Kids and the City

Leslie Carlson

As a parent, I have a lot of worries about my kids. Among my worries are the mundane (did I remember to pack them lunch?), the unlikely but scary (is that rash meningitis?) to the likely and still scary (how will we pay for college if costs keep going up?)

Recently, however, I’ve added a level of background anxiety to my everyday parental worries, namely that one day I'll wake up as the last mother living in my neighborhood. But now, it seems, someone is wants to do something about the exodus of families.Abernethy_1

Portland City Commissioner Erik Sten recently put forth some interesting suggestions designed to stem the exodus with the “Schools, Families & Housing” initiative. Among Sten’s ideas are rental and mortgage assistance for low and middle-income homeowners to help offset the rising costs of housing, community grants to improve or enhance local schools programmatic offerings, helping with school facility and building needs, and finally, making schools more of a community focal point—not just a place to educate kids, but a place for the whole community to gather, learn and get involved.

These are goals I can get behind: helping families being squeezed by Portland’s year-after-year housing price increases, connecting citizens (not just parents) to schools in a way that is meaningful and keeping the Portland Public School District what it is: one of the strongest and best urban school districts in the country.

As an example, Sten imagines financial assistance for schools that pursue specific program goals to enhance their kids’ educational experience. One example that I’m familiar with: the “scratch kitchen” at my son’s school, which has garnered local and national attention in the media but which still doesn’t have permanent funding. Other Sten ideas include holding community classes and events in school buildings for those without children—how about a dog obedience class held on the school grounds in the evening? A local drama group performing a play in a school’s auditorium? A new playground for a school that allows it to function as a neighborhood park?

The loss of families with kids to outlying areas isn’t just a Portland problem and I don’t expect it will be easy to solve. In fact, other, bigger cities have tried to grapple with it and failed. But we Portlanders have something that’s worth keeping—a school district that provides an excellent education and which still educates the vast majority of kids who live here, regardless of socioeconomic status. We’ve come up with surprising ways to succeed before. Maybe we can do it again.

  • Victoria Taft (unverified)

    So Sten and the rest of the apparachiks at the city pass rules that do nothing to attract people with kids, not to mention attracting or retaining business, and then want to pay them off to either bring them back or keep the rest of them? You're kidding, right? Now we have to pay people to stay in Portland? THERE'S a great use of our tax dollars. 20% of the people in Portland have kids in the schools. How much are they willing to pay (with our tax dollars) to get that number up to 25%? 30% Your amazement that school buildings could be used for other activities is quaint. Of course they can. Eric doesn't run the schools, though. Well, not yet anyway.

  • Mister Tee (unverified)

    This ranks right up there with removing trash cans from city parks to save money on trash collection.

    Hey, I've got an idea: let's pretend that Portland has to compete with the surrounding communities to attract "family wage" jobs. Let's imagine that rational adults with children look at their tax burden, and the size of the home and yard, and decide there are more desirable places to live than Portland.

    The City is driving up the cost of housing, increasing the tax burden, and scorning the needs of families with children, BUT NOW THEY ARE WORRIED ABOUT LOSING FAMILIES? It's like living in the Twilight Zone.

    I've got a progressive idea: let's turn all those empty schools into grow operations for Medical Marijuana card holders. That would be cool.

  • (Show?)

    Here's the question I ask myself: what happens to Portland if we do nothing?

    I think you only need to look to our nearest big city neighbors, Seattle and San Francisco, for the answer. They are lovely cities, especially to visit. But middle-class families have long fled the central city, leaving only the very rich (whose kids attend private schools) and the very poor (whose kids attend public schools). Because there is no one to advocate for the public school systems, they have become more social service agencies than places to get educated. The nice neighborhoods have become ever grander and more expensive, and the poor areas ever more neglected.

    I think we'd still be a nice place to visit if no families lived here--people would come to our nice restaurants or to see the art or a play. But Portland wouldn't be a place of lively and engaged neighbors with parks full of kids. In short, we wouldn't be Portland.

  • (Show?)

    By the way Mister Tee and Victoria, what are the "anti-family" rules and policies that the City has passed?

    And I'm also interested in hearing how the city of Portland is driving up the cost of housing as compared to what other cities whose real estate is also going up are doing.

  • Mister Tee (unverified)

    Systems development charges drive up the cost of housing. Property tax rates that are more than double surrounding suburbs (or triple Vancouver). The threat of regional/city income taxes and future bond levies to pay for long negelected needs (sewer maintenance ex-big pipe), FPDR, and huge post retirement benefits for all city/county retirees.

