Portland’s housing crisis is now making bigger national headlines than our food carts, craft breweries, and water combined (well, maybe not water). Apartment costs have become astronomical. House prices have increased %^&#ing exponentially (if that’s not an accurate figure, ask local would-be homebuyers). For too many, it’s very difficult to live in Portland right now. The reasons are vast, and would boil down, unsurprisingly, to more than just a TV show. The question is, what to do about it?
To answer the question, we’ll talk about the housing crisis, the plans the city is implementing to fix it, and what you and I can do to contribute to Portland’s continued transformation.
Last Wednesday evening, multiple speakers offered opinions and action plans at an event called Let’s Do More Than Talk: Housing, Land Use, and Affordability in Portland, including Portland Tenants United’s Margot Black, Anita Yap, historian Nick Sauvie, urban designer Nolan Lienhart, and Jes Larson, director of the Welcome Home coalition, which is comprised of more than 130 organizations working toward “housing justice,” an umbrella term for the idea that every person has a right to four walls and a roof of their own. Among their goals was to rectify Portland’s housing predicament with ideas for the Comprehensive Plan, a 20-year plan that “sets the framework for the physical development of the city.”
The “Comp Plan,” addresses, amongst many other things, the glaring issue that residential development is limited by strict zoning laws, which limit the types of structures one can build on a lot. The overwhelming majority of the city is zoned for single-family houses, which means that if someone buys a patch of dirt, there’s really only one choice as to what to build.
Density and infill are incredibly important to Portland.
Given the current zoning laws, Portland is designed for anything but infill. In a way, the city design keeps as many people out as possible, which drives up housing costs, plummets vacancy rates, and forces those who can’t keep up with rising rents, essentially, to fuck off. This doesn’t bode well for a city famous for its kindness.
In February 2016, Oregon passed its first inclusionary zoning laws, versions of which have been enacted in hundreds of communities across the country for years. Before that, not only did the state not require developers to allocate a certain percentage of new developments to affordable housing, but they were banned from doing so.
How does this apply to you and I?
If one hundred eighty condos are built on a block, and they’re all priced at inflated market value, people who inhabit those condos must earn 60-70% more than the rent. Do this over and over and over, and suddenly Portland becomes San Francisco, where it’s not uncommon to pay more than $4000 a month for a one bedroom apartment.
What about those who can’t afford that–where do we go? Gresham? The streets?
A woman in my breakout group, which discussed the future of Portland’s Mixed Use zones, warned against placing “too many regulations” on developers, lest the developer, given the choice to develop a condo building in Portland or Dallas, choose Dallas because they might make an extra few dozen grand.
On the other hand, development should be held to some standard of beauty, or at least an aesthetic complementary to life in the area. Simply put, people take better care of their neighborhoods when they are built with people in mind.
A man demanded that developers just build housing fast and cheap. He was quick to say that it doesn’t matter what else inhabits the neighborhood, as long as people get indoors.
“We don’t need more organic grocers,” he said. “We need affordable housing.”
Part of what makes Portland cool is that people do things here that they couldn’t or wouldn’t do elsewhere. You can’t open up a mediocre restaurant on the East Side inside Tabor, and expect it to succeed. Portland endeavors require intention, quality, perhaps even, if quirk still exists, quirk.
To be clear, inclusivity of the poor in gentrified areas and the preservation of culture are not mutually exclusive: indeed, they are the same. It was low-income-earning people and artists that created cultural conditions conducive to Portland, San Francisco, Austin, Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and countless other places becoming gentrified.
I believe that it is incumbent upon the developers, as with urban planners, to focus above and beyond the paycheck to the greater contribution they could make toward what Portland is becoming.
Notably, many speakers agreed on one thing: the voices of the people matter to the people making decisions about Portland’s future: the City Council.
The Council may hold terribly inconvenient meetings, but word has it that they actually listen to those who show up and testify.
I’m going to attend their next meeting on 9 June, when the Council will review the reasons they’re going to accept and approve the new Comp Plan.
City Council to Accept Findings and Revised Ordinances
Council Chambers 1221 SW 4th Ave
Thursday, June 9 2016, 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM
I’d like to understand the reasons behind many of the changes that Portland will undergo in the next two decades, especially with regards to housing. If you find yourself in the midst of complaining or even conversing about the plight of Portland’s rapidly shifting landscape and housing situation, please come with me. Maybe there we can figure out a way to stay here through the madness.