The Humanity of Portland Apartments

In The 5 Myths About Portland Apartments,  Aaron Mesh of Willamette Week would have you believe that your experience of Portland’s housing crisis is utterly invalid. He’s quick to put words in your mouth, and call you ‘wrong’ for repeating the common argument “that apartments don’t raise rents…People do.”

To say that an apartment raises its own rent is as flimsy and avoidant as to say that actually, it’s just guns that kill people. Oh, wait! Actually, guns don’t kill people! The effects of a bullet on the human body kill people. Severed arteries and blood loss kill people. Holes in brains kill people.

Of course this is about people.

If we’re going to talk about the housing crisis, let us evolve our conversation beyond semantics, and talk about what’s really happening.

Let’s start with the WW graphic:

rents.jpeg

1. People move to Portland.

2. Rent and real estate prices rise (exponentially faster than local wages).

3. Developers build units.

4. People get angry (see 1-3)

“With so few units available, tenants have no leverage—landlords can charge more.”

Yes, and should they?

For years, local property managers have been systematically if not whimsically raising rents on managed properties with or without the owners’ consent or knowledge, and in some cases, pocketing the difference.

Why would the owners care, anyway? More money is more money. That’s the way of the world.

Portland economist Joe Cortright’s callous, privileged comments in Mesh’s piece illustrate the utter apathy of those charged with dealing with a housing crisis. Mesh cites the law of supply and demand to explain the fact that the people who are getting “squeezed out” at least have the recourse to blame someone else.

“If it makes you feel better, writes Mesh, “you can still blame greedy developers for this shortage.”

Citing Buddhist philosophy to make an earlier point about human desire causing suffering, and shortly thereafter inviting people to blame the greedy developers for our rental woes exhibits a gross misunderstanding of Buddhism. It also completely misses the point.

When humans experience a gap between reality and their ability to explain it, they make up stories to fill it. Doing so was an early law of supply and demand. It was how we formed religion, art, science, and philosophy. To support the strength of our stories, we invented logic and reason, the indomitable forces of Western civilization, which in turn allow Mesh to make an idiotic, but correct, argument: just learn to like the extra apartments, Portland.

This story then becomes about how this process unfolds in people, rather than stating simply that it must unfold in our city, and that we must deal with it.

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“But there’s one problem with the idea that teardowns are a force in making the city more costly,” writes Mesh. “The numbers show it can’t be true.”

Next door to my Sellwood basement, an old woman died in her tiny pink 1906 cottage. The house sat empty for three years before the children sold it to a rampant developer. The developer sold plans to a new construction house whose walls now nearly touch the property lines.

Last February, a Bay Area family bought the property and the plans for ~$800,000, more than $200k higher than any other house in a four block radius. It was a sale that set a precedent in the neighborhood. Home prices in Sellwood have risen 22%, with no signs of plateau.

The numbers Mesh insists “can’t be true” leave out one important factor: property values rise and fall based on the surrounding neighborhood. If a house is demolished and two are built in its place, the number of units changes; their sale prices, and the wider impact of those sales on the local real estate market, determine affordability. Though in a less quantifiable measure, one based more in the law of supply and demand, the numbers indeed can be true.

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Portland is at the forefront of progressive, systemic change in the United States. This city has the will, the budget surplus and models of social impact by urban expansion from cities like San Francisco and Seattle to make foundational changes to how we deal with housing as the city grows.

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With Portland’s rock bottom vacancy rates and still-rising rents, do you really think that X developer is going to not build in Portland because he or she will be required to include 20% of affordable units in a 20+ unit building?

And, what if they don’t?

Are we going to chase them down as they strut to Austin or Little Rock, bribing them with loopholes and tax breaks to give us one more chance to let them develop in Portland?

This is an example of the sycophancy of the working class toward the rich, the incessant thinking that they will provide for us with the finite and destructive materials of capital and greed.

It’s a sad romance, the idolatrous relationship between the poor and the rich: I want you for what you have, the poor say,  for what you do! I want to be you!

And in a predictable, condescending response, the rich heartlessly pat the doting yet downcast heads of the poor, and turn away.

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People coming from other places are not complaining about high rent. The people who live here who are trying to expand into larger space so they can have children and families—they’re the ones complaining.

It’s the people who are painting murals, opening and running food carts, who are in this so called low-income bracket. They are the people who make Portland a beautiful, enjoyable, aesthetically-pleasing place to call home. They are the pillows on which the rich lay their heads.

One of the only conclusions I can come up with is that the author of The 5 Myths About Portland Apartments  must not have personal experience with searching for a home in Portland, nor must he have friends or family seeking homes in Portland and having a hard time doing so.

In fact, he’s chocking up all those searching for housing to wild-eyed anarchist hippies, groaning party-house dwellers, musicians, and artists.

Do you know who helped make Portland so cool in the years pre-those pretty 2010s housing graphs?

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I have a friend who works with people with developmental disabilities, and carries her baby on her back every day at work. Her partner spends hundreds of hours facilitating events that keep Portland’s neighborhood communities engaged and connected with each other. Their search for resonant housing is approaching years.

Another couple, both successful artists and students, made dozens of phone calls searching for a place within a price range reasonable even for Portland. They got lucky, way north, found something quirky and

Not to mention people who are self-employed, building their own businesses, working seasonally,  factors which renders income effectively useless toward purchasing a home, or even renting a new space, regardless of price.

That’s my wife and I.

One of the only options to surface in two years for us live in a nicer space than our cramped, kitchenless SE basement (and I am not complaining, especially as summer approaches), is to pay several hundred dollars more than we’re paying now to live in the master bedroom of a house with five other people. Buying a home vacated our realm of possibility years ago.

Hey, that’s just the law of supply and demand, right? Some people get squeezed out. If the poor, wild-eyed miscreants can’t afford their rent, cast them out. Eliminate economic contrast.

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To the reader: have you honestly sat with someone, looked them in the eyes, and asked them what it’s like to feel a sense of hopelessness, and let the humanness of this person’s survival needs permeate you?

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Journalism is not always meant to empathize with the human experience, but the fact that Mesh digs, insults, projects, assumes, and stereotypes a group of people he appears to know nothing about, is indicative of the cultural changes in Portland so many of its residents are resistant to.

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