How not to solve a housing crisis (part 3)

The rhetoric of proponents of HB 2007 (like Rep. Tina Kotek of North Portland) is that forcing tear-downs promotes urban equity and diversity. Evidence shows the reality is the exact opposite. Source: Restore Oregon.

A story on NPR’s Weekend Edition on May 28th illustrates why “Build, Baby Build” — the strategy to force existing neighborhoods to accept tear-downs for new housing under Oregon’s proposed HB 2007 —  is an inept approach to deal with the challenges of affordability and urban diversity.  Indeed, it is likely to feed the opposite outcome.

The interviewee is Svenja Gudell, Chief Economist for Zillow.  Host Lulu Garcia-Navarro asked Gudell what was causing the sharp spike in unaffordability in many cities around the country (not just Portland):

GUDELL: You know, it’s a little bit of everything, and it’s hard to kind of narrow down the exact reason. But a lot of builders that we’ve talked to say that due to the cost of regulation, land and even labor and supply costs, they don’t believe they can build a house on the periphery that would be considered, perhaps, more an entry-level home at a price point that they think they can sell it for.

They need to be able, of course, make some profits if they’re willing to build that home. And they think they have to price it as such a level that no one that would be able to pay that price would be willing to commute for an hour and a half to their job into the city. And so that means they simply don’t build those types of homes. So most builders have been concentrating on what’s called Class-A locations. That means usually fill in

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Luxury properties.

GUDELL: Luxury properties – really nice locations within the city that oftentimes come at a really high price point.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We’re also seeing another effect for lower-income homeowners, at least in the cities. We’re seeing gentrification. People are moving in to places where working-class people lived, and their properties are being developed and marketed to people with more money. What is behind that push?

GUDELL: You know, it’s really a drive, oftentimes, to make cities more dense. You know, as many cities are experiencing population increases right now, you have these developers coming into neighborhoods that used to be a little bit more rundown or a bit cheaper, and they buy up single-family homes that were built in the ’50s or even older. And they try to put townhomes in or condos – any sort of higher-density living. And that, of course, displaces a whole bunch of residents that used to live there because most of time, they aren’t able to afford to still live in the neighborhood at these new places because they often run at a much higher rate than they’re used to paying for their old place.

Or, as we see in Portland, they simply tear down more affordable single-family houses and build much more expensive… single-family houses.  Or maybe duplexes or triplexes if we’re lucky — but far short of a meaningful response to the metro-wide scale of new demand for housing.

So why throw existing neighborhoods under the bus, for such a dubious gain?  Have we really run out of suitable empty sites in the metro region — parking lots, wasted space, “SLOAP” (Space Left Over After Planning), greyfield malls, etc?  Hardly.

Have we really run out of good compatible infill types that  would likely be accepted by  residents, instead of the current polarized and counter-productive attacks on “NIMBYs”, shoving ugly, incompatible “space invaders” down their throats?  Hardly.

What we’ve run out of is the vision and the expertise to develop the tools and strategies needed for actually effective results.

But it feels good to do something — anything! And to make it symbolic of social justice, demonizing advocates of livability and historic preservation as the problem.  Even if the actual evidence should tell us that we’re… dead wrong.

Read the full interview:


What I saw (and said) at the Oregon Capitol hearing on HB 2007

The informational hearing on HB 2007 on May 25, 2017. Click on the image to view the full video.

Author note:  The aim of this testimony was not to “rally the troops” but to reach out to legislators who are undecided about HB 2007, and might reconsider some of the flawed assumptions behind its logic.   This is a “teachable moment” to reconsider what the great urbanist Jane Jacobs called “the kind of problem a city is” — not a problem that is amenable to “command and control” approaches.  Still, there ARE tools available, but we must be careful to use them wisely, if we are going to actually meet our urban challenges.  HB 2007 still has a long way to go in that respect.

This is a companion post to an earlier report here

Good morning, and thank you for the invitation; these are certainly serious issues before us today. I’m Michael Mehaffy, and I’m a consultant in sustainable urban development, and currently a senior researcher at KTH University in Stockholm. I’m also a resident of Portland, and president of the Goose Hollow neighborhood association, and I’m executive director of the Sustasis Foundation, an Oregon non-profit developing tools for sustainable urban development. I’ve also taught at the University of Oregon and elsewhere.

Over my career I have also served as a homebuilder, developer, planner, designer, and consultant, working on sustainable development policies for the City of Portland, for Metro, and for a number of other area governments. I’ve also worked on projects in North America, South America, and Europe, and most recently for the United Nations, on the challenges of rapid urbanization, affordability, equity, and cities for all.

