Journalism: Urbanism: Urban Conditional: Urban conditional: Hungry Hungry Housing (Yes, Portland Is Dying)

Aug 22, 2017

Hungry Hungry Housing (Yes, Portland Is Dying)

by Zack Barowitz

Though a clerical error almost made the rent stabilization conversation moot before the debate could even begin, housing activists should mark their calendars for September 6th. That’s when the Portland City Council is set to vote on amendments to the inclusive zoning provision of the city code.

The changes amount to some very modest density incentives aimed at developers of affordable housing to make their projects viable. The amendments were written to be sensitive to anticipated pushback from NIMBYs and people who value parking over housing. Despite its limitations, passage of the amendment is critical for anyone who cares about the future of this city.

Portland is a great little city, but it is also very seasonally dependent. It is easy among the summer swells to view the introduction of nitro coffee as a sign of progress. But summertime is also a reality check. Friends from away smile indulgently when I talk about all that is going on, but when they tell me about development in Boston, Seattle, New York, Denver, Atlanta, Providence, Pittsburgh, and – dare I say – the other Portland, it outdoes us by an order of magnitude, making me feel like I live in an insignificant little backwater tucked away in a corner of the nation.

It’s true that by many measures this town is doing pretty well – development and gastronomy are oft-cited drivers. But just as anyone can look smart in a bull market, even the amateurs know that real estate goes on a boom and bust cycle, and the housing shortage is affecting the construction and food industries. So the question is not how we are doing today – but tomorrow, too.

A simple examination of our census data indicates an alarming fact. Portland’s population has been essentially flat since the 1970s. It is well below 1950s level and about equal to the population of Portland in 1915. By comparison, Gorham has grown by about 10,000 and more than doubled its population in the same period; and the growth in Scarborough is even more dramatic. Portland’s population is effectively withering when measured against national and county growth. What is happening is people in crowded housing units (low-wage earners, families, students) are moving away and being replaced by higher-income people in less-crowded units (as well as vacation home buyers, short-contract employees, and Air BnB investors).

Consider this statistic: for all the new development in the city, Portland adds .3 people for every new unit of housing – a desperately low figure given the local labor shortages especially in the growth industries of construction and restaurants. This represents what I call Zero-Growth Gentrification: Where new construction and housing costs rise, but only by demand from the high