The ugly side of Portland’s housing debate (and getting uglier)

Portland blogger Iain Mackenzie gets some facts wrong – and cheerleads for a troubling new divisiveness in city politics

A recent Twitter feed, in which blogger Iain Mackenzie calls this author an “anti-housing activist” – ludicrously false, but also revealing a more disturbing trend of divisive city politics.

In my Twitter feed this morning, I had some nice reactions to our post yesterday on Ada Louise Huxtable’s famous criticism of Portland’s formulaic architecture, which echoes in our time with renewed relevance.  One response was from my friend Loretta Lees, an expert on gentrification and its remedies at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Her work reminds us that we certainly have a huge challenge in Portland with gentrification, equity and affordability — as so many cities do around the world.  In this challenge, we need vigorous debate, incisive critique (like Huxtable’s and others’) and sharing of lessons nationally and internationally.  (That is something we often evangelize for on this blog.)  We also need to be more joined-up with international initiatives, like the historic New Urban Agenda — a new framework international agreement that embraces “cities for all” and the ways we can achieve them.  (This author has been involved in developing and now implementing this framework agreement.)

One Tweet stood out from this narrative, however.  Iain Mackenzie, blogger at architecture fanzine Next Portland,  attacked me personally as an “anti-housing activist,” noting that my friend Sherry Salomon had given testimony at City Hall that echoed our blog post from yesterday.  (That part is true — I had a client meeting and couldn’t attend, so I asked Sherry to give my testimony for me.)

But what is ludicrously false is the charge that I am an “anti-housing activist,” since my “day job” is — to plan and build housing.  And to do so in a joined-up way, with commercial and civic uses, in walkable, mixed, complete communities, that are more sustainable and more equitable.  Among my clients are three of Portland’s best-known affordable housing non-profits, as well as other developers, NGOs and governments, in the US and internationally (including UN-Habitat, for the aforementioned New Urban Agenda.)

I have also been more active in Portland of late, trying to encourage my fellow citizens in my own back yard to think more deeply about the nature of our challenges, and the tools and strategies we will actually need to use to meet them.   (Hint: simple-minded approaches like “build baby build” will not cut it.)  That’s one of my goals in working on this blog, with my great friend Suzanne Lennard, director of International Making Cities Livable (as the name suggests, hers is very much an international effort, but looking at and sharing successes and lessons from Portland too).

For the same reason, not long ago I accepted an invitation to join the board of my neighborhood association — to practice what I preach in my own back yard.  What I have found in that role is rather shocking.  There is an ugly new mood in this city — and it is pushed by people like Mackenzie.  If you don’t see things the way he does — every new building is a good and necessary one, justified by all things correct and righteous — then you are a NIMBY, an opponent of diversity, perhaps even a racist.  At best you are an “anti-housing activist.”

Nowhere does there seem to be scope and nuance to discuss what is a good building or a bad building, what is damaging to the public realm or not, or what is an effective strategy and what is magical thinking, fueled by divisive and toxic “identity politics.”  (As we have noted, that kind of divisiveness serves some narrow financial interests well, and it has sadly come to dominate national politics — but can’t Portland chart a more enlightened way?)

Sadly, Mackenzie is not alone in fomenting this divisive new tone, and framing old-time neighborhood activists and historic preservation advocates as NIMBYs or worse.   It appears to this author that the City’s own Office of Neighborhood Involvement is also preparing to throw neighborhoods under the bus, responding to a misguided call to service “identity politics.”   As we have written, inclusiveness, equity and a “city for all” are absolutely essential goals — and good for everyone’s bottom line too, by the way —  and we must absolutely not make a hash of it by confusing geographic representation with inclusive policy.  We must not fuel the very dynamics that are causing our problems, with  a misguided approach to “voodoo urbanism.”

But sadly, that is exactly what is happening now in Portland — and the city will be damaged for generations.

Meanwhile, at the state level, some land use and housing activists (who should know better) also seem to have bought into this simplistic “build baby build” mentality, and its corollary, the penchant to attack existing neighborhoods who dare to oppose any new project, good or bad  — reflected in last year’s divisive anti-historic preservation bill HB 2007.   This was in spite of the blistering pace of residential demolitions, and the evidence that many of these houses were more affordable than the ones that replaced them.  In addition to our critiques of these misguided efforts, we also proposed alternatives.

As we have written frequently, the Portland region absolutely does need more housing units.  But we also need a more joined-up regional strategy, not a tunnel-visioned “jam them into the core” mentality.  Most people don’t live in the core, and most of the new residents are not moving to the core.  We need to think more regionally, and more polycentrically.  And to be blunt, less foolishly.

