement is meaningless. Landlords still can terminate an at-will tenancy on 30-days notice. So the practice is to send the tenant a certified letter informing them of the 120-day timeline, thus complying with the law. Then the next day they send a 30-day notice to get out.
I raised this issue once with the former Director of the City's Housing Bureau and got a big wide blank stare, as if she couldn't understand what I was getting at. The very idea of challenging the unfettered right of a landlord to kick a renter out of their home seemed like science fiction to her.
And I fully expect that when a widespread crisis of condo conversions hits --and it will --there will be city leaders claiming that they couldn't possibly have seen it coming.
But Mayor Hales, Commissioners Saltzman, Fritz, Fish and Novick: I like you all very much. I don't think you're bullshitters. I think you want to do right by this city and treat low-income people fairly. If that's true and I'm not a fool, you'll take steps now to avoid this problem later. You'll ensure that renters are not second-class Portlanders, expendable in the rush toward a posh enclave of liveability for the wealthy.
I appreciate that you're spending public dollars on affordable housing in N and NE. Those projects are an important part of the overall strategy we need if we're going to keep Portland affordable for everyone.
But they are not enough. Bold new initiatives that go outside the usual affordable housing system and reach the private rental market are essential too.