Charting Portland’s Political Landscape

by Steve, April 21st, 2008

Local politics, particularly in a liberal city like Portland, are not a localized version of the national scene. There is not a labor/business split in our governing bodies, for example, and nary a Republican in sight serving in any significant local public office.

The historic split in municipal politics has come between real estate developers, who want to maximize the value of their land by increasing density, and those who have stood in their way: neighborhood preservationists and environmentalists.

Siding with the developers, you often find labor, since commercial real estate development usually means union jobs.

But a funny thing happened on the way to global warming. The developers managed to co-opt environmentalists with the idea of “smart growth.” Without the environmental movement in their way, the developers now have virtual carte blanche to run things as they please.

One of the only constituencies left in opposition to this juggernaut are those who oppose gentrification and favor rent controls, that is, people who are virtually powerless by definition.

There’s also the business constituency, relatively weak in Portland compared to other big cities, which takes issue with using tax revenue to subsidize anything, except maybe parking. But they don’t object to gentrification, since it tends to grow markets for the goods and services they sell.

To be clear, I like the ideas of limiting sprawl, preserving green spaces, and developing housing near employment. But the “sustainable” label has been used and abused beyond recognition in Portland. We’ve significantly over-built condos in the central city, publicly subsidized to the tune of millions of dollars annually with a streetcar system that does not solve any identifiable transportation problem and an aerial tram to no place in particular.

Additionally, the “sustainable development” crew has pushed “skinny lots” in our core residential neighborhoods, and multi-story condo developments in our distributed town centers, like Belmont, Hawthorne, Alberta, and now Interstate and Mississippi. All of this is predicated on the notion that we’ve already maxed out our available housing stock, and must choose between building up or building out.

People who object to having a nine-story condo building towering over their back yards obviously don’t understand that we’re going to have 300,000 new residents in Portland, Real Soon Now.

That’s the canard that’s repeated ad nauseum and without qualification or any sense of irony by the candidates who represent big developers. Oh, they’re coming, whether we like it or not, they assure us, and we better make sure we build up rather than out to accommodate them.

So commercial real estate developers not only get to maximize their land values by increasing density under the cloak of “sustainability,” they’re given significant public subsidy to do so.

And what about the “G” word? Yes folks, “smart growth” is progressively gentrifying every neighborhood in Portland’s residential core. This isn’t very “smart” if you, like me, value the diversity of your neighborhood.

And that brings us to what’s wrong with the Mayor’s race in Portland. You’ve got Sam Adams, unabashedly pushing the big developer’s agenda, and Sho Dozono unabashedly pushing the big business agenda (criticizing Adams for opposing Wal-Mart).

But this is a false dichotomy, since they both essentially represent big money. Neither candidate says “boo” about rent stabilization, preserving affordable housing (as opposed to building it per the big developers’ “smart growth” vision) or preserving the historic quality of our neighborhoods.

Both, of course, are “green” candidates, as is virtually every candidate running for city office (Mike Fahey nothwithstanding). But neither of them seems to have much interest in affordable housing.

At yesterday’s North Portland Candidates’ Forum, Adams went so far as to say North Portland has too much affordable housing, a reference to all the public housing on the Peninsula. Which could be taken as thinly-veiled racism.

It could also be construed as missing the point, since it isn’t just the poor and working poor who struggle with housing prices in Portland, but increasingly two-income, middle class families.

At least in the council races, there are a couple candidates who will speak earnestly about issues of housing and gentrification.

For seat #2, being vacated mid-term by Erik Sten, Ed Garren has been the only candidate to actually talk about rent control. Nick Fish talked about “fixing the roof before putting in a jacuzzi” at yesterday’s forum, which is nice. But Jim Middaugh, Erik Sten’s chief of staff, mostly wanted to remind us of those 300,000 people moving here. (Sure, Middaugh talks a good game on his campaign Web site, but I can’t get over the feeling that it’s just boilerplate. He wanted to talk a lot more about those 300,000 new residents yesterday than the communities displaced by the City Hall business as usual his candidacy represents.)

Likewise John Brannam, running for seat #1, who was the first to intone the 300,000 figure at yesterday’s forum. We all know where Chris “streetcar” Smith stands, of course, so much so that he doesn’t even have to speak of the 300,000 promised ones.

In his Willamette Week endorsement interview, Smith talked of replicating the kind of development supported by the central city streetcar loop on the east side. Yes, folks, condos and streetcars for all your friends! To Gresham with the unwashed masses! Let them ride MAX! Somehow, Smith thinks we can cut our carbon footprint in half by pushing all the po’ folks to the margins of our metro area. Well, maybe he doesn’t really think it through that far. But that’s the upshot of gentrifying our close-in neighborhoods with the kind of development he champions.

