Category Archives: urban design

home work

Hey Portland. It’s been a minute. A whole summer, actually. How’s your autumn?

During last summer’s commercial fishing season in Alaska, a job that once sufficiently provided enough for my semi-retired life here in Portland, I was struck by a rogue wave of icy seawater in the form of an idea for a novel. The plot, setting, character relationships, tone – it all landed on the back deck of the fishing boat like a wild salmon fighting tooth and fin for its life.

I would have written it on the spot, but unfortunately, work prevailed, sleep was too valuable. Book-writing during salmon season isn’t humanly possible, although some of my former skippers would posit that I’ve tried.

No, writing a book happens at home, at a desk, putting in the work day after day, amongst pens and books and windows with a stained wood finish.

I didn’t have a home in which to write in Portland. I have books but no windows, my desk  is in the basement under the stairs. Harry Potter did not do magic under the balustrade.

This book needed a home, so I’ve set out to build a tiny house – rather, a perfectly-sized writer’s cabin, a working man’s rebuke to the rando author who said that “the writing cabin in the woods doesn’t exist.”

I followed that advice for a while. In my mind, I killed the mythological cabin where I would write my masterpiece. I wrote in my car during lunch break. I wrote in coffeeshops, one Apple amongst many. I did not write in Burger King, like he did.

Being sensitive to my environment, the inconsistent space reflected in my writing. I produced disjointed narratives on a theme, which is fine for a blog, but not a book. I needed to hunker down and immerse myself.

There are few things scarier for me than to think I am worth not working for someone else, or that I am worth spending resources on (time, energy, money) in order to facilitate something…artistic. The impoverished blue collar worker in me scoffed.

If there’s any voice worth squelching, however, it’s that of the contented inner prisoner, or he who thinks that validation must come from without: that impoverished blue collar story.

After hours of looking at trailer porn on craigslist, and finding nothing suitable, I had a custom 20′ trailer built by two awesome redneck welders at Hook-n-Duck Fabrication. It is the second trailer they’ve built.

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After a festive late summer of blowing most of this year’s fishing money on travel, I’ve just spent the last of it on lumber and materials. Yesterday, in divine timing with Portland’s autumn rain arriving, I began construction on the cabin’s subfloor frame.

My boss isn’t happy. I work in construction and remodeling. I dedicate every non-rainy day to the tiny house, whether sourcing or hauling materials. Which has now got me in the interesting predicament of needing to work more on other people’s houses in order to pay for working on my own. With limited weather windows remaining to get the roof on, I’m in a bit of a crunch.

Stumptown Lives began as a journey to find myself at home. I never thought I’d build a house. I never thought I deserved my own house. I grew up with models of poverty consciousness and scarcity complex extreme: there’s never, ever enough. A stark contradiction to the 20th century American ideal that resources were endless, that growth and wealth were stepping stones unto themselves forever upward.

Scanning the eco-societal climate right now, I want to say: I’m done. Turn the radio to the jazz station, wait for whichever chump to get elected, sip a four-dollar americano in some hipster coffeeshop, write poetry, and watch the world outside my inner Eastside Portland bubble burn.

But I’m not done. I’m angry and befuddled at the inconsistency of what I experience out there. There’s arsenic in the water supply, war on the doorsteps of innocent people, blessed tryptamines are illegal, and there are still people who are homeless who do not choose to be.

Henceforth I choose to participate in culture in a new way. In place of concentrating on what is wrong with what I see, I’m going to practice giving myself what I need, in honor of those who cannot: a home, in which to do my work.

The book is going to happen. I must do this first.

Thanks for bearing witness.

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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:

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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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To the Money, Say Aye!

The first item on the Portland City Council’s agenda yesterday afternoon was to pat their own backs on a city budget job well done. Elaborate thank you speeches preluded official approval, monologues that emphasized not just the hard work of city officials, but the council’s proclaimed high value for public commentary.

“We make changes in our budget based on what we hear from the public,” Council President Nick Fish said.

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Fish has been counting the number of people in the last year who have testified before city council on budget issues regarding city utilities.

“A total of one person throughout the entire budget process came and testified publicly about the business of our utilities,” he said (emphasis mine).

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For as much gripe and complaint as I hear about the changes in Portland, whether it be about affordable housing, the newly voter-approved 10 cent gas tax to fix roads, or gentrification, the Council, a relevant and powerful audience for this dialogue works and meets in City Hall, a gorgeous building serving at least as a façade of free speech and democracy.

Then again, with national elections reflecting fascism and oligarchy more clearly than than our glorious purported democracy, the average citizen’s motivation to speak to local government is understandably low. In fact, the city council chambers were pretty empty during the budget approval meeting. My wife and I were amongst the only people there in causal clothing, which told me that 1) everyone but us knew to dress up for city council meetings, or 2) most of the few people present were intimately involved with the proceedings, or paid to be there.

No one publicly testified about any of the three topics City Council discussed.

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Last week, we talked about the Comprehensive Plan, which accounts for many of the biggest changes to Portland’s cityscape over the next 20 years.

City Council approved three minor amendments to the Comp Plan, which focused on communication with Metro about clarifying terms in Title IV and Title VII of the Plan. The council is set to finally approve it on 15 June, which will trigger, amongst other things, construction on the Green Loop, the rezoning of single family homes to multi-family dwelling units near neighborhood centers, and the implementation of inclusionary zoning laws, which require developers to create a percentage of affordable units in new housing developments.

For two years running, Portland has had the luxury of a substantial surplus in its budget. The council admits that the surplus will “not continue forever,” but claims that it has made “significant investment in the most compelling issue of the moment.” In 2015, it was transportation…”this year, it is housing and homelessness.”

The Council also heard a presentation from the Portland Housing Bureau about the Consolidated Plan, a 5-year agenda to increase affordable housing choices, economic opportunity, and reduce homelessness. PHB funnels millions from various federal housing agencies (ESG, HUD) to educate and assist homeowners in house repairs and employment training and empowerment, and also allocates money from HOPWA to assist those suffering from AIDS to find housing.

Citing Portland’s proclaimed primacy on housing and homelessness issues, Commissioner Fish criticized the federal government for its misplacing its housing priorities.

The complete budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is plus or minus 40 billion dollars, Fish said.

“It is wonderful that we get these funds…” he continued, “and it seems to me that allocating a mere 40 billion for all the housing needs of everyone not currently covered by the market is woefully inadequate.

Commissioner Fritz reflected that despite Portland’s surplus of funds, there is still more work to do.fritz

“It is our job to make sure we spend the taxpayers money wisely,” Fritz said, before briefly diverging into unsubtle presidential soapboxing.

“Government needs to pay for the services that only government can pay for,” she continued. “We are still not doing that. There is a lot we have still not done with this budget, but we’ve done as much as we can, and I think we’ve done the best we can with what we have available.”

Whether Fritz was referring to the city’s surplus of funds being insufficient to cover all of the city’s needs, or that the work being done with that surplus was insufficient to use them in the best way possible, was unclear.