    We switched our daycare provider from downtown to the suburbs because we were tired of walking past the cloud of smokers (the entrance to St. James is next to an affordable housing apartment complex which must be non-smoking, because they all collect at the entrance). Not to mention all the drunks/transients that would eyeball us when we arrived in the morning (oh look, honey: Vomit!).

    The city "anti-family" rules including lax enforcement of drug crimes and panhandling, public urination/defecation, and matrix jail releases. We don't like walking around downtown as much as we used to, especially at night. Why do you think they created "Downtown Clean and Safe" (answer: because the PPB has abdicated their responsibilities downtown). When was the last time you saw a uniformed officer (or two) walking a beat downtown?

    The last time we went to Pioneer Place, we were walking behind a couple of 40 year old LOSERS that were tripping on acid and on their way to the Swarovksi crystal shop (or some such place) to look at the pretty lights. Do you think that happens at the Bridgeport Mall?

    I could go on and on. But it seems unlikely I'm going to change any minds at B/O.

  • Mister Tee (unverified)

    Also: all the big money giveaways to developers like Homer Williams and OHSU (general fund, PDC, TIF/URD)...That's all money that can't be spent on things like building sidewalks in the neighborhoods that don't have them, money that didn't go to schools or public safety, and it increases the tax burden on those who are not recipients of the subsidies.

    For example, if Sten is successful and begins making transfer payments to low-income families, those costs will be paid by all the other taxpayers (including those middle/higher income families with kids). I'm calling my realtor this afternoon. TIME TO MOVE.

  • Jonathan (unverified)

    Mister Tee: "TIME TO MOVE" ...

    ... explanation ...

    "I wouldn't want to have to participate in making things better, since it would be so much easier to just abandon what I don't like, and go to a place where there's nothing bad ... dream, dream, dream."

    If you don't like the tax structure, fine. But it's a stupid connection to then attack unique ideas about building communities. You sarcastically suggest that the idea of multi-use schools is obvious. But in the 'burbs, where everyone has to drive everywhere, it loses value (more Hummers burning more gas, etc.)

    For me, I think I'd like my kids to understand and learn about all aspects of society... talking about homeless people really comes into focus when you see a shaggy guy with his shopping cart. It's not my ideal for Portland, but ignoring it by running from it won't make it better. Erik has shown the dedication to trying to address homelessness and poverty, and I'm glad he's taking up this initiative, as well.

  • Zak J. (unverified)

    A co-worker of mine who has three small children recently sold his condo in the Pearl district and moved into inner SE. His move became an article in the Pearl community newspaper because his kids represented about 10% of the children in the whole neighborhood.

    He moved for simple reasons--his condo didn't have a yard and the only public space at all suitable for young kids was Jamison Square, which isn't a playground as much as a multi-use area: no swings, no grass, but occassional syringes.

    New public spaces I've seen built in the Pearl in recent years include expensive ponds and faux "natural" areas, but still no swings. The choice to build these was not just a matter of money, since these new parks are clearly expensive. It was a matter of policies that gave priority to attracting empty nesters and DINKS (read: disposable income) instead of families with children.

    So, the Pearl was "revitalized" with a built-in death sentence. Once the children are gone and the schools close down, it's very hard to build back the critical mass of families needed to support those institutions. Which means the Pearl neighborhood will fall into ruin again as soon as it loses its hip cache, the current crop of DINKS move away when they decide to raise families, and the empty nesters move into assisted living centers. By excluding families, we've guaranteed we'll have to subsidize another revitalization within the next 20 years.

    Bad, bad policy decision.

  • (Show?)

    "Property tax rates that are more than double surrounding suburbs"? Which suburbs? Portland's rate is $19.80 per thousand. Gresham's is $17.11. Last I checked, $17.11 times two equalled $34.22, not $19.80. Even Wood Village is $15.91. On the Pearl, I heard an interesting demographer's argument recently: the Pearl should logically wind up being a place to move for empty-nesters and other childless people who are currently holding down, and keeping off the market, three- and four-bedroom houses in Portland that should have families in them. So the demographer argued that the Pearl is actually family-friendly, in an indirect way. The demographers also say that one reason families leave the city is that Portland has very few four-and five-bedroom houses, and families are much less likely than in the past to make their kids share rooms. So in addition to Sten's proposals, I think we need a back-to-the-good-old-days, stop-spoiling-your-kids campaign. "You shared a room with your sister and you turned out OK, right? Tell your kids to stop whining, they're sharing the damned room!"

