Portland Exceptionalism

Dan Petegorsky

Anna Griffin’s column in Saturday’s Oregonian (“Dan Saltzman flap a reminder of what a small town Portland is in civic circles”) focused mainly on describing Portland politics as an insular affair. It ended, though, on a perfect display of “Portland exceptionalism.” By that I mean the sense that what might hold true in other cities about the problems of a culture of political insiderism is rendered neutral here because, well, our own sh*t smells good.

Consider Griffin’s conclusion: that such matters are overlooked because this is a great place to live:

Change comes from crisis, and we haven't seen a lot of that in Oregon recently. Yes, we need jobs and our schools are in trouble. But this remains a fantastic and fantastically easy place to live, particularly compared to other big cities.

Try squaring that with a new report from PSU and the Coalition of Communities of Color that was presented to the City Council this week, and that the Oregonian covered in an article whose headline screamed, “New PSU report finds Multnomah County 'uniquely toxic' for people of color -- and getting worse.” Not only is this most decidedly not a “fantastic and fantastically easy place to live” if you’re an immigrant or person of color – it’s dramatically worse in virtually every respect than Washington’s King County.

I can’t really tell if Griffin meant her ending to be sarcastic, but the attitude she expresses is sadly characteristic of Portland under the current city administration. Whatever critiques one might have had of Tom Potter, he made addressing such fundamental inequity a high priority and demonstrated a strong commitment to making a place for “outsiders” inside City Hall.

That commitment to equity appears to have waned under the new administration, and is voiced largely in response to crises like police shootings or shocking reports such as the PSU/Communities of Color study. Is it that hard to smell the sh*t through the roses? Or, like Griffin’s “easy living,” is it just too easy for white Portland to ignore?

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    Dan, I agree that Mayor Adams has not done enough to address the disparity in opportunity and outcomes in minority and lower income communities. Of course, I don't think that any Portland mayor in my memory has done enough.

    From your point of view, what did Mayor Potter demonstrate by way of commitment to address these gross inequities? I found him to be strong in an important way--in his public statements--but incredibly weak on delivery. He was so indifferent or even hostile to development of any kind that he missed the essential role that housing, schools and other social infrastructure play.

    Just look at the future of the former Whitaker Middle School site on NE 42nd & Killingsworth, for example. During Potter's term in office, NAYA, Hacienda and PCRI convened a forum, with the help of Enterprise and local architect Stuart Emmons, to develop a community-driven proposal to deliver an integrated plan for housing, recreation and a new school on that site. I can go into more detail about the potential of this plan to provide an anchor in Cully/Concordia, but to make a long story short: Potter never to my knowledge uttered a word in support of this project, whether in public or in private.

    Just one of many examples from my perspective.

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      Rich - I agree that P's delivery was much weaker than his statements, and that following through on promises of affordable housing development in the city has been awful. What's your assessment of Nick Fish's role since he joined the Council?

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        I'm not nearly as involved in the day to day as when I was working at city hall, so my main answer is that I don't know. I like that Nick is pushing for a housing bond.

        I hope that the targets for the investments are tied to school enrollment and neighborhood-scale organizing such that lower income families can remain a part of Portland's more stable neighborhoods. I believe that large scale displacement is a major contributor to the worsening conditions described in the study.

        For example: can we organize parents of pre-K children in the Humboldt neighborhood, and use housing investment and coordinated curriculum planning with the school district, to deliver curriculum improvements that help everyone. Keep kids of all backgrounds, by choice, in their neighborhood schools by improving the quality of the curriculum. Higher enrollment means more dollars above the fixed costs of running a school, so more language immersion, music, art, etc.

        To me, the problem is so big that it not only has to be a single politician's main focus for her career, it needs to be the city's main focus for 10-20 years. Including business, the city club, the police, Portland's amazing non-profit community, etc. We're talking about something like 20,000-30,000 people who have been uprooted by housing prices alone.

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    I too was puzzled by Anna's close. My take is we've had all sorts of continuing crises in Oregon. Since the timber economy fell apart, rural Oregon has become terribly poor. Multnomah County, as Dan points out, is riddled with inequality. Sarah Mirk at the Mercury recently pointed out that at least as judged by how the city spent Federal stimulus dollars, spending policies might exacerbate that inequality: less than 10% of City Federal stimulus money went east of 82d. Unfortunately, there's not, all in all, much funding for public services that might ameliorate inequality:Thanks to Measures 5 and 47 in the '90's, we have $2.7 billion a year less for public services statewide than we would have, and that has meant severe cuts in schools and services for the needy - especially in Portland, where both schools and services for the needy were unusually well-funded prior to 5 and 47. If we repealed Measure 47, that's $150 million a year for City and County public services; go back to pre-Measure 5, it's $450 million. Thats just City and County; if you brought back pre-Measure 5 levels of local funding for Portland Public Schools, fuggedaboutit - you'd think we could afford to pave the school playgrounds with gold. I think Anna might not be right about crisis bringing change. It did in the Depression, but in the '60's it was a rising feeling of optimism and possibility that brought change - civil rights laws, Medicare, environmental laws, etc. Sometimes people just suffer through ongoing crises. As to the current city administration versus Potter, I'm not sure what exactly Potter DID to reduce inequality, and I guess Adams could argue that dealing with the poor is, formally, mostly the county's responsibility, and anyway he's trying to help the schools cut the dropout rate. I do think, though, that giving up the Police Bureau didn't help, because it is unavoidably the fact that poor people are more likely to be victims of crime AND to feel mistreated by the police than rich people: if you have the Police Bureau you have to be aware of at least some of the problems of the poor.

