Other West Coast cities are also trying to build their way out of unaffordability, with dubious and divisive strategies, and little to show for it
In a remarkable recent editorial in the New York Times, staff writer Timothy Egan assesses the reaction of governments in San Francisco and Seattle to familiar problems for Portlanders — soaring home prices, displacement, inequality, homelessness — and he finds them wanting.
The article, titled “Down and Out in San Francisco, on $117,000 a Year,” notes that city is now so expensive that a family income of over $100,000 is now considered “below the poverty line.” Egan questions whether the government there has a handle on the challenge: “Can people accept more crowded neighborhoods, in a city that is already the second most densely populated among big cities in the nation, if they feel that elected leaders do not have a decent plan — or a clue?”
Egan reports that the City of San Francisco spends an eye-popping $250 million a year on a population of 7,500 homeless — translating into about $33,000 per person per year. To put that in perspective, that’s enough money to purchase a home worth about $400,000 for each homeless person. Yet the city’s problems persist unabated.
Egan goes on to describe (and criticize) his own home city of Seattle:
In Seattle, the nation’s fastest-growing city for this decade, the social contract is nearly broken. The city used to be run by creative problem solvers. Now, an ideologically driven City Council dreams up new things to anger residents while seeming to let the homeless have the run of the place.
Portlanders might well marvel at the parallels to their own city, as deep and bitter ideological divisions open up between former allies: environmentalists and preservationists, equity advocates and neighborhood activists. Meanwhile, developers are having a field day:
An unholy alliance of socialists and developers threatens to destroy the city’s single-family neighborhoods with a major upzoning — further disrupting trust between residents and politicians. If the intent is to make Seattle more affordable, this approach has failed. The city has built more new units of housing over the last five years than in the prior half-century. And yet Seattle continues to lead the nation in home price increases.
But surely if Portland follows the same path, we will have different results? We are reminded of Jane Jacobs’ quip, that planning — or we could substitute here, government policy — “seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success.”
We need a new urbanism. For all the grumping about how great the cities facing the Pacific used to be, they can be greater still if the bright minds now trying to “disrupt” a grilled cheese sandwich can focus on the biggest challenge of this generation. We know what doesn’t work. The task is to find a creative mix of solutions that do.
After repeated and confusing changes to hearing schedules, neighborhood stakeholders show up to protest, are chewed out by Councilmember Eudaly
In a vote that surprised few people, the Portland City Council ratified the proposed name change of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, the bureau famously derided by City Hall insiders as “the island of misfit toys”.
The Northwest Examiner features the story on its first page for this month. Excerpts from the article:
The Office of Neighborhood Involvement is rebranding itself for a social diversity and equity mission while distancing the agency from its roots in the neighborhood association system.
Office of Neighborhood Involvement Director Suk Rhee and City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly announced in May that the program will be called the Office of Community & Civic Life effective July 1. After discovering that they cannot transform a city bureau by fiat, they got on the July 18 council agenda…
New brochures were printed before Office of Neighborhood Involvement officials knew they needed City Council approval before changing the agency’s name.
Although Rhee has told skeptical Westside neighborhood association activists that “our mission remains the same,” a 16-page brochure rolling out the program mentions the phrase “neighborhood association(s)” only once, and then merely to define the program’s original purpose.
In announcing the changes as fait accompli, ONI violated the most elemental aspect of citizen participation: People must know when decisions affecting their lives will be on the public docket so they can prepare and speak to decision-makers before binding action is taken. Being told a decision is final when it is not is one step worse than no notification at all; it falsely guides citizens to do nothing while they still have the power to act….
On July 2, the agency website noted that the name change will go to council July 18, but no further clarification was given.
Changing the name is one thing, rewriting its purpose is another.
As adopted in current code (3.96.010), the Office of Neighborhood Involvement is responsible for recognizing neighborhood associations, district coalitions and business district associations to “create a framework by which the people of the city of Portland may effectively participate in civic affairs and work to improve the livability and character of their neighborhoods and the city.
Another section of the code (3.96.060) directs ONI to “support and promote public involvement within the neighborhood association framework.”