  • Mister Tee (unverified)

    Levy Code 002/Multnomah County: $11.1035

    Levy Code 090/Scappoose: $11.8323

    Levy Code 085/Riverdale: $15.0467

    Vancouver: $12.05

    Your logic on the Pearl's family friendliness represents a new low in reductio ad absurdum: skinny people should thank the morbidly obese for consuming all that surplus food.

  • tom civiletti (unverified)

    I think Novick's points are all valid.

  • Mister Tee (unverified)

    Portland's millage rate isn't quite double. Yet. But there are several new local options on the horizon: libraries, schools, PCC.

    Eventually, the FPDR program will have to be funded by a new bond levy, and the City/County will have to begin address decades of deferred maintenance (roads, bridges, parks, schools). It will easily triple the least expensive suburbs.

    Syphilleti: why don't you google "sycophant".

  • jim karlock (unverified)

    Leslie Carlson Among Sten’s ideas are rental and mortgage assistance for low and middle-income homeowners to help offset the rising costs of housing, JK: Spend even more tax money to cover up the results of past bad decisions. How perfectly Sten.

    First, tax rates: $67 million is being collected, county wide, from urban renewal districts that stays in the districts, instead of going to the general funds. That is money that has to be made up by raising taxes or reducing services.

    Second, another $27 million is being abated (forgiven) for various types of development. The biggest offenders being some million dollar condos that may around $135 annual property tax. (See ) PDC is asking the city council to expand this program.

    There is a false shortage of land in the Portland urban region due to Metro’s refusal to expand the urban growth boundary at a rate to keep housing affordable. Recently one parcel sold at close to a million an acre. That is around $115,000 just for the land to build a house. In a mostly un regulated area a nice house and land can be had for around $150,000. That is responsible for a large part of why you can’t afford a house in Portland. It is also probably costing renters over $200/month. How many readers like paying $200/month to keep a tight UGB? (See )

    Thanks JK

  • lin qiao (unverified)

    Couple of important details about what Mister Tee wrote regarding proposed tax levies:

    (1) It's the Multnomah County library system. There is no city library system. (2) PCC (Portland Community College) is, despite the name, not a strictly Portland operation. Not only is one campus (Rock Creek) in Washington County, but (according to my spouse, a PCC instructor), community colleges in some other towns in essence collaborate with PCC for purposes of uniformity of standards and keeping costs down.

    Having written that, I regard Sten's idea with a lot of skepticism. The argument made by some other people in this discussion thread--that Sten's idea is basically just dinking around to try to offset the side effects of, say, taxpayer-subsidized boutique redevelopment--should be considered seriously, even if the people making the argument are being obnoxious about it. And the criticisms of the family unfriendliness of the Pearl District are perfectly reasonable, IMHO.

  • Mister Tee (unverified)

    Lin Qiao:

    We can agree that PCC, Tri-Met, and Port of Portland tax levies apply to multiple tax areas. That said, there are many nice places to live that lay outside those tax districts.

    The most expensive bond future bond levies will be for the FPDR (Fire and Police Disability and Retirement) funding, and a more proactive funding mechanism for road and bridge maintenance, Wapato Jail operating funds, and whatever wild eyed transfer payments the Stennies can dream up (driveway disconnect program? Sell your car, and the City of Portland will buy every family member a Tri-Met pass). Whoo-hooo!

    The day is coming when City of Portland/MultCo property owners will be paying triple the millage rate that Vancouver, Wilsonville, or Scappoose are paying. Don't be surprised if that results in more family flight to the less expensive, bigger yard/bigger house suburbs. More commuters, driving longer distances, with expanded gridlock. Just like the City Planners wanted.

  • Zak J. (unverified)

    Lin Qiao, Sten's idea is basically just dinking around to try to offset the side effects of, say, taxpayer-subsidized boutique redevelopment. That's very well put! LOL. I would posit that less public financing would be needed in the long run if develop goals were drawn up to consider the 10-, 20-, and 30-year outcomes of certain zoning and development decisions; e.g. keeping mixed-use, mixed-income and various household types in balance to support businesses & schools within every part of town not expressly dedicated to business.

    I find Mr. Tee a little abrasive, too, but I have to agree with his "quality of life" arguments. We desparately need a working jail system for Portland and Multnomah County. I support "the city that works" but its unofficial symbol should probably be a pile of smashed car glass because you can find one on every street. I'd like to see more cops out WALKING around, too. You see more things that way.

  • Mister Tee (unverified)


    The County's current leaders don't want a working jail system: it doesn't fit with their tolerant and progressive views on drug use, panhandling, "petty" theft, and the underlying causes of crime (poverty, addiction, societal injustice, etc).