Amanda Fritz and Charles Lewis stand out as candidates for seat #1 who want to focus on neighborhoods. Lewis had the audacity yesterday to speak of affordable housing (gasp!), and Fritz has been steadfast in her advocacy for shifting the city’s budget priorities to basic services in the neighborhoods. (I’ve already endorsed Fritz for this seat.)

So our Portland body politic is divvied up into a handful of sometimes-overlapping camps, with an overarching “sustainable” umbrella big enough to offer refuge to all kinds of scoundrels. (“Sustainability” is to Portland politics what patriotism is to national politics.)

Dozono is alone in his big retail fealty, but Sam Adams has good company in the real estate developers’ court with Jim Middaugh and Chris Smith.

Those seeking to preserve the character and livability of neighborhoods, affordable family housing, and communities of color are harder to come by, and they aren’t going to have any mayoral coattails to ride this election season. Ain’t it a shame?

12 Responses to “Charting Portland’s Political Landscape”

  1. Comment from Portland Gentrification:

    Your summary of the situation is very clear. While Ed Garren is explicit on rent stabilization (can’t say “rent control,” people will freak), another candidate, Fred Stewart, left a number of comments to that effect on ‘Portland Gentrification,’ making such level-headed observations as:

    “Today, we have a market where rent stabilization makes sense”

    “I would like to see a cap on how much rent could be increased on a yearly basis if a tenant is living in the property”

    Too bad this so quickly became a two person race between Fish and Middaugh; such ideas should be aired seriously, not just kept at the margins where Portland’s green/business/development political cliches (as you characterize them) can continue to exclude them from the conversation.

  2. Trackback from Portland Gentrification and Other Problems:

    Elsewhere on the Web – Smart Summary of Local Pols, Gentro…

    This is Weblogging: today at More Hockey Less War a pleasantly intelligent summarization of some local political contests, in the context of a well-considered rundown of how various local political traditions all tend to favor gentrification.The histor…

  3. Comment from Terry:

    First, Happy Earth Day, Steve!

    How would you limit sprawl and preserve neighborhoods and green spaces — Oregon does have Urban Growth Boundaries, thank goodness — without smart growth and increased density?

    Surely you’re not a no growth advocate (although I think it may eventually come down to that given the severity of our environmental problems.)

    And if some population growth — whether 300,000 or not — is inevitable, isn’t new housing required to accommodate that growth? Condos even?

    Pretend that you are running for City Council. What policies would you advocate?

    (By the way, I think we pretty much agree on Dozono and Nick Fish, who appears to have a good grasp of housing issues.)

  4. Comment from Steve:

    First, you’ve got to question the growth projections, and line them up with the reality on the ground. What kind of economy do we have to 1) provide jobs to 300,000 new residents that can enable them to 2) afford the housing in this town?

    The truth is, we are significantly over-built in the condo sector right now, yet city policy is to continue subsidizing this kind of development by extending the streetcar loop to the east side.

    Even as the bubble bursts, we’re pumping more public money into it.

    One thing I agree with Dozono about is questioning the growth figures, and trying to reconcile the growth projection with the reality on the ground.

    No, I’m not talking zero growth, but I think we’re far from maximized in our existing housing stock.

    The kind of development championed by those who hide behind “sustainability” actually displaces existing affordable housing, and promises of new affordable housing always seem to get lost in the shuffle or significantly ratcheted back.

    If I were running for council or mayor, I’d be saying things like Ed Garren, Nick Fish or Amanda Fritz, which I wrote about in today’s post.

    Fortunately, there are a few candidates willing to talk about gentrification, and how it affects regular working people in this city.

    Unfortunately, none of them is running for mayor.

  5. Comment from freddy c:

    How do you maintain affordable housing in a real estate market that went crazy? Even now, prices have pulled back a little but are they really going to go back to where they were 5 years ago? Not very likely. How would you have prevented prices from rising?

    Prices didn’t rise because of condos. The condos were being built and continued to go up in price because of easy to get cheap mortgages. Also, the popularity of living downtown drove prices up.

    I would love to see more affordable housing too, but pretty much all property values have risen in the region due to many market factors beyond the control of city officials. Being a capitalist society, many owners chose to sell heir property. Would you prevent that, force people to not sell what they own?

    I also would love to see greater diversity in the city and my neighborhood, but Portland has historically been very homogeneous.

    How would you maintain affordable housing in Portland, or anywhere for that matter? (OK you can maintain it in Detroit because people a fleeing that city)

  6. Comment from Steve:

    You’ve got a valid point, Freddy, much like Greg’s point on yesterday’s post.

    The housing bubble was fueled largely by speculative buying coupled with exotic, predatory loans to people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to enter the housing market when they did. Not much city policy can do about that now, and I certainly don’t think the city’s condo policy has anything to do with the value of my N. Portland house.