Making that language jibe with a program now promoting non-geographic communities, immigrants and underrepresented populations may be more complicated than issuing a press release…
At least two local neighborhood associations, the Northwest District Association and Goose Hollow Foothills League, have gone further.
NWDA unanimously approved a letter to council asking for an explanation of the reasons for the changing of ONI’s name and goals. It also asked for direct notification when the matter is put on the council agenda and for the opportunity to provide testimony.
GHFL leveled a broader critique. In a three-page letter unanimously approved by its board last month, the association opposed the removal of neighborhood from the office’s name. The letter also addressed political theory.
“Place-based neighborhoods are at the center of Portland’s public involvement paradigm, and to ignore that would be a serious error,” the GHFL letter stated. “The identity-based organizations are political associations that by their nature exclude others, and, while they should be recognized in the political realm, don’t and can’t provide the same kind of public representation that place-based representation can.
“We suggest there is a problem with any bureaucracy choosing to change its own responsibilities,” the letter continued. “This is backwards, a reversal of the United Nations-articulated principle of subsidiarity, where it is posited that democracy and social justice work best when decisions are made at the most local level rather than by central authority. The mission should arise from the people, acting through elected representatives. This was the process and the vision at the bureau’s inception.”
The full hearing video, citizen testimony, and Council and staff discussions (including a tongue-lashing of some neighborhood association representatives by Councilmember Eudaly) can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrxQyRvPYGs.
We received this late-breaking news from Karla Moore-Love, Council Clerk, regarding a motion by Commissioner Eudaly to change the ONI name, as we discussed in a blog post several days ago. Testimony WILL be heard on this motion, according to Karla:
The Commissioner will make her motion after the morning Time Certains which should be around 11:00. Her motion will be to hear the ONI name change ordinance to the end of the regular morning agenda which should be around 12:00-12:20 if we’re running on time.
Karla Moore-Love |Council Clerk Office of the City Auditor |City Hall Rm 130 503.823.4086
A Stockholm conference by that title explores issues of gentrification, displacement and loss of home affordability — and potential solutions
A conference in Stockholm, Sweden has concluded that gentrification and spiraling housing costs are the direct end result of “supply-side” government and industry policies — not a selfish citizenry.
Speakers noted that cities around the world are facing a destructive wave of spiraling home prices, displacement, and toxic forms of gentrification and segregation. Portland (the home city of this blog) is experiencing these same trends, although its challenges are, so far, more modest than those of Vancouver BC, Manhattan, San Francisco, or many other cities. At the same time, these other cities offer us a clear warning of what may lie ahead, if we don’t act effectively.
Peter Moskowitz, a New York-based journalist and author of the book How to Kill a City, has documented the processes of gentrification in four US cities, and researched its causes and remedies more broadly, interviewing researchers and examining case studies. He concludes, “Gentrification is not a fluke or an accident. Gentrification is a system that puts the needs of capital (both in terms of city budget and in terms of real estate profits) above the needs of people.”
Moskowitz spoke at the “Cities for All” conference in Stockholm earlier this year, sponsored by KTH Royal Institute of Technology and other partners. (This author is Senior Researcher there and was a co-organizer of the conference.) Moskowitz pointed out that gentrification is not just bad for those who are immediately affected, but for the entire city. It is the path to stagnation and decline, as Jane Jacobs and other critics have argued.
Maria Adebowale-Schwarte, a senior fellow with the Project for Public Spaces and founding director of London’s Living Space project, pointed out that “gentrification” can be a misleading term. Improving a deprived area and increasing diversity can be a good thing — up to the point that people are displaced, and diversity gives way to another monoculture.
This was also a point made by the urbanist Jane Jacobs in her discussion of “the self-destruction of diversity.” In effect, there is a “Goldilocks” point of maximum diversity and opportunity for all. This zone lies between the extremes of a monoculture of poverty, and a monoculture of wealth. The job of government is to maintain a dynamic balance within this zone, using a range of tools and strategies.