More fundamentally, we need to decide what kind of city Portland will become — that’s in our hands, as it was in 1970, and always has been.  Will we become a playground for architects and their self-serving fantasies?  (And other narrow financial interests?) Will we become a sad shell of our own past, mired in failed divisive approaches and magical thinking, rewarding only a few in the end?  Or will we actually work together to find common ground, and make Portland a truly livable “city for all?”

Stay tuned.


20 Replies to “The ugly side of Portland’s housing debate (and getting uglier)”

  1. Calling Michael Mehaffy “an anti-housing activist” because one disagrees with his approach toward creating housing is dogmatic drivel.

    Some religious sects call those who have other beliefs about the divine as heretics, atheists or worse.

    I see this as a parallel path of reasoning. Rather than apply reasoning, this approach resorts to name-calling.

    1. I agree, Allan. I have tried to avoid personalizing this debate, because it’s more subtle and complex than “my side” and “their side”. But I will call out Iain Mackenzie and other bullies and trolls when they inject personalized nonsense into the debate.

      1. I’ve lost count of the number of times you’ve called me a “troll” for having the temerity to disagree with you. In this post—written entirely for the purpose of attacking me(!)—you use dismissive language like “fanzine” in attempt to minimize my criticism of your actions.

        You can’t do that, and then try to claim the moral high ground by saying I’m “inject[ing] personalized nonsense into the debate”

        1. Well, first let me point out that I am responding to your attacks, not attacking you out of the blue. Second, I am doing it to make a larger and more important point, which you seem not to have grasped. Third, your behavior has indeed been bullying and troll-like — repeating false accusations, responding at least six times with repetitive invective to a post, responding at least twelve times to a single tweet. If you want to disagree with me and have a civil discourse, I would welcome that, but so far I haven’t seen it. What I’ve seen is a rather fanatical, scurrilous attempt to demonize fellow citizens who actually care about their city, calling them “NIMBYs” and insinuating worse, thereby shutting down fair and reasonable debate. (And as I noted, you’re not alone.) So yes, I’ll stand up to that, because it’s wrong.

          1. I for one think Iain is perfectly welcome here — just not his scurrilous attacks, repeated falsehoods, and otherwise unsound methods of civic (?) discourse.

  2. Right on! As a native Portlander and longtime member of my neighborhood association I find I am increasingly seen as a dinosaur because I can’t get on board with the building blitz in inner NE near me. There has to be a way to preserve the unique and individual character of our old neighborhoods while still providing homes for Portlanders. We certainly aren’t impacting homelessness with that inexorable line of boxes marching north on Williams Avenue that have obliterated nearly all the historic neighborhood with their lack of creativity. Nor are we doing ourselves any favors when we demolish an 80 year old moderately priced bungalow and put up two flat-roofed, three-story rectangles that come on the market for over $800,000, which seems to be the norm in my neighborhood. Where are the builders that will take on modest fourplexes on a corner lot that mirror many of the older, small courtyard-type buildings? A single mom with a child or two would welcome a two-bedroom apartment with a little green out front. It has to stop being all about the builders and their profit margin!!!

    1. Well said! There are lots of options short of ugly and destructive buildings. I know that very well, speaking as a planner, designer and PhD in architecture who has been around the block in many cities, not just Portland. But we have a crop of folks in Portland just now who are exploiting real fears to simplify and dumb down the argument — either you’re for what they’re for (“build baby build”) or you’re an “anti-housing activist,” which is to insinuate, some kind of NIMBY racist. Scoundrels, nothing less…

    2. Hate to break it to you, Marla, but “modest fourplexes on a corner lot” have been outlawed in single family neighborhoods, right along with the “small courtyard-type buildings” you love.

      The city is full of architects and developers who would love to build those things instead of the boxes you hate, but our city has made a choice that people are bad and cars are good. We’ve decided that density is out of character and large single family homes are more “Portland.” Views are sacred and homelessness is the price of prosperity.

      Right now, that “inexorable line of boxes” is just about the only tool left to create needed housing, because tall buildings on the west side get vetoed by the city (thanks for the scripts, Michael), and urban scale density is outlawed in single family neighborhoods. If you don’t like it, we can advocate for change, but it means standing up to the the protectors of “old Portland”, not shouting down the progressive urbanists with driveling blog posts attempting to rationalize an anti-housing view point as one of “livability”.

      There’s nothing livable about a city only a few can afford to live in.

