Journalism: Urbanism: Urban Conditional: Your guide to the whos and hows of the housing shortage

May 16, 2016

Your guide to the whos and hows of the housing shortage

by Zack Barowitz

Portland’s hot real estate market was the main impetus behind the most of the recent no-cause evictions. Seeking a greater return on investment, landlords terminated numerous at-will (or month-to-month) leases in order to renovate. While some of these renovations were long overdue, the hot market left few options for those who were evicted.

Such are the facts of a market economy where class conflict is the central dynamic that defines society and shapes individual identity. In the case of the housing market, there are numerous conflicts between groups:

Most Landlords are small property owners; managing and maintaining property is time and labor intensive — and not always profitable. Landlords(should) love Good Tenants but live in mortal fear of finding a Bad Tenant who will damage their investment. How? Aside from not paying rent, a Bad Tenant might flush kitty litter down the toilet creating blockages, or steal laundry from the laundry room, or deal drugs out of the house. Bad Tenants tend to gravitate to Slumlords who do not maintain their buildings, have code violations, and are often absentee. 

Nevertheless, Slumlords’ under-maintained properties tend to appeal to Vulnerable Populations because they are somewhat affordable. The Wage Slaves are everyone whose resources are limited so that at any moment they can find themselves staying on a friend’s couch, living in their car, or in the shelter system. Their challenge is primarily economic and includes old, young, and families. The housing market is tough for folks who are Wage Slaves, as assistance is not easily available and they are competing with higher wealth individuals for market-rate housing. Wage Slaves make great recruits for the Activistas.

A more vulnerable class of renters are the Service Providees. This group can live semi-independently but rely on some combination of economic support (such as general assistance and housing vouchers) and social services such that the Lanyardocracy can provide. 

Sadly, a large proportion of resources goes to the Million Dollar Murrays, so named after the homeless man who cost Washoe County, Nevada a million dollars over the course of a year. These are the chronically homeless people who have severe mental illness and/or problems with substance abuse, usually alcohol. The Lanyardocracy argues that it is cheaper to build supported housing (such as the housing first model) than to continually pay out for police and ambulance calls — and costly hospital and prison stays.

The Lanyardocracy provides social services. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and their credentials on their necks. Social services is a huge industry in Portland, and the Lanyardocracy is connected politically. They do god’s work by advocating for the Vulnerable Populations (although cynics say that their relationship is symbiotic). Portland Mayors Brennan and Strimling both have social service backgrounds and are Lanyardaristocrats. 

The Electeds (the Mayor and Councilors) have everyone barking into their ears.  As with any issue, elected officials need to find a balance between what they believe is best, what their constituents, industry, and advocates want – as well as what the budget will allow. Ultimately they tend to align with either whomever is shouting in their ear loudest, or with the Technocrats.

Academics, consultants, but most of all City Staff, comprise the Technocrats.Planners commission studies and develop policy recommendations (although not necessarily in that order). Technocrats often try to build on their affinities with Developers on policies like increased density, in-fill development, and job creation, while Developers preach the gospel of supply (especially in a hot market) and generally resist the Technocrats efforts to shoe-horn in programs and policies like housing funds or inclusive zoning  that will increase equity but cut-into profits. Some planners advocate for better (alternative) transportation networks and could align with the Activistas in de-surburbanization. Technocrats may find themselves at cross-purposes when promoting policies to attract people to the area (like economic development and job creation)because they increase demand for housing. 

Like the Developers, Technocrats must always be on the alert for the NIMBYs & NIYBYEs who seem to oppose any new development whether it be in their backyard or anywhere else. The NIMBYs & NIYBYEs  are vocal, well-organized, often litigious, and have brought numerous projects to court or city-wide referenda. They believe that the Electeds and Technocrats are in bed with the Developers, their sworn enemies.

Activistas want housing that is affordable. Some are skeptical (to say the least) of the market-based solutions advocated by the Developers and someTechnocrats.  Activistas argue that building housing that caters to the wealthy drives up land values. Some Activistas focus on tenants' rights, social equity and programs whereas others look toward public transit and land use policies like up-zoning transportation routes and making more places more desirable to live by being more walkable, bikable, and accessible. The issue of rent control  could form a wedge between these two factions.

Morally we all have the responsibility to get along and seek consensus, but this is the primary imperative of the Electeds.