However, Moskowitz says, government is too often seduced by the profitable processes of gentrification. (We have also written previously about this “trickle-down” theory of urbanism, which we termed “voodoo urbanism.“)
It is not the selfishness of people who patronize new coffee shops, or seek to preserve and enhance the livability of their neighborhoods that is primarily to blame, Moskowitz says. It is the policies and processes initiated by governments and their development allies:
In every gentrifying city there are always events, usually hidden from public view, that precede street-level changes. The policies that cause cities to gentrify are crafted in the offices of real estate moguls and in the halls of city government. The coffee shop is the tip of the iceberg.
When we think of gentrification as some mysterious process, we accept its consequences: the displacement of countless thousands of families, the destruction of cultures, the decreased affordability of life for everyone…
[But gentrification happens] not because of the wishes of a million gentrifiers but because of the wishes of just a few hundred public intellectuals, politicians, planners, and heads of corporations.
This grouo includes the professional communities of planning, development, urban design and architecture — of which this author is a self-critical member — forming what we might think of as the “architectural-industrial complex”. Our professions might have very good intentions, but the question is whether our “solutions” are actually perpetrating the same systemic dynamics, rewarding us financially and culturally, while we delude ourselves with simplistic but ineffective solution and other-blaming.
But Moskowitz argues that effective solutions are available:
I hope to make clear that gentrification is not inevitable, that it is perhaps even stoppable, or at the very least manageable.
Moskowitz concludes his book with six positive recommendations:
Expand, protect and make accessible public lands. Rising private land prices are a big part of the affordability problem, and leaving them subject to the forces of markets and speculation will likely have predictable results. More work is needed on sites that are already public (including wasted low-density sites, rights of way and other properties) and more land is needed in public and non-profit trusts.
Give people an actual say in what happens in their city. This isn’t an invitation to “NIMBYism,” but to a real civic engagement, and a conversation to find win-win strategies. The answer is not to deny people their democratic voice, or to shout down opponents, but to engage in a healthier process of civic problem-solving.
Heavily regulate housing.When we treat housing as a speculative commodity with limited regulations, we can expect speculative surges in prices. A number of promising steps have been taken recently to tamp down speculative increases, including the foreign investment tax in Vancouver, B.C.
Implement a new New Deal. Find creative new sources of revenue to provide basic rights — among them shelter. Be strategic about funding, not simply “buying time” with temporary subsidies and other protections that will soon expire, causing only a delayed surge in prices.
End protectionism, and add infrastructure. It’s true that more supply is needed to meet demand — but that supply needs to be in diverse locations, accessible by good-quality infrastructure. At present, protectionism rewards expensive centrally-located developments, expertly developed by companies that have learned to become insiders in the complex process of entitlement and spot zoning. This “gaming the system” only fuels gentrification and more expensive (and more profitable) projects.
Raise taxes, raise wages, and spend on the poor. This is not a matter of wasting taxpayer money, but of finding cost-effective returns on investments. Do we want to pay more for policing and prisons? Do we want to live in a degraded, even stagnating city? That is ultimately what is at stake. A more equitable, more diversified city is not only a matter of justice — in the end it’s also good for everyone’s bottom line.
Gentrification, displacement, loss of affordability, homeless, and related urban ills, are complex and dynamic processes, signaling deep dysfunctions in our urban systems. But they are not beyond our ability to manage. Indeed, they have arisen precisely as the result of management choices made by those acting in their own short-term benefit — and very much for the long-term detriment of all, whether intended or not. The question is whether we will be clear-eyed and willing to work together to find the effective strategic responses that are needed — or whether we will descend into bitter acrimony and divisiveness, touting simplistic solutions that don’t work, while the city grows ever more expensive, degraded, and unsustainable.
Testimony will be taken Wednesday the 18th at 2PM, and a unanimous Council vote will be required
The Office of Neighborhood Involvement, seeking to re-name itself the Office of Community and Civic Life (and as we have argued, also seeking to eviscerate Portland’s historic neighborhood association system) has found belatedly that it needs to get Council permission, and is seeking to do so through an “emergency” measure before the Council this Wednesday at 2PM. (Sign-ups for speakers are required one hour beforehand.)