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      Well said, Steve. Certainly the external constraints on funding are major obstacles.

      Absent a grand overhaul, I hope we can focus on two things (at a minimum): real estate transfer fees for affordable housing, and real SDCs for schools. The bonds and the PDC minimum spending levels are something, but I strongly prefer structural solutions that endure, and that link the source of the problem with the solution.

      Of course, in today's housing market, with construction screeched to a halt and urban renewal receipts acutely anemic, the problems of households being underwater is as big a problem as any. The situation you describe wrt 5 & 50 was bad enough, but now you have something like a 20-30% reduction in home values, with homeowners still on the line to keep the debt repayments in line with original values. It's like a giant new overhead charge tacked onto an already difficult situation, in terms of how current earning opportunities fit with existing debt obligations.

      Pearl Buck might have some insight? I dunno.

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    Well, I actually think it can be both. Portland can be a "fantastic and fantastically easy place to live", with all sorts of amenities, infrastructure, and beauty... and also be an enclave of silent racists, unprofessional trigger happy cops, and painfully poor social mobility.

    The trouble is that the only thing that a mayor can do is address the police thugs, and that, only at the cost of his mayoralty. Everything else is cultural, and can only change slowly over time.

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      That's just not true. In the past 15 years alone, the city council has delivered somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million for housing and schools. On top of that, the zoning decisions made by the city have a profound effect on opportunity for people of different income levels.

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      I was born at a hospital in Portland, went to grade school in east Portland, and have lived in the metro area for about 20 of my 24 years.

      I have always found Portland to be the most hopeless place I've ever lived. But then, I'm a poor person of color. Which is sad because I know it better than most of my friends. There's almost no neighborhood I don't know now. And I care about this city a lot.

      It's heartbreaking year after year to meet people from Iowa or California or eastern Oregon who've moved here and prospered, age 18-50, and I've never had one decent, viable job here.

      Portland has so many problems, that, having moved away twice and having lived in other states and regions, I now recognize to be plain and ridiculous in scope. When I move away for a third time I probably won't come back.

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    Hmmm, this thread seems to have produced comments that overstate the problems, much as Griffin may have minimized them with her toss-off close.

    There's not a major city in the US that can't be criticized. Portland is insular, not very diverse, has a weak economy, and focuses public dollars on the inner core. But it also has many virtues.

    I was disappointed in that "toxic environment" article because the comment and the facts weren't congruent. Portland may or may not be toxic to nonwhites: what that article highlighted is something different--and perhaps worse--nonwhites are at enormous financial and education disadvantage. Nothing in the article suggested anything about the a toxic environment that led so many people, like Steve Maurer, to conclude it was rife with "silent racists."

    Things are complex. Portland is a great place. It's also a troubled place. These two things are not mutually exclusive.

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      Sure, Portland's a great place for a lot of people. To me, that's why we shouldn't feel defensive when people say their lives here are very difficult--and that they are losing ground, not gaining ground. I don't think the intent is to criticize people for liking their lives in Portland, but rather to highlight the need for more help from people who are in the position to help.

      I wish these dynamics had as dedicated an operation delivering results as, say, the streetcar.

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    Rich - On urban renewal and housing, on balance do you think that the PDC housing set-aside has resulted in more low-income housing than we might have if we junked urban renewal zones, increased (arguably) tax revenue for city and county services including some that could be spent on housing, and used zoning / planning rules (outside the context of urban renewal) to require developers to include low-income housing in their developments? I'm not sure I understand the subject well enough to even ask the question properly, but I'm sure you'll be able to rephrase the question for me and give a thoughtful answer ...

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      If the 30% urban renewal set-aside for housing had been in place prior to the boom, I feel quite certain that it would have produced more money for housing than we experienced--and that's during a period when Erik, as housing commissioner, had a decent amount of influence over PDC and general fund budgets.

      I haven't seen the tax receipts in detail on a URA-by-URA basis (Urban renewal area) since the bottom fell out of the market. Certainly, it has to be the case that actual urban renewal revenues these days are well below what was forecast in 2007 and before. The set-aside, at this point, will be a weak source of funding.

