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Scott Bruun: Trees, Fees and Re-election Please

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Hard to tell whether it’s cognitive dissonance, or just garden variety political pandering. In either case, it’s simply another week in the life of Portland Mayor Charlie Hales.

Last week Mayor Hales offered the outline for a plan which will be taken up by the city council in October. Plan in name, punishment in reality.

The idea is to charge a $25,000 fine on any developer who tears down an older Portland home in order to build a new one. There would also be an additional fine of $25 per year for the age of the razed house. So for example, a developer who tears down a 60 year old house to build a new one would pay $26,500 in total fines to the city.

Of course there is a constituency for this. Many of Portland’s neighborhood associations have long been up in arms against infill and increased densities. This “we have ours, the rest of you go away” mindset is common within Portland’s ritzier neighborhoods.

Still, even if many of the rest of us are comfortable with the idea of managed growth and re-development, we have our limits. We all prefer our neighborhoods without constant work crews, construction job sites and ever-increasing traffic. No one wants to see beautiful, old sequoia trees cut down in Eastmoreland.

Yet therein lies the challenge – a challenge exacerbated by Hales and others who choose to gloss-over the larger issues. You see at the same time that we want to keep our local neighborhoods winsome and free of new development, we also want a region free of sprawl. On a Saturday afternoon we want to drive from our construction-free neighborhoods, and quickly be in farm, forest or wine-country. This is why we choose to live here, not in sprawl-plagued Phoenix, Las Vegas or Los Angeles.

In 1973, Oregon passed Senate Bill 100. This landmark legislation was designed to stop sprawl by limiting the outward expansion of residential and commercial development. SB 100 and other land-use laws created the politically-managed “urban growth boundary,” a periodically adjusted line over which development shall seldom cross.

The urban growth boundary has its fans and foes, but most would agree that it has kept our region from becoming one never-ending subdivision. Oregonians get the benefit and scenic beauty of farms, fields and woodlands, all within close proximity to our cities and population centers.

Though not without a price.

Sure, we all have easy access to “the country.” But because of the artificial shortage of buildable land, we also pay inflated prices for our homes. We have some of the most expensive “dirt” on the west coast. Expensive dirt that leads to housing shortages, inflated housing and rental costs, and growing gentrification. It also means a shrinking supply of living-wage jobs as the costs of land (and land-use regulation) often make it too expensive for employers to expand or locate here.

This might be just fine for the well-to-do, wealthy retirees and old-money Portlanders. However it’s an albatross around the necks of young people looking for their first home, young families looking to accommodate the needs of children, and for anyone looking to find affordable housing in close proximity to jobs.

In recent years, city planners have tried to balance this situation by making it a little easier to increase urban density through infill. One old energy-inefficient house goes away, two new energy-efficient homes take its place. Not perfect, but it provided enough of a pressure release for Portland to avoid the crazy real estate prices of a Seattle or San Francisco.

So then why would Mayor Hales now want to limit this release of pressure? Why would he want to exact a punitive $25K fine on Portland builders whose work helps to mitigate rising housing costs? Hales is nobody’s fool, after all. He must know exactly what will happen if his plan is implemented: higher costs; increased challenges for middle-income residents; fewer jobs; heightened pressures on Portland’s schools.

Why indeed?

Of course no one knows for sure what motivates the mayor. What motivates someone who pays lip-service to the need for affordable housing, and then embraces a plan which will make homes much less affordable?  For that matter, what motivates someone who pays lip-service to jobs, and then pulls the rug out from a jobs-creating propane terminal while also going missing-in-action while Portland loses hundreds of shipping jobs?

Could be that the motivation is pretty simple. Could be that the mayor now has a significant challenger for his job. Could be that the mayor believes, given this challenge, that the easiest political path is to appease the no-growth sentiment among many of Portland’s elite.

Could be that the motivation is nothing more than May 17th, 2016. Election Day for the job of Portland Mayor.

Scott Bruun is a fifth-generation Oregonian and recovering politician. He lives with his family in the 'burbs', yet dutifully commutes to Portland every day where he earns his living in public affairs with Hubbell Communications. 


Related Slideshow: The 10 Best Cities for Renters in Oregon

See the 10 best cities in Oregon to rent a house or apartment. The towns and cities were ranked based on factors including the percentage of rentable housing available, median household income, median cost of rent, rent as a percentage of income and average commute times. 

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