    Certain sectors of our city government continue to push a development model of subsidizing condo development, even though that sector is considerably over-built. These are pro-gentrification policies.

    So when a candidate (like Middaugh, for example) talks the good talk about gentrification, you’ve got to stop and ask them what they’ve actually done about it in light of their support for policies that encourage it.

    I think there’s some truth to what Greg said in the comment I linked above: “once white people decide something is cool there ain’t no stopping them.”

    But that doesn’t mean we should spend public money encouraging them.

  7. Comment from ecohuman:


    a great, thoughtful post.

    i consider myself an “environmentalist”, but i don’t like smart growth. i also don’t think public transit is a long term solution to much, because of human behavior in crisis-less situations.

    i do believe that the pop growth figures are likely, but not guaranteed. i’m more interested in who and why than how many. exponential growth, given our way of life, is almost certain, barring planetary disaster. and, growth figures in the last 40 years have been *underestimates.*

    most importantly, it’s dangerous to generalize people into black & white “belief groups” like liberal/conservative, pro-environment/pro-business, just because they appropriate the labels. it does nothing but dig a hole and lay blame. “liberals” aren’t any more responsible for the city’s problems than “conservatives” are, because people are much more gray than that, more complex. most people, in fact, want the same basic things.

    and i think both candidates for mayor are unworthy of the position. Adams builds monuments and calls it “progress”, Dozono is business uber-alles, Wal-Mart or not. the choices are poor.

    keep up the good writing, man.


  8. Comment from Steve:

    I’m curious why you don’t think mass transit is a long-term solution.

    From an engineering point of view, it’s the way you move large numbers of humans efficiently and (relatively) cleanly.

    You could argue that people prefer their private automobiles and don’t like to ride buses and trains. But with enough discouragement (congestion pricing, high gas prices, etc.) and encouragement (modern vehicle fleets, frequent service, etc.), mass transit could easily become the way we get around this city. Look at Europe.

    The problem I see with the Portland streetcar, as currently engineered, is that it is not designed as mass transit. In fact, one of its five main reasons for existence is to promote high-end condo development.

    If the streetcar fanatics really wanted to get serious, they’d promote replacing long-standing, high-traffic bus lines, like the 14 and 72, with rail. (I’d be curious to see the comparison between current Interstate Yellow Line ridership vs. the #5 bus it replaced, for example. I suspect ridership went up.)

    The fact that they want to put in these little circulator routes (Burnside-Couch couplet, central east-side) tells us they’ve got no real interest in getting people out of their cars for their commutes.

  9. Comment from ecohuman:

    You could argue that people prefer their private automobiles and don’t like to ride buses and trains. But with enough discouragement (congestion pricing, high gas prices, etc.) and encouragement (modern vehicle fleets, frequent service, etc.), mass transit could easily become the way we get around this city. Look at Europe.

    better yet, look at New York, with public transit taken to its conclusion:

    i hear you–public transit sound reasonable. i’m for it. but ultimately, as in New York (and almost all of Europe) public transit can’t handle the load of density and growth. it’s failing. the roads aren’t enough. transit isn’t enough.

    and buses, it seems, would be a cheaper, more flexible and responsive solution than monolithic, costly light rail.

  10. Comment from ecohuman:

    but i should add: with the collapse of fossil fuel, public transit will become very important. and the ape-shit, head-busting, ecology-trampling stampede towards alternatives to prop up our way of life will be a sight to see.

  11. Comment from Terry:

    Of course mass transit is the answer, both long term and short term, to at least some of our environmental problems, ecohuman, including global warming.

    But back to the streetcar, Steve. Doesn’t the streetcar run on rails? Isn’t it powered by electricity? I fail to see a qualitative difference between light rail and streetcars as components of an effective mass transit system for the city of Portland.

    Steve, you must begin to decouple your bias against streetcars from your bias against condominium developers. (And Chris Smith.)

    BTW, I see that Amanda got the O’s endorsement. I hope that doesn’t sour you on her candidacy. (Heh heh.)

  12. Comment from Steve:

    Terry, I’m not opposed to streetcars. (For what it’s worth, streetcars are light rail… I don’t distinguish, though you can certainly distinguish between grade-separated light rail, i.e. MAX, and streetcars that share the right of way with cars and trucks.)

    I’ve said many times, I’m not opposed to streetcars as such. But…. I am very opposed to creating loops that don’t solve any existing transportation problems.

    The major cost of rail is up front, and it’s outrageous to invest in creating new routes to encourage high-end development rather than investing in improving existing mass transit routes, where the real gains in ridership would be.

    I will support the Portland Streetcar 100% if and when they start replacing long-standing, heavily-used bus routes, like I mentioned above.

    I will not support the Burnside-Couch couplet or the central eastside loop.

    We’d be better off just writing checks from the city treasury directly to Homer Williams.