      Compression under Measure 5 happens on a property-by-property basis, though with respect to urban renewal some of the URAs are exempt from the Measure 5 cap of $10 per $1000 for local gov't. Because the 5 cap applies to the market value, and not the 47/50-limited assessed value, existing housing has been generally less likely to hit compression. It's a totally random thing though, as it depends upon where the house was on the 6 year assessor's cycle relative to the 3 year rollback from 47/50. During that period of time, many houses in N/NE tripled in value, so you literally have $300,000 homes paying $800 a year in property taxes while a neighbor pays $4000.

      Over time, the 3% annual increase will bring everyone into compression. Lately, though, it's been new construction most affected by compression. A River District condo built in 2004, and sold for $500,000, would start with an assessed value of about that. As the overall school and local gov't levies were applied, the total tax burden would almost always be above the Measure 5 limits. It's plausible, depending upon the URA, that you could take out urban renewal entirely, and still be in compression in most properties. That's especially true anywhere where the URA rides above the 5 cap because of the provisions of Measure 50.

      Compression, of course, is segmented into the $10 for local gov't and $5 for schools. The school dollars go to Salem and are redistributed under the formula. The basic rule is that for every dollar Portland sends down on the margin, it gets 10 cents back. Another limit on the local benefits of axing urban renewal.

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        Basic rule of thumb for urban renewal areas post-mortgage meltdown: the credit card is maxed out, and the waiting list for new projects is long.

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      As for inclusionary zoning--that is, requiring new development to build a share of affordable housing: even under the best of circumstances, this is a very weak tool for housing, because even in a boom the percentage of new housing vs. existing is quite low. And in a hot market, however unlikely we are to see one again soon, you could create some real distortions.

      We spent several years looking at various funding options, and came away with the opinion that the real estate transfer fee is by far the best approach. Gentrification is to some extent fueled by new construction, but much of it is the drive to fix up existing housing. The average residential property was turning over every 3-4 years around 2000, and that rate no doubt increased during the flipping frenzy that followed. 0.75% of the sales price nets ~$50-100 million a year inside the UGB. That goes so much farther than even an aggressive 20-30% affordable standard for new construction, and the new construction piece doesn't get you the housing where you need it, in many cases.

      The city funds affordable housing competitively. The money is used as gap financing. It's highly efficient, and allows for precise targeting based on housing policy. Best, in my opinion, to have a dedicated source of funding tied to the real motor--which is the turnover in both the new and existing housing markets.

      Same for schools. It's outrageous that we don't make new development pay SDCs for schools. In Portland, sewer SDCs total around $5000 per housing unit, $2500 for transportation, $8000 for parks, about $1800 for water. There is a statewide ban on schools SDCs, yet PPS has about a $1.5 billion facilities backlog, along with ~$500 million in the other East Portland districts.

      The state of Oregon added more than 400,000 new housing units from 1990 to 2006. If each one had paid a $5,000 schools SDC, that would have generated $2 billion for construction and maintenance during that period.

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      Sorry for belaboring the point, but I think that zoning/planning rules can best be put to use to coordinate the density of housing (particularly housing serving kids) with the available capacity of "family infrastructure"--K-12 schools, parks, pre-K, pedestrian and bike safety measures, etc.

      As Portland looked to meet its density obligations under the 2040 plan, it heavily upzoned the newly annexed areas of Cully, Brentwood/Darlington, and everything east of 82nd to the Gresham line at roughly 162nd. Those areas were woefully under-capacity when it came to the stuff that kids need. Of course, the land was cheaper, and the incredible amount of stuff that got slammed up in those neighborhoods came on the market cheaper than much of the existing housing in the gentrifying neighborhoods.

      The mess created by all of that is playing a huge role in denying opportunity to low income families, which as the PSU study shows correlates heavily with Portland's minority populations. Lots of displacement, overcrowded facilities, inadequate social infrastructure, etc.

      Maybe 50% of what was built east of 82nd should have been disallowed in the absence of specific funded plans to provide the needed infrastructure. Especially the schools, because those districts don't have the capacity to pass facilities bonds. It wasn't being tracked closely enough at Planning or at City Hall for over ten years, and even when we threw a big light on it after 2004, Potter didn't have an appetite for the development-related aspects of the task.

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        Very good points, Rich. So much of what ends up in the data as negative factors among the "social determinants of health" (i.e., what makes an environment literally 'toxic') stems from housing.

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    Rich - thanks very much. I am not at all sure you are right about the 3% ultimately bringing everyone into compression. That assumes real market value won't start growing above 3% a year again. My guess is that at some point we'll have Carter-era across-the-board inflation again, even if not a housing=specific bubble, and the 3% won't come anywhere near to keeping up.

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      Hey Steve, not exactly what I meant. The millage rates increase as the assessed values lag behind.

      I think the Portland local gov't millage rate is a little over $20 per $1000, for example.

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        Excuse me, I think that's the combined rate for local gov't and schools.

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          Wish I could edit comments, but here's the TSCC report:


          $21.79 for Portland for FY09-10.

          Can we get a round of applause for the TSCC? They do amazingly good work.

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    Yes they do! I have periodically joined Don McIntire in defending their budget ...

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