Well, there goes the neighborhood (involvement system)

Is Portland about to throw away one of its landmark achievements… over a fallacy?

GHFL Board
The Goose Hollow neighborhood association has taken major steps to be more representative, transparent and accountable, implementing open public communication periods, recording meeting videos to be posted online, and adopting aggressive conflict-of-interest standards. 46% of the Board are low-income residents (per City definition), and 37% are renters.

The City of Portland may have a “nationally recognized neighborhood system,” as the City’s website crows, but if recent reports are to be believed, there may be efforts under way to dismantle it. (See for example the recent Northwest Examiner article.) The rationale? Anti-NIMBYism, buttressed by charges of racism, classism, and an insular system that serves only the interests of white retired homeowners. Wow.

As a renter who is emphatically not retired, and current president of the Goose Hollow neighborhood association in Portland, I share the goal of a neighborhood involvement system that is much more representative, inclusive, accountable, and constructively engaged in finding win-win solutions to city problems. But before we rush too quickly into yet another profitable greenwashing or progressive-washing agenda, may I suggest that we need to look very hard indeed at the evidence, and potential fallacies in our own thinking. The City has unfortunately shown far too little tendency to do that of late.

I have recently written here about the fallacies underneath current supply-side housing policy, and the tendency to ignore the more complex market dynamics. But the City seems determined to build its way out of the current affordability crisis – which is mild in comparison to other West Coast cities, and which offers instructive comparisons with those other cities’ painful lessons (as we have also covered on this blog). There is a real danger that the City will end up with little to show for the efforts – except the loss of the priceless livable heritage that made Portland a desirable city in the first place.

Then too there are the other unintended consequences of current City policy: tear-downs of relatively affordable housing to be replaced with McMansions, high rises with million-dollar view units as the City’s ludicrous answer to affordability, and a cumbersome, irrational entitlement process that seems to achieve only the worst of both worlds – clunky “space invader” buildings that still cost too much.

Add now, “non-geographic communities” to be placed into competition with the neighborhood associations, in a heavy-handed attempt to create a more inclusive system. The trouble is, who gets representation, and how much? Who selects these “non-geographic communities”? The City, of course. But it is far too easy to put one’s fingers on the scale, perhaps without realizing it, and allow a subtle form of corruption to influence the results – biased towards a favored group, or maybe even a favored industry.  Those of us in my own industry of design and development must be very scrupulous our ethical obligations.

At the same time, the City needs to ask itself a basic question: does it believe in local grass-roots democracy at all?  In the fundamental concept of geographic representation at all? Why not bring in NGOs from out of state who can represent new voices that are deemed to be under-represented, and let them have a say in decision-making? Why do we need to have local city government, or state government, or any geographic government at all? Why not simply a system of non-geographic national government, consisting of appointed panels that we believe represent the various communities that those in government think need to have a say? What’s so important about one-person, one-district, one-vote anyway? Maybe this democracy thing isn’t really working out for us after all?

I am playing reductio ad absurdum here, of course.  But there is a fundamental point:  geographic representation is a core principle of democracy, without which democracy itself is in question.  Portland has made great advances in  anchoring that democracy in the most grass-roots part of the city, the neighborhoods.  This work is unfinished, yes — but it is a crucial achievement.

So let us not make the terrible mistake of tossing baby with bathwater.

There is a path to the neighborhood system reform that is indeed badly needed (one that we have already written about previously). Yes, the neighborhoods need to be more representative of their actual residents, including their minority populations, renters, young people, and many others.

But that’s just the point – they need to be representative, as neighborhoods, and not superseded and marginalized by government hand-picked (and very possibly tokenistic) “non-geographic communities.”

The City (as a polis) has every reason to insist that the neighborhoods be representative, transparent and accountable, as a basic condition of participation and funding. This is true no less of Portland neighborhoods than it is of, say, Alabama voter precincts, or any other constituent of democratic government. It is a fundamental principle of ethical government, and of “subsidiarity”.  The principle of subsidiarity means that we are all entitled to democratic participation at many subsidiary scales, starting at the fundamental scale of ourselves as citizens, and our own homes and neighborhoods. We are not supposed to have our democratic participation taken away by members of a government’s hand-picked “non-geographic communities.”

To illustrate the very real alternative available, I can give an example of a major initiative for reform within our own Goose Hollow neighborhood association. As our Vide President Tracy Prince recounted in a letter to ONI interim director Dave Austin:

“The new board believed that too many powerful people had been listened to for too long, so we worked to recruit a board that better reflected our neighborhood. 46% of our board members are low income, and 37% are renters… After voting out the old board, the new board immediately voted for our bylaws to have the strictest ethical requirements of any neighborhood association. We require board members to disclose their financial interests, leave the room when their interests are being discussed, and recuse themselves from voting on their own financial interests. We believe any organization receiving city funds should be required to follow such ethical standards.”

Our neighborhood association has also placed videos of all meetings on line for any resident (or indeed non-resident) to view at any time. We’ve invited open public communication at the start and end of each meeting, and we recognize members of the audience who raise their hands throughout the meeting as well.  We’ve partnered with members of other area neighborhoods to press for ethical reforms for transparency and accountability within neighborhood and stakeholder systems city-wide. We’re also working on further outreach and recruitment to get more citizens engaged (including those in under-represented communities) within our neighborhood.

We also meet regularly and constructively with developers interested in exploring win-win approaches to development and “Yes In My Back Yard”. (For example, about two weeks ago I traveled with our Planning Committee Co-chair to Seattle to meet with the architects of a new project in Goose Hollow, at our own expense; we had a cordial and constructive conversation.)

But that does not mean we are shills for development, or that we will roll over when we honestly believe the best interests of our neighborhood are not being served by a proposal. At that point we have the rights that any citizen should have, to be heard and to be involved.  Genuinely involved, not tokenistically so. We now have the proper forum to do so, our own neighborhood community and its duly recognized association.  This is a priceless asset that we must be willing to fight to preserve and improve.

The City has a moral choice. Will it destroy the neighborhoods in order to “save” them?