      1. Sam – I think those are exactly the kinds of things we SHOULD be exploring, and “getting to yes” on. Sure. some people will not change their opposition — but many will, IF the proposals are more context-sensitive and respectful of neighbor preferences, and not the “space invaders” that too many projects are. Seems to me the current stalemate has too much rigidity on both sides – neighbors opposed to any addition of traffic etc., and proponents who argue it is their creative right to do whatever willful design they want. (And attacking neighbors, insinuating they are racists etc — great way to promote dialogue!) What I have proposed is a “pre-greenlight agreement” for acceptable types, e.g. contextual courtyard apartments, etc. You do this kind of design the neighborhood has already greenlighted, you pull your permit over the counter TODAY. No city red tape (how much does that cost in time and delay and uncertainty), no fights, no slow-down of projects that ADD to the quality of neighborhoods. Call it a “QUIMBY” approach. Cheers, m

        1. If the conversation hinges on what a project looks like instead of how it functions or what services it provides, we’re having the wrong conversation. Give me a city full of space invaders if they increase housing affordability and reduce our dependency on single occupancy vehicles.

          It is unethical to prioritize a whatever kitsch bungalow aesthetic someone finds appealing when there are families across the city dealing with real housing insecurity. If you want to talk about the ugly side of this debate . . . nothing is uglier than defending a status quo that serves the comfort of a few and leaves many out in the cold.

          “NIMBY”, “anti-housing advocate”, “neighborhood preservationist”, whatever. . . pick your own label, it doesn’t matter. Actions and leadership speak far louder than whatever silly label you’re getting your feathers ruffled over.

          Let’s hear more about this “pre-greenlight” concept. Where have you proposed this?

          1. Sam – I think it’s too simplistic to dismiss “what a project looks like” – since that ‘s one of many aspects of “what impacts a project has”, including things like shading, streetscape detail, coherence, legibility, imageability, etc etc. After all, we do have project design review (and crits!) for a reason. Unfortunately, so much tends to get over-simplified (dumbed down?) to a contest of whose “style” you like. To me that isn’t the point. I would put it like this: “style” doesn’t matter — but geometry sure as hell does!

            RE the “pre-greenlighting”, I proposed something along those lines when I was working for Metro on the Centers and Corridors report in 2009, and also for PoSI (now EcoDistricts) on a white paper on policy and regulatory streamlining. (Mostly for sustainability, but also for cost and affordability, which is one part of sustainability of course.) I’ve also mentioned it a number of times in various posts in the blog. It might be worth devoting a whole post to it – I’ll give that some thought! Cheers, m

  3. At the June hearing in Salem on HB 2007, our representative Tina Kotek decried the “NIMBYism” in her district which opposed the unchecked demolition of single-family homes and the building of huge , overpriced box units. I had written to her before the hearing to express my dismay at what was happening (literally, in my back yard), and I had hoped that she could understand our neighborhood’s point of view. But, no. She is one representative who I can’t support on this issue.

  4. Mr. Mehaffy, I’m putting this here since I can’t respond to your last reply.

    We both know that “what it looks like” is a major sticking point for lots of neighbors. It is probably the second most cited grievance after “it exists” and barely ahead of “it needs more parking”. I notice you left “housing provided” out of your list of project impacts. That alone is revealing of where your values lie. Housing is somewhere behind “streetscape detail”. Got it.

    Now, if I could be so bold as to make a suggestion… don’t “dedicate a blog post” to your by-right zoning proposal, pursue it with the same level of attention and veracity as you spend lobbying the city council to downzone the urban core and block the construction of new housing. If you don’t want to be known as “anti-housing”, stop being the guy standing in the way of housing. Your actions speak loud and clear (or at least louder than a nine year old mention in a Metro report).

    Until then, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck . . . you know.

    1. Sam,

      First, call me Michael, please.

      Second, “provides housing” isn’t an “impact” any more than “provides jobs for architects. ” We know buildings need to provide housing, and do lots of other things. That isn’t in dispute. (Not by me anyway.)

      The question is where and how.

      Third, stakeholders may focus on “what it looks like” as a simplified “handle” for deeper issues that they don’t know how to articulate, but still feel intuitively (e.g. “massing,” “pedestrian scale” etc). If we take stakeholder involvement seriously (??) we should try to listen to them, and help them articulate the issues and address them, “getting to yes” — not stiff-arm them, and certainly not attack them.

      Fourth, your repetition of the arguments of certain “any-housing activists” is quite unfair – but perhaps understandable given your apparent “architect’s gaze”. (Any-housing, AKA the Architects’ Full Employment Act of 2018? No building is a bad building, if we want it built? And you stakeholders can go to hell? That sounds so… Donald Trump!)

      It is unfair for you to claim this (and even laughable) given my day job of… providing housing. As a planner, designer development executive and consultant, whose projects have “provided housing” in the thousands. And who is now working to “provide housing” at the international level in “cities for all.” (See e.g.

