Is Portland, along with other West Coast cities, fated to become a "gilded megalopolis" accessible only to the affluent, as a New York Times columnist recently warned?
Or can it still be a place for people from "all walks of life," as Mayor Ted Wheeler envisions?
The answer to that essential question depends greatly on whether everyday working families can afford to buy a home in Portland. And even Wheeler concedes that the city he was elected to lead is on the cusp of becoming unaffordable to all but the lucky and the wealthy.
Writing in the July 6 New York Times, columnist Timothy Egan described a West Coast trend that's all too familiar to Portland-area residents: Housing prices rocket ever higher as homeless camps proliferate. As Egan says, "The issues are linked, but not entirely."
During a Friday, July 13, interview with the Portland Tribune editorial board, Wheeler addressed both concerns: homelessness and the broader problem of housing costs. Along the way, we were pleased to note he recognized a basic economic tenet — the greater the supply of housing, the less upward pressure there will be on prices.
Beyond its role in low-income developments, it's not the city's job to build housing. Still, local governments have other tools to encourage supply. The dreaded "D" word — density — is one. But sometimes the best incentive is simply to remove obstacles.
Back in November for example, the Tribune reported the frustrations of one prominent homebuilder, Jeff Smith, who had decided not to construct homes in the city any more. The reason? "Portland's process is slower and more complicated than any other city we work in. It's a magnitude of difference," according to Smith.
We have heard the same complaint from other builders, and apparently Wheeler has as well. He vowed on Friday to work toward streamlining the city's permitting process.
One major factor contributing to the slowness of Portland's permitting system is the city's form of government. Because different city bureaus are assigned to each of the four city commissioners and mayor, they work independently of each other. A home builder will start with the Bureau of Development Services, but also may need to obtain permissions from planning, design review, the Bureau of Environmental Services, the Bureau of Transportation and others.
Wheeler proposes cutting through the byzantine process by placing bureaus that have a piece of the permitting puzzle under one commissioner, who could then force all of them to work together in a unified manner. It's a good idea, although implementation will prove challenging. At some point, nearly every city bureau gets involved with new developments — and it would be impossible for one elected commissioner to oversee them all.
But still, grouping the most relevant ones together could be a good start. There are other ways to make permitting more efficient. The City Council has approved moving the permit process online, and the Bureau of Development Services is working toward that goal. Online permitting will increase accountability and save developers' time. For them, timeliness means money — for labor, bank loans and hitting the market and the construction season at the most opportune moments.
City bureaus also can assist development of new homes by showing more flexibility with fees. Builders should receive incentives for constructing projects that directly address the need for energy-efficient, work-force housing.
At this point, Portlanders whose sensitivities run counter to developers might be asking why we want to make the process easier, rather than more stringent. This brings us back to the issue of supply. The number of new homes being built in the entire metro area hasn't kept up with demand since the end of the Great Recession. The lack of inventory grows more acute the closer you get to the city center.
With a better city process in place, home builders might be encouraged to move more quickly to feed the hunger for mid-priced houses, condos and townhomes. Conversely, without sufficient inventory in the middle, working families will be pushed farther away from Portland's core.
And without those families in the mix, it's hard to see how Portland can be the place Wheeler envisions — or the economically diverse city it has always been.