How TO solve a housing crisis

As more people become aware of the problematic logic behind Oregon’s HB 2007 and similar pro-demolition and “anti-NIMBY” measures, attention rightly turns to better approaches

The author discussing “voodoo urbanism” and its more successful alternatives with other participants at the Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative conference in Los Angeles, June 27, 2017. L-R Dr. Paul Bunje, Chief Scientist, Domain Impact Strategy, XPRIZE; Patrick Condon, Chair of the Urban Design Program, University of British Columbia; Deanna Weber, Principal, AECOM; the author; and Steve Kellenberg, Senior Vice President, The Irvine Company.

In this blog and elsewhere, I and other critics have taken the proponents of Oregon’s proposed “anti-NIMBY” bill HB 2007 to task for sloppy knee-jerk thinking, a failure to consider the actual evidence of what works, and symbolic gestures of identity politics that only further polarize and divide our community — at a time when we need more urban unity on our challenges, not less.

But the next question is only fair: what, then, is the alternative?

First, it should be recognized that the problem of housing affordability is hardly a Portland-specific or Oregon-specific problem.  I just returned from speaking at the Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative conference in Los Angeles, sponsored by the Asia Society, USC and other partners.  The stories from different cities were all remarkably similar — and indeed, compared to many places, Portland’s and Oregon’s problems seem relatively modest.

Representatives from cities across the Pacific Rim, and indeed other parts of the world, all described similar problems – from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, Vancouver to Sydney.   A wave of global capital is rushing into real estate, fueling speculation and land price surges.  Cities that try to build their way out of the problem without dealing with the underlying economic forces are likely to exacerbate, not remedy, the problem.  And the result may be not only less affordable housing, but a steady, tragic loss of their most valuable sustainability asset – their livable heritage.

What, then, is the answer?  A number of participants spoke of effective tools and approaches that have been found to work in other cities.  Here are some of them that were discussed:

  1. Taxation, including land value tax. Patrick Condon, professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, described the “Vienna Model” — new projects are taxed heavily, which depresses land cost without raising costs for market-rate housing.  The taxes go to affordable projects, and to buying more land – which is then less expensive.  Other cities tax the land value directly, using so-called “Georgist” tax policies.  We need to look at similar tools to conserve resources (like land) and reward good development.  Such policies can help to “monetize externality costs” (like sprawl).
  2. Other tools to damp down speculative real estate bubbles. Housing is a human need, not an interchangeable investor commodity – yet current policy is rewarding a dangerous new wave of speculation.  The last time this happened, 2008, the world found itself in a global financial crisis.  We need better tools, including local regulations, that control excessive speculation.  We need less childlike faith in the magic of markets.
  3. Better tools to unlock under-utilized sites. There are enormous reserves of wasted land, empty lots, parking lots and other suitable sites, in Portland and elsewhere — but there is a shortage of imagination and tools to access them. The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently cited a 2014 survey that found that in just a part of New York City, nearly 2,500 vacant lots and more than 3,500 empty buildings had enough capacity to house 200,000 people.
  4. Tools for “gentle densification”. Some of these tools are addressed under the misguided HB 2007 – but we need less heavy-handed, more incentive-based approaches to apply them. They include accessory dwellings, duplexes or rental conversions, pocket neighborhoods, “tiny houses,” and other innovative forms of compatible, human-scale housing, as alternatives to “jamming it in.”
  5. “Beauty In My Back Yard”. Portland is full of beautiful, neighborhood-compatible typologies, including a rich tradition of human-scale courtyard apartments.  Where sites are available, such positive alternatives should be developed through “win-win” consultations with residents.
  6. Targeted protections for existing renters and owners, and aggressive help for the homeless. There is no excuse for letting people suffer, particularly when proven alternatives have been demonstrated by other cities. Salt Lake City, for example, has demonstrated one positive approach to ending homelessness; there are others.  Some cities have developed policies that legally disincentivize increases in rents above inflation (like property tax re-assessments based on higher incomes).  Portland needs to be less insular and over-confident, and more willing to share global lessons, showing greater humility and willingness to learn from others’ lessons.

Above all… Stop demonizing NIMBYs.  As Jane Jacobs said, sometimes NIMBYs are right – things should be done differently.  In a democracy, people who live in a community should have the right to participate in land use that affects their public realm, with a voice in decision-making. (That principle is enshrined in Oregon’s land use system as “Goal One”.)

The political environment in this country is ugly enough without fomenting more needless divisions with communities that have been allies in the past, including the historic preservation community, and the community of neighborhood activists — the one that was key to creating the Portland we love today.  The new divisive tactics are not only ineffective and counter-productive, they are unconscionable (especially when they stoop to unfounded and offensive accusations of “self-segregation”).   Such polarizing foolishness won’t solve the housing crisis.  But it might help lead to a Portland that is increasingly polarized, unable to meet its challenges, and facing decline – a sad shell of the city it once was, and could be again.

Coming back from Los Angeles, I couldn’t help but think: Portland and Oregon have a narrow window of choice.  We can try harder to learn from other cities, and spend a little less time being so insular and self-satisfied with our own aspirational politics. I fear the result of the latter is that we will only become less and less distinguishable from the growing list of cities in crisis – just another fashionable victim of deluded “command and control” thinking and “voodoo urbanism”, with a progressive veneer.

But I would like to think we can once again be pioneers for other cities, in finding and combining effective new solutions.  May that needed conversation begin.