I wanted to preface my remarks with this background, because I think what we face today is really a global challenge – the failure of many cities to work well for all their citizens, particularly as they grow rapidly. And to meet this challenge, I think we will have to better understand what the great urbanist Jane Jacobs called “the kind of problem a city is,” and learn from our considerable mistakes of recent decades – especially our tendency to focus on top-down approaches that produce regrettable unintended consequences – as my colleagues have alluded to.

As Jacobs pointed out, urban diversity is not only a matter of justice – it’s really a question of how well our cities actually perform, as engines of sustainable economic and human development. The research shows that, to the extent that some populations are cut off from open access to the city and its benefits, the city will under-perform economically and socially, with impacts on prosperity, quality of life and health for all the residents.

So in that respect, I applaud the motivation behind this legislation, as my colleagues have. At the same time, I think we have to ask very hard questions about what the actual outcomes will be from our approaches, and who will actually benefit. So in that spirit, I’d like to share with you what I think are three significant lessons from an international perspective:

Lesson one is that real estate markets clearly do not follow a simple supply-demand-price formula. Building more supply does not always lower cost – not if the supply itself is more expensive than the existing supply, or if it serves to make the location more desirable relative to other places – if we are more affordable, for example. Of course, we are not in an isolated, fixed housing market here in Oregon. There is a dynamic problem of “induced demand” – the more affordable we make our housing, the more we attract residents from the more expensive markets of California and elsewhere.

Of course, we do need to build to accommodate a growing population – but I think it is essential to do so in places and ways that build on, and do not destroy, the existing assets of our cities. There are indeed many diverse places within the Portland region and other Oregon cities, where “gentle densification” can and should occur.

As we saw when I was working with Metro on development within its centers and corridors plan, there is a surprisingly large capacity of building sites, in many existing infill sites, in parking lots, and other under-utilized places. The result can be popular mixed-use assets for the surrounding neighborhoods, as I think we showed at Orenco Station, if you’re familiar with that project, where I was project manager. We do not need to destroy our livable heritage, or force existing residents to accept major disruptions to the quality and beauty of their neighborhoods. We do need better tools to unlock and incentivize development in these other places.

Following that, lesson two, I would say, is that more broadly, complicated formulas and mandates are no replacement for a careful “toolkit” based approach, as I’ll call it, using locally applied fine-grained tools to incentivize the kind of growth we need, and to provide the kinds of protections also needed for existing residents and disadvantaged populations, and also for our heritage assets, as Peggy talked about. You’re on the right track in some ways, but again, I think it needs a lot of work.

Lesson three is that I think it’s vital to work with existing residents, not against them. Over my career in public involvement I’ve seen how residents can be converted into partners to find good win-win solutions. For example, discretionary review can be supplemented, not replaced, with a streamlined “prescriptive path” for projects to be essentially “pre-approved” – but only if they follow specifications developed with the neighborhood residents to assure compatibility and maintain quality. Portland and other Oregon cities are full of wonderful compatible examples of what we might call “beauty in my back yard,” and that neighborhoods would support, and could support.

I know my colleagues have already pointed out the important economic and cultural value of Oregon’s heritage assets, and I probably don’t need to remind colleagues of that here. And these are resources we should value and protect, surely. May I also point out that when residents are upset over demolitions, it may be less a case of fear of change, and more a case of seeing beautiful structures replaced by ones of much lower quality. And I think that degradation is something we all have to take very seriously as environmental stewards, of both the natural and the built environment. And of course those have to go hand in hand.

By the way, I want to say, I regard my colleagues at 1000 Friends of Oregon as friends and allies on most issues. Like them, I believe that accommodating new residents and managing affordability does not require us to make bad decisions outside of our urban growth boundaries – decisions that would compromise our natural heritage. That’s a false choice, and Oregon’s land use legacy shows that if we work carefully, much better choices are available to us.

Just so, may I say that accommodating new residents and managing affordability does not require us to make bad decisions inside our urban growth boundaries either – decisions that could cause irreparable harm to some of Oregon’s most vital urban environmental assets. I would have to conclude based on the evidence, that in its present form, this bill still poses that grave danger.  Thank you.


How not to solve a housing crisis (Continued)

What we learned from a hearing at the Oregon Capitol:  HB 2007 has not improved, but at least it has gotten more complicated

The McMansion Relief Act of 2017? Existing residential fabric already includes relatively affordable housing and is likely to provide only a small number of new units regionally, which are often much more expensive. A typical tear-down in NE Portland. Source: Restore Oregon.