The proposed resolution is as follows:
ORDINANCE No. *Rename the Office of Neighborhood Involvement to the Office of Community & Civic Life (Ordinance; amend Code Chapter 3.96 and other titles, as needed).
The City of Portland ordains:
Section 1. The Council finds:
1. The Office of Neighborhood Involvement, originally the Office of Neighborhood Associations, was created in 1974 to serve as the formal link between neighborhood associations and the City. 2. A new name will better reflect the overall mission of the bureau, more accurately represent the full scope of programming and services, and acknowledge the many ways current and prospective Portlanders participate in the City’s civic culture. 3. The Office of Neighborhood Involvement is mentioned throughout the City Code wherever the bureau has duties or authorizations.
NOW, THEREFORE, the Council directs: a. The name of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement is now changed to the Office of Community & Civic Life. In accordance with Portland City Code 1.01.035.C, the Auditor may substitute the bureau’s new name in place of the current title in City Code Chapter 3.96, and wherever the bureau is referred to in the City Code.
Section 2. The Council declares that an emergency exists in order to avoid further delay in implementing the name change; therefore, this ordinance shall be in full force and effect from and after its passage by Council.
Passed by the Council: Commissioner Chloe Eudaly
Prepared by: Winta Yohannes
Date Prepared: 07/05/18 Mary Hull Caballero Auditor of the City of Portland
The code change ordinance is as follows:
RESOLUTION No. Authorize the convening of a Code Change Committee to update City Code Chapter 3.96 (Resolution).
WHEREAS, the Office of Neighborhood Involvement was established in 1974 to formalize the relationship between neighborhood associations and the City; and WHEREAS, Chapter 3.96 no longer adequately represent the Bureau’s current programs, responsibilities, or constituencies; and WHEREAS, the 2016 Office of Neighborhood Involvement audit highlighted the need to update Bureau practices and City Code to ensure Portlanders have equal access to City decision-making; and WHEREAS, the demographics of the City population have changed significantly since the last code update in 2005; and WHEREAS, the Bureau was renamed the Office of Community & Civic Life in July 2018 to better represent the full scope of the bureau’s work and to acknowledge the current and prospective way it serves all Portlanders.
NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Bureau shall convene a Code Change Committee that will recommend changes to Chapter 3.96 that reflect: a unified set of culturally-responsive practices for engaging a diverse range of community partners; an updated description of the Bureau’s responsibilities; and a set of voluntary guidelines that represent best practices for civic engagement. These recommendations shall be presented to Council by July 2019.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the City reaffirms its commitment and responsibility to engage ALL Portlanders in efforts to foster and support civic engagement.
Adopted by the Council: Commissioner Chloe Eudaly
Prepared by: Winta Yohannes
Date Prepared: 7/05/18 Mary Hull Caballero Auditor of the City of Portland
Health concerns require him to leave the race, he says in an on-line announcement
Patrick Condon, the University of British Columbia urban design professor and likely nominee for mayor of Vancouver BC for the progressive party COPE, has announced that he is withdrawing as the result of having suffered a stroke. “Therefore, because I’m not able to dedicate my full capacity to the party as it readies itself for the upcoming election, I must end my nomination campaign,” he said.
Condon has been harshly critical of the “Vancouver model” of building high rises and other expensive units as a strategy to add market-rate units and achieve affordability. “It obviously doesn’t work,” he says flatly, referring to Vancouver’s continued status as one of the most expensive, most gentrified cities in the world.
“Vancouver needs real affordable housing for the most vulnerable, for working people and for young people and seniors,” he wrote in his announcement, reiterating an earlier goal to develop 50 percent non-market housing for the city. “I look forward to making a full recovery. I am determined to keep speaking out and will lend support to see that these objectives become reality in the City of Vancouver.”
Meena Wong, former Vancouver mayoral candidate, said she joined Condon’s campaign as manager because he was a “can-do person”. She continued, “His belief of building a just, fair and sustainable Vancouver, where everyone can afford and enjoy to live and work, resonates with mine… We wish him a speedy and full recovery.”