      So I hope you will dissociate yourself from the spurious and extremist claims of “any-housing activists.” Again, the issue is not whether housing, it is where and how. As it is for all good planning, and all good cities. Where or not we can agree on the specifics, I hope we can agree on that much?

      Cheers, m

      1. Michael,
        Replies like this just illustrate how out of touch you are with the reality of housing in Portland. For you say that providing housing isn’t “impactful” signals to me that you don’t realize how many Portlanders live in housing poverty and on the brink of displacement. It shows you don’t know the toll that a 75 minute MAX commute takes on young professionals trying to both advance a career, raise a family, and pay for safe and stable housing.

        I know you understand urbanism, but you clearly don’t get the realities the effect our housing crisis has so many Portland families. Housing IS a major, major impact.

        I know you’re trying to insinuate that I’m some rich architect looking to exploit our city to make a bunch of money. It’s actually far more personal for me than that. I’d like my family to be able to live in the city I grew up in. Until you can find the time to promote new housing within Portland, preferably within your own neighborhood, you don’t get to call yourself pro-housing. Your legacy lies with downzoning testimony and design commission appeals.

        Unfortunately in Portland, the issue IS, and will continue to be, “whether” housing as long as established neighborhood groups have the ability and political power to delay, deny, and ultimately derail new projects.

        1. Sam – wrong. I’m a renter on a relatively fixed income and have seen my rent go up, so I’m extremely aware of the affordability and displacement crisis in Portland. I’m also aware of it in San Francisco, in Seattle, in Vancouver, in Los Angeles… all of those places are WORSE than Portland. And I’m aware of it in London, Stockholm… you get the point.

          This is a very serious issue, and we have written about it extensively. We have also proposed solutions. And a mindless “build baby build,” anything-goes approach (featuring expensive high rises, and tear-downs of 250K houses to offer 800K duplexes, as we’ve covered) ain’t one of them.

          I profoundly disagree with you that this issue should allow us to drop everything and jam in any damn building we want, anywhere we want. That’s very convenient for an architect to say — “never let a crisis go to waste” and all that. But I think it’s a serious form of irresponsibility for professionals to advocate such a reckless urbanistic approach, particularly when there is evidence it is not even likely to be effective (!!!). And it’s telling that the stakeholders are all getting the short end of a fanatical, “take no prisoners” approach, with no allowance for any kind of civil, deliberative “getting to yes” process. (And yes, the stakeholders are fighting back — but as I advise my clients when they treat stakeholders that way, you can expect the return fire.)

          And by the way, most of the buildings are still getting built anyway. So why be a sore winner? It seems undignified and unprofessional.

          I think that under this kind of fanatical, divisive, self-serving thinking, the city really is, as they say in the UK, “losing the plot”.

          1. “Build baby build”, “take no prisoners”, “any-housing”, “anything goes”, “jam in any damn building”, “never let a crisis go to waste”, etc. I don’t know where this language it comes from, but I know who it is designed to appeal to.

            These are all your words, not mine.

            I’ve not advocated for dropping anything to jam anything in. What I do think is a moral imperative is getting more housing within the city and it needs to happen now. It can not wait until affluent urban neighborhoods decide they’re ok with it. We are short on housing already, and we are simply not adding as much housing as we are adding people. There’s more to the issue than simple supply and demand, but that math is at the heart of the issue and it can not be ignored.

            Part of the solution is loosening zoning that restricts housing. Part of it is allowing by-right zoning so we can avoid expensive and time intensive permitting hurdles. Part of it is raising building height limits and providing FAR bonuses in the central city. Part of it is allowing denser housing (duplexes, tris, quads, low-rise multi, etc) in our single family neighborhoods. Diverse neighborhoods start with diverse housing options. There are so many pieces to this puzzle, and they’re all important to work towards.

            One of the absolutely easiest parts, however, is simply not spending time and money at city hall appealing the design commission’s decision to approve apartments in neighborhoods already approved for apartments. If you’re not going to be part of the solution, at least stop being part of the problem.

            “After all, we do have project design review (and crits!) for a reason.”

            (Again, your words, not mine).

            Also, you don’t need to keep linking op-eds written by yourself. I know how you feel.

  5. I’m so glad you wrote on this topic. This has been going on for years now and at a great cost to our community. I can’t tell you how many times I have been called a NIMBY, elitist and worse; simply because I questioned new development. So much so, that I know longer feel comfortable joining the conversation. Pitting neighbors against neighbors is not going to solve a housing crisis and is likely creating an impediment to real progress. (Mary) I too was taken aback by Tina Kotek’s rhetoric surrounding HB 2007. This “NIMBY” narrative is insulting and divisive. I would have expected a lot more from an elected leader. Listening to both sides of the debate and building compromise seems much more productive, not to mention diplomatic

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