Representatives of the homebuilder lobby were conspicuous by their absence at a May 25th  hearing before the Oregon House Committee on Human Services and Housing.  That is particularly curious, because it’s homebuilders that clearly have the most to gain from HB 2007, the Oregon bill titled “Relating to housing development; declaring an emergency.”

Instead, seven of ten invited speakers joined two legislators to speak largely in praise of the bill, and to re-frame the argument as a broad-brush attack on Oregon NIMBYs (short for “Not In My Back Yard”).  Precious little evidence was examined on effective tools for affordable housing or even housing supply.  Little consideration was given to the actual impacts and  possible unintended consequences of the bill.  It became clear that the central argument for the bill was an ad hominem attack on Oregon neighborhoods that allegedly “want to self-segregate,” in the remarkable words  of bill sponsor Tina Kotek:

“HB 2007 would get rid of some of the loopholes that allow NIMBYism to block development when wealthy neighborhoods simply want to self-segregate, and prevent affordable housing development in their communities.”

But does the evidence show that “NIMBYism” in wealthy neighborhoods is actually a significant barrier to affordable housing?  How much of the problem up to now has been, to be blunt, a heavy-handed failure to work WITH residents to find good win-win solutions?  (I say this as one who has put his own money where his mouth is on this issue, winning entitlements for affordable housing projects as well as much higher density infill developments.)

And when new housing is created over neighborhood objections, how often is it really more affordable? What actual percentage of new units are occupied by people of color for the first time?  More pointedly, what is the evidence that those who oppose HB 2007 (like the National Trust for Historic Preservation or Restore Oregon, to name two) do so out of a desire to “self-segregate”?

And to be blunt, how much of the proposed “solution” is a fantasy, inspired by ideologically charged identity politics and ill-conceived “command and control” thinking, and egged on by self-interested lobbies — and how much is grounded in real evidence of what works, including the cautionary evidence from other cities and countries?

In one of the few citations of actual evidence, Restore Oregon president Peggy Moretti gave statistics of how many homes were demolished in Portland in 2016 (376) and showed a series of examples of  single family units in the $300,000 to $500,000 range being replaced by other single-family homes or duplexes of up to a million dollars each.

Moretti concluded, “As it currently stands, this bill is a case study in overreach, unnecessary complexity, and bad unintended consequences.”

Moretti and others (including this author) were at pains to acknowledge the real problems, and the value of “gentle densification” from accessory units and multi-unit conversions.  We also pointed to alternative tools and strategies that are likely to be more effective, on the basis of the evidence of what actually works.

Let us hope that this bill will get more considered review on the facts and the merits, and that the over-heated and divisive attacks on existing residents and historic preservation advocates will subside.

So to recap, what did we learn on May 25th?

  1. No evidence has been presented that HB 2007 will significantly increase housing supply in Oregon.
  2. Even assuming it did, no evidence has been presented that HB 2007 would increase affordability.
  3. Even if it did, no evidence has been presented that the bill would increase neighborhood diversity.
  4. Instead, HB 2007 is being sold with a largely symbolic ad hominem attack on existing neighborhoods and advocates for Oregon’s urban heritage.
  5. The consequences will not be symbolic: continued slow (and not so slow) destruction of the livable and historic fabric of Portland, and other Oregon cities.  And possibly, an increasingly ugly and divisive tone in Oregon’s urban politics.

We give the final word to the great urbanist Jane Jacobs:

“Communities that want a certain thing are derided for saying ‘not in my back yard.’ If you listen to ‘not in my back yard’ people, their objection is often to something that shouldn’t be in anybody’s back yard. What has been proposed should be done differently”.

HB 2007 should be done differently.

See the full video of the session here:

A warning from San Francisco

A very thoughtful post on “how to be a housing ally (or why I’m not a YIMBY)”. Well worth a full, careful read.

How to Be a Housing Ally (Or, Why I’m Not a YIMBY)

A few excerpts of special relevance to Portland:

Recently, NIMBY has become shorthand for anyone who is set in their ways, who is old and outdated. And since the arrival of the YIMBYs, it’s become a simple one-word way to dismiss any disagreement about development, no matter the basis…

In some ways, this is a battle over how economics works: will building more market-rate (i.e., very high-end) housing in San Francisco actually help or hurt? Can we simplify housing economics in a hot market to basic principles of supply and demand? Does an unregulated real estate market actually benefit everyone? I have data and figures to battle theirs, like the recent report by the UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project that shows that market-rate housing can take DECADES to become affordable to middle- and low-income residents — a timeline that is far too long for the people and communities that are being displaced right in this moment.

