The many Portlanders struggling to afford homes received a jarring surprise this week when Mayor Ted Wheeler announced that City Council would not vote on the Residential Infill Project until March 2019. “I’m in no rush,” the mayor told the Portland Tribune.
The whiplash is intense, considering Wheeler has stuck to a pretty consistent line from the 2016 Primary to the 2018 State of the City – “we’re going to have to have a lot more density within our neighborhoods.” Yet, with the decision point at hand, we get delay.
While the city may be in no rush, Portlanders who are desperately seeking a home that fits their budget, or dreading their next rent increase, cannot afford another moment of delay.
The fault for Portland’s slow-as-molasses process revisiting exclusionary zoning does not solely lie with Ted Wheeler. In fact, it spans two mayoral administrations, two housing commissioners, two housing bureau directors, and a declaration and extension of a housing state of emergency. But it is the mayor’s responsibility to bring this process to a close, and end exclusionary zoning across the city at long last.
The City of Portland officially confirmed the obvious and declared our current housing state of emergency in October 2015 – itself a dawdling response to the panic around us. Portland’s vacancy rate dipped below a healthy level in 2009 and dropped past the crisis threshold of 3% in 2013. Rents increased by over 60% in the Portland areas (including over 70% in North Portland) between 2006 and 2016. In that time homelessness and no-cause evictions spiked. If the City Council had noticed the growing problem and acted with urgency, we may have avoided the panic that struck renters and the recently evicted across the city.
By the time City Council finally took action, Portland had been seized by crisis.
The City was slow to respond then. Though its willingness to consider curtailing exclusionary zoning shows it has learned something, this needless delay shows it still sorely lacks empathy for people who struggle to make rent and can see no path to buying a home of their own.
In July of 2015, the City recognized that exclusionary zoning – the implicitly racist outright ban on affordable, densely nestled homes like duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in neighborhoods – might be a problem. The first stakeholder meetings for the Residential Infill Project were held in September of that year. We have done our due diligence, and then some. All the while, the housing crisis rages on.
Over half of Portland renters are cost-burdened, paying more than 30% of their incomes in rent. Over ⅔ of Black and Latino renters are cost-burdened. That crushing burden traps them in vicious economic cycles. When so much of their paychecks go to rent, they cannot afford so much of what makes our city great. It restricts their access to healthy food. It renders the livability we hold near-and-dear borderline meaningless (what good are great restaurants and bars and healthy food if your budget does not allow it?). It keeps them from building the sort of savings that can build a ladder to a better life. A rent-burdened life is an economic prison. It is the City’s responsibility to do something about that.
Every month nearly 1,000 more people move to Portland. That means every month more people compete for the same paltry number of available homes, allowing landlords to charge soaring rents, and pricing out homeownership for all but the wealthy as average home prices climb above $400,000.
The Mayor expressed a desire to “strike the right balance” for Portland’s residential neighborhoods, which sounds reasonable at first glance. But the Planning and Sustainability Commission’s recommendations are already a compromise between housing advocates and the privileged property owners who command the loudest neighborhood associations. For the city to make further concessions to the proponents of exclusionary zoning would be to give not just half-a-loaf, but barely crumbs to the struggling Portlanders and Portlanders-to-be who need places to live.
All but one member of city council is a secure, longtime homeowner. There is no housing crisis in their own day-to-day lives. Like the incumbent property owners crowing apocalyptic about the evils of triplexes and fourplexes (the horror), they are also secure in their homes, living without fear of losing their shelter.
But for Portlanders in search of stable homes or stuck in a bad situation, exclusionary zoning cannot end soon enough. For the parent who sends their child to a struggling school because they cannot afford a home in a better district, exclusionary zoning needed to end yesterday. For the service worker who stays in a moldy, deteriorating apartment because they seen no affordable options elsewhere, exclusionary zoning is hurting their health today.
Across the country and the world, vulnerable people are looking around their communities, finding them dangerous, and looking for somewhere to flee. If you’re LGBTQ*; if you’re an immigrant; if you’re a woman who wants control over your reproductive decisions, Portland offers some real promise of refuge. But only if there’s a place to live here. Ending exclusionary zoning can make that place.
None of this is hypothetical. None of this is somewhere distant on the horizon. It is happening right now. Every month’s delay means that much longer Portland excludes people from good lives in our city.
We have spent nearly four years bogged in process. It is time for the city to end exclusionary zoning as soon as possible. Not in a year, but now.