    Walking around downtown every day of the week, I am concerned that street kids with bulldogs (or witty signs) outnumber the families with strollers or ladies with shopping bags. That's not a good metric for a "City that Works". While I am no shrinking violet, I avoid the central city when I have guests visiting from out of town: better to take them to dinner in the suburbs than risk adding to those piles of car door glass that litter the streets.

    The meth mall is going to get a $60 million dollar renovation, but I'll bet you a $100 bucks the meth addicts won't personally benefit from that expenditure. If they put $30 million into drug treatment, and $30 million into funding Wapato Jail, then I can imagine more commuters/families jumping on Tri-Met for an emissions reduced trip downtown.

    As it is, I don't want to take my three year old on a bus that is going to subject him to the mentally ill and/or homeless on a regular basis.

    I thought the below quote (from an earlier post), to be quite compelling:

    For me, I think I'd like my kids to understand and learn about all aspects of society... talking about homeless people really comes into focus when you see a shaggy guy with his shopping cart.

    Do you feel the same way about heroin addicts, prostitutes, violent street gangs, and 20 year old beggers? Because your kids are going to learn about all that (and more) if you take them downtown. Personally, I am prefer to keep my three year old in an SUV wrapped, Mister Rogers inspired bubble of innocence and wide eyed optimism rather than subject them to a society which praises "progressive values" over law and order, or even priority based budgeting.

    While my comments are intended to be abrasive, they are a cool breeze on a sunny day compared to watching a sane twenty-something defecate on a public sidewalk, or walking into the McDonalds on 6th and Main (home of the McZombie).

    The simple fact remains that Portland (downtown in particular) is a much less desirable place to raise kids than the suburbs: the urban tax burden and the City's tin ear on family friendly policies is a big part of the problem. Gritty, unemployed, drug addled transients contribute to that problem, as does the lack of jungle gyms, swings, or clean/safe restrooms in the City's parks. If the Stennies actually gave a damn about the issue (as opposed to the political fruits of "doing something about homelessness"), they would be subsidizing homeless shelters and treatment centers instead of luxury condos with vapor housing for the indigent and low income. Project homeless connect wouldn't be necessary if the underlying causes of homelessness (drug dependency, mental illness, and unemployment) were funded at the same level as our libraries, city/county employee pensions, and incentives paid to OHSU, Homer, et al.

  • Mister Tee (unverified)

    . Fixing the italics.

  • Don Smith (unverified)

    Portland has very few four-and five-bedroom houses, and families are much less likely than in the past to make their kids share rooms.

    Actually, it's against the law to have a brother and sister share a room, ridiculous as that may sound...

    So if you have three kids, you need at least 3 bedrooms, and then you have the equity argument - "why does (s)he get his/her own room and I have to share?"

    Thanks, Big've made my family safe from itself, even though I now need to buy a bigger, more expensive house...

    And those of you even applauding this effort need to take a very objective view as to why this "need" even exists. Sten's not deserving of credit for trying to solve a problem he helped create (water billing).

    By the way, why in the hell was there a $48 stormwater discharge fee on my water bill? It was SUMMER! And my downspouts are disconnected! I have friggin' rain barrels for god's sake!

  • Zak J. (unverified)

    Mr. Tee, Thanks for fixing the italics. My bad.

    I agree with you on your list of substantial quality of life problems downtown; though compared with urban centers where I've lived, it's not comparatively bad. The street kids with pit bulls truly are ridiculous. But as you alluded, so are the cuts to social services and proven programs for the truly mentally handicapped and needy that we saw in the early aughts (00s).

    As the state's major urban center, we have a situation right now where the rest of the state sends us their troubled people and, thanks to Measure 5, etc., Portland sends them its tax dollars. I think Portland's homeless and vagrant problems could be addressed by setting up centers in other parts of the state--Bend, Medford, Pendelton--to lure back and keep troubled people nearer to the family ties that represent their last good chance of salvation.

    But Portland does still work mainly because people walk in it, ride the bus in it, and most importantly, live in it. Citizens on the street is what keeps crime at bay.

    I hope our public policies for keeping the remaining parts of Portland family-friendly and pedestrian-friendly are not focussed solely on support of "needy" families but can also use planning and zoning to create the kind of infrastructure that all families rely on--parks, schools, sidewalks, police, grocery stores, etc. Portland lost about 1/5 of its schoolkids in the last decade. That loss was not due just to "needy" families moving out--it was about families across the demographic landscape moving out. Public policy should focus on bringing back everybody, even those of us with the time and means to comment on blogs.

    But it sounds like we agree on that.

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