Without assuming too much or making ad hominem attacks, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that YIMBYism is appealing to young folks who are relatively new to San Francisco, who maybe aren’t rich but who don’t appear to be poor either.. I understand the appeal of YIMBYism, because I feel it, too. I am a young, well-educated, white woman who was raised by comfortably middle-class parents, and I currently earn a living wage. I identify as liberal and progressive… So YIMBYism appeals. YIMBYs claim to have the solution for making room for everyone…their assessment of the cause of the housing affordability crisis and the solution means that I don’t have to question whether I am playing an active role in displacing folks, and in bringing gentrification. It’s not my fault that these changes are happening in this city — it’s the fault of old NIMBYs and bad planners and progressives from previous generations who thought they could keep San Francisco in stasis. I don’t have to question what I want, or who suffers when I get it. And instead of taking part in the long, tiring, sometimes fruitless fight against the money and power that steamrolls communities, I can just open my arms, and say “Yes, please!,” and embrace the changes that are happening in this city, the changes that feel inevitable and that in some ways I am bringing and that frankly, benefit me and the folks that I know….

Increasingly, the word “NIMBY” is being used to discount and delegitimize anyone who questions development — no matter the reason. This is a deceptive oversimplification, and we can challenge it by asking two simple questions before writing people off: 1) who is opposed to a particular development? and 2) why?

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?

Jane Jacobs on NIMBYs

…[When we saved Greenwich Village] we were called names for this: selfish and negative. What a bunch of negative people! But everybody in the neighborhood understood…

“Also communities that want a certain thing are derided for saying ‘not in my back yard.’ If you listen to ‘not in my back yard’ people, their objection is often to something that shouldn’t be in anybody’s back yard. What has been proposed should be done differently.

“I see over and over your [World Bank] emphasis on the importance of community participation, and I want to make sure you understand what traps can be arranged under its name…. This is vicious stuff, and under such nice names: community participation, power to the people, and so on. You always have to look for the substance of these things, not how nice they sound.”

– Excerpts from “Urban Economy and Development” conference with the World Bank, February 4, 2002.  Quoted in Vital Little Plans: The Short Woks of Jane Jacobs, Edited by Samuel Zipp and Nate Storring.

A warning from Vancouver

Building more may not lower prices, and may actually raise them. Funny stuff, that real estate: instead of just supply and demand, there’s location, location and location, and other funny dynamics.  Who knew? Our much-envied big sister city in B.C., for one.

“The City of Vancouver is finally admitting that they cannot build their way out of the housing affordability crisis. The supply myth has been driving ever-escalating amounts of market housing, but affordability is getting worse, not better…

“The industry must be pleased that the same supply myth continues to be applied even though the city admits it doesn’t work. More expensive market supply will not make things more affordable. It will, in fact, continue to intensify the affordability crisis as millennials are demo-victed from their older housing and priced out of Vancouver. How many more times will the city do the same things expecting different results?”

“Housing reset — Supply myth exposed, but more of the same,” from the Vancouver Sun. A very thoughtful article, worth a full read.

Plans for the renovated Portland Building revealed – mostly better, but who’s been watching too much Mad Men?


A screen shot from the fly-by, showing the removal of the much-hated garage entry on the park. (Click to view.)

The City of Portland’s Office of Management and Finance has sent out video “fly-bys” of the proposed renovations to the Portland Building.  Gone is the most horrible mistake of the original plan, the garage entry that consumes the park side of the building (likened to an “anus” pointing toward one of the most important public spaces of the city).

On the other hand, it cannot be said that the proposed new design is sympathetic to Michael Graves’ original post-modernist project.  (Which, like many others of its generation,  sought imperfectly to provide an alternative to the widely-perceived failures of modernism.)  In what seems to be a clumsy Mies-take, dull curtain walls with black mullions replace the ground floor exterior walls.  Yes, the building needed more light — but  with such an ill-fitting, fashionably thoughtless design?

The website tries to explain it, showing in the process how laughably anachronistic retro-modernist the architecture profession has gotten.  “Notice how historical elements coexist with the modern,” it gushes.  Historical, as in 1982, and modern as in, what, 1960?

Someone has been watching way too much Mad Men…