“Rents have fallen for the rich and risen for the poor.” – Quote in Portland Tribune report
After adding 15,000 apartment units since 2015, Portland’s rental market has proven that adding supply does address demand and lower prices — but the question is, for whom.
According to new data from Zillow, Portland prices have dropped 2.7 percent — but that drop is mostly in high-cost housing, which is where most of the units have been added. From an article in the Portland Tribune:
Portland and many other major cities have been inundated with a glut of luxury housing in the last few years, and local developers are reportedly sweetening their deals with Amazon giftcard giveaways and related gimmicks in order to lure wealthy customers.
This seems to be a nationwide trend, but Portland is leading the way:
Zillow’s experts found declines in annual rental prices in more than half of nation’s 35 largest markets, but the Rose City led the way — with the biggest decrease between September 2017 and September 2018.
The article concludes:
As two freelance journalists recently put it: “Rents in Portland have fallen for the rich and risen for the poor.”
Who knew? This blog, for one: we have been warning for some time that a “build, baby build” approach is dangerous, and likely counter-productive. We have to be much more strategic in how and where we build, and for whom. Other more thoughtful voices have also been speaking out.
Film about the iconic activist is followed by a community discussion on Portland’s current challenges.
On Friday, October 19th, about 150 people participated in a screening followed by an animated discussion of Portland’s current challenges as they were illuminated by the writings and activism of urban pioneer Jane Jacobs. The film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, screened at the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center, gave an account of Jacobs’ iconic 1960s battles with development czar Robert Moses, builder of freeways and housing projects, and demolisher of what he termed “slums” — but what Jacobs and others saw as vital places of social capital and city diversity. The film also delved more deeply into Jacobs’ ideas about cities, presenting an overview of her rich theoretical and philosophical perspective on cities.
At the end of the screening, a panel and community discussion moderated by Allan Classen of the Northwest Examiner asked what we can learn today from Jacobs’ ideas and legacy. He was joined by SE Examiner editor Midge Pierce, former Portland Planning Commission Chair Ric Michaelson, Division Design Initiative coordinator Heather Flint Chatto, and yours truly, co-host Michael Mehaffy of Sustasis Foundation (and this blog).
In my remarks as co-host, I sought to set the stage for exploring the parallels between Jacobs’ ideas and the current issues we face in Portland:
Thank you all for coming to this remarkable film about a remarkable person, who played such a key role in Portland’s history and so many others’ too – and a person who still has a lot to say to us today about our current challenges. And we’ll explore that in the discussion afterwards, so please do stick around for that.
By the way, I’m Michael Mehaffy, I’m executive director of Sustasis Foundation, one of the sponsors of tonight’s event, along with the Northwest Examiner and International Making Cities Livable.
So I’m going to take just a couple of minutes to provide some background setup, including some of the Portland context, so please bear with me and we’ll get to the film monetarily.
So the promotion for this movie describes it as a, quote, “chronicle of activist Jane Jacobs’ battle with developers who threatened to demolish NYC’s most historic neighborhoods, and a lesson in the power of the average person to push back,” unquote.
And yes, that’s part of the story – but only part of it. Because really what Jacobs was talking about was how a city WORKS, and how to make it work better – how to make it more diverse, more equitable, more productive, a place of human development and flourishing. And why certain strategies are doomed to fail — and not only to fail, but to cause enormous long-term harm to the city and its residents, especially to those who are not wealthy or powerful.
When Jacobs was writing and working as an activist, we were in the surging era of city modernism and modernization, the 1950s and 60s. It was really gripping the country and the world at that time, as the film shows. We’ll see what Jacobs fought against – the top-down thinking, the expansion of freeways and superblocks and giant buildings, and everywhere the bulldozing of history and human-scale fabric. That included appalling cases in minority neighborhoods, and as James Baldwin says in the film, cases of quote, “Negro removal.” As we all know, that happened to a shocking degree here in Portland.
Of course cities do change and grow, and we do need new housing supply to meet demand – Jacobs never questioned that. But of course the issue always is, where, and how, is growth occurring – and who is really going to benefit in the end. And what do citizens have to say about that in a democracy. Are we using an even-tempered approach across the region, preserving and building on our assets? Are we working with the dynamics of the city, maintaining and increasing its diversity? Or are we doing something more reckless, perhaps, for other poorly considered and self-interested reasons? It may seem like progress, we may convince ourselves it’s something wonderful and progressive – but is it really motivated more by the thrill of novelty and financial self-interest? Jacobs wants us to ask these hard questions of ourselves, and her own judgment was often harsh. As she says in the film, “Any city that’s tearing down its buildings just to make money for a development, or just to have novelty, is doing something criminal.”
Well, we learned a lot of painful lessons coming out of that era, as the film relates. Places like Portland were part of the battle to recover the human scale of cities, the small-grained activities of the streets, the livable beauty of our heritage, the mix of uses and ways of getting around – and especially, the diversity of the city. To get that, we had to fight the corrosive influence of money and power and unresponsive government. And of course we still do.
Robert Moses, Jacobs’ major nemesis in the film, was active here in Portland too, laying out huge freeway projects that were never built. They were never built because neighborhood activists here rose up and fought for what they believed, a vision of a better city. And we are in their debt today, more than we realize.
We made a lot of progress from that era, although Portland has always been a work in progress, with a mix of successes and many challenges remaining. We still need to fight bad projects that damage our heritage and our city life, and fight for good projects, that build on the best dynamics of cities. As the title of tonight’s event suggests, the battle for the city continues.
And now we find ourselves with a new challenge, I would say a new reactionary if profitable phase of modernization – and the same troubling bulldozing of history, the same troubling command-and-control approach to urban problems, the same troubling wave of sterile large-scale, top-down structures created by developers and designers – with ever weirder and, for some, uglier buildings — leaving human beings with little to really engage with. And we see similar claims that this is for the best for people, for affordability, for the environment. And similar attacks on those citizens who dare to question that conventional wisdom. Some of my colleagues in the architecture, planning and development professions seem to think that if they just sprinkle some mixed use and some street cars at the base, the failed old model will work after all. Well, watch the film, and I think you can see a pretty powerful critique of that kind of thinking.
One of the aspects of Jacobs’ work that is not so much covered in the film is the emphasis on grass-roots governance at many levels, and most importantly down to specific places, specific neighborhoods. And I quote from her great book The Death and Life of Great American Cities:
“The principal coordination needed comes down to coordination among different services within localized places… The invention required is not a device for coordination at the generalized top, but in specific and unique localities.”
In Portland we have a fundamental problem with this kind of localized governance. We have an at-large system of council elections, which leaves many parts of the city unrepresented. We have a commissioner system of bureau management, which tends to encourage top-down bureaucracy without bottom-up responsiveness and accountability. And we have a neighborhood association system that is therefore all the more important, but – and here I will speak frankly – that is moribund, and in dire need of reform and revitalization. And yet at this moment, the bureau in charge of it seems to be moving in a very different direction.
The film concludes by observing that the kind of city-making that Jacobs fought against is now growing faster than ever before all around the world – freeways, superblocks, horizontal sprawl, vertical sprawl if you will. One of the speakers calls it “Robert Moses on steroids.” I think we have to face the global consequences of this destructive kind of city-making for the great challenges of the future – for resource depletion, ecological destruction, toxic emissions and climate change. And I think it’s a systems challenge too, a social challenge, and a governance challenge. Portland is seen as a leader on these issues for many other cities, for better or worse, and so I think it’s all the more important that we get it right here. So in that sense, I do think Jacobs and her ideas couldn’t be more relevant for us here today.
So! We have lots to discuss, and lots to think about! Thank you, and we hope you enjoy the film.
A free showing of a new film on Jacobs’ life and ideas will explore the question and its answers (Friday October 19th, 7-10 PM)
The urban champion Jane Jacobs had a special relationship with the City of Portland over its evolution as a more diverse, mixed, walkable place. A frequent advisor to grass-roots activists in the city, Jacobs championed lively, diverse neighborhoods, and she also led citizen activism against powerful special interests.
Jacobs was the author of the 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a landmark work that remains an inspiration for many planners today. Yet in it, she excoriated planners for failing to listen to people, failing to genuinely involve and empower them, and failing to develop effective strategies to promote healthy, equitable urban development. Not content to criticize, she also explained, in lucid detail and with keen powers of observation, just what was required to remedy those shortcomings.
What does Jacobs say to Portland today? Quite a lot, it turns out — as documented in the new film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. The acclaimed film — earning a 94% critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes — focuses on Jacobs’ heroic activism in New York City, her victories over bullying planner Robert Moses, and other related struggles, at a time when New York neighborhoods were threatened with destructive new freeways and other out-scale developments.
In Portland a few years later, citizen activists would be inspired by her example to fight bad freeway projects, destructive hospital and shopping mall expansions, and demolition of historic treasures. Those activist successes laid the foundation for the city’s subsequent urban renaissance, cementing Portland’s legacy as an icon of urban regeneration and enlightened planning.
But that was then and this is now, we have won those battles, and we have nothing to learn from that past — right? Sadly, nothing could be farther from the truth. Today we also face a wave of destructive projects, stiff-arming government officials, the corrosive influence of development money, and counter-productive policies that only exacerbate our problems. Jacobs’ activism — and moreover, her profound ideas on the nature of cities — still have very much to say to us today.
As we have written elsewhere, Jacobs was not only an activist, but also a deeply insightful scholar and urban scientist, teasing out the workings of cities and the dynamics of urban economies, and offering insights that we could put to work for human benefit. Her observations on “organized complexity” and a “web way of thinking” marked her as an urban visionary of the first rank. (And an economist, political theorist and more.) Above all she was a champion of diversity, of the mixing of people, activities, building types and ages, and (most overlooked) geographic locations.
As we have written elsewhere, Jacobs cautioned against “silver bullet” solutions, “rushing monocultures of the new,” and over-building in the cores of cities (including building too high). She eschewed simplistic “whack-a-mole” approaches to our urban problems, instead focusing on a more multi-faceted approach, strategically and geographically. As we wrote previously:
Jacobs argued for a more diverse kind of city – diverse in population, diverse in kinds of activities, and diverse in geographic distribution too. Hers was a “polycentric” city, with lots of affordable pockets full of old as well as new buildings, and multiple opportunities waiting to be targeted. In such a region, economic growth — and likewise the demand for housing — could be tempered and modulated to remain more even and equitable.
On Friday, October 19th, from 7 to 10PM, the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center (1819 NW Everett Street) will feature a showing of Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, the acclaimed documentary on Jacobs’ life and ideas.
Come see this remarkable film on her life’s work, followed by a panel discussion on Portland’s current situation, and the still-urgent need for citizen activism. What does Jacobs say to Portlanders, at a time when our fabled neighborhood association system is being deconstructed?