A bad year for Portland leadership: Editorial Agenda 2015 – OregonLive.com
Back in January, only days after we explained why our 2015 editorial agenda would include “Make Portland a city that works,” Mayor Charlie Hales canceled an advisory vote on street funding in order to give lawmakers time to consider a statewide transportation package. The package didn’t happen, and in Portland these days Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick – a fan of complex, progressive tax schemes – are leaning sensibly toward the adoption of a simple gas tax. Down in Salem, meanwhile, nothing’s happening. Gov. Kate Brown, in fact, can’t seem to flee fast enough from what was only months ago a top priority.
At least on transportation, you could argue that the quality of leadership in Portland is better than it is in the state’s capital. That’s not much to brag about these days, but it’s something. So, too, is the City Council’s adoption of rules allowing the operation of ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft. Council also deserves credit for taking steps, albeit belatedly, to address homelessness and transient lawlessness.
Too often during the past year, however, Portland’s elected leaders have stumbled. A comprehensive list of relatively minor blunders would be too long for a single editorial, but it would include the city’s sudden decision to boot mountain bikers from the River View Natural Area, leaving Portland, a supposed cycling mecca, virtually devoid of decent off-road options. It would include, too, the City Council’s decision to ban tobacco products in city parks and golf courses, an action Commissioner Amanda Fritz later acknowledged as virtually unenforceable. The mayor, meanwhile, continues to plug away on a $25,000 demolition tax whose ostensible purpose – to safeguard housing affordability – is simply kooky.
Speaking of which … the Portland Building. This white elephant in pastel skin is leaky, reportedly unpleasant to work in and, alas, architecturally significant. The city has thus decided to spend roughly $200 million renovating it. Such a string of zeroes would be sobering in any case, but this is the same city responsible for the notorious Columbia Building, which cost roughly three times as much to build as initial estimates indicated. That fiasco played a role in the departure of longtime Bureau of Environmental Services head Dean Marriott in January.
Over the course of a year, it’s true, the leaders of any big city will make some decisions that seem misguided to some. Projects go over budget in other places, too. What truly distinguished the quality of Portland’s leadership this year was the inability – or, more likely, unwillingness – of City Council to recognize its own role in exacerbating what has emerged as the city’s highest-profile problem: housing affordability. It’s almost as if City Council can’t, or won’t, do math.
The declining affordability of housing for lower- and middle-income people didn’t exactly sneak up on City Council. All five commissioners, after all, signed a Feb. 23 letter supporting a bill that would have removed the state pre-emption on mandatory inclusionary zoning, a policy by which cities require development projects to make a certain number of units affordable to those with modest incomes. By October, the pressure to do something – anything – to ease the housing-cost pressure had become so intense that City Council extended the notification period for rent increases and no-cause evictions.
the opinion section, contact Erik Lukens, editorial and commentary editor,
But even as the City Council tried to address the housing affordability problem with one hand, it exacerbated it with the other. Commissioners voted in May to supercharge park fees assessed on new residential and business development. If the city’s methodology survives the subsequent lawsuit, residential costs will be passed along to buyers. Rising fees on commercial development, meanwhile, will make the city even less appealing to businesses. Commissioners don’t seem to care much about that, but they should.
If they did care, they would not have adopted heavy-handed “ban the box” regulations in November – weeks before the effective date of a more moderate state mandate. And if commissioners did care about making Portland more attractive to businesses, they would not have sat passively as Hales deep-sixed a $500 million propane-export terminal that he’d praised only months earlier. Neither would they have tacitly endorsed his switcheroo by supporting a resolution in November opposing fossil fuel-related projects.
City Council’s anti-business bias matters in the context of housing affordability. Inexpensive housing is easier to afford than expensive housing, of course. But all housing is easier to procure when you have a job, especially a job that pays well. Yet Portland City Council thought nothing in 2015 of chasing good jobs away and otherwise turning the screws unnecessarily on businesses even as commissioners mouthed concern about Portland’s housing costs. That should tell you something about Council’s real priorities.
If for no other reason than City Council’s shallow and selective commitment to housing affordability, Portland is a city that works less well at the end of 2015 than it did at the beginning. The fact that leadership in Salem was even more lacking in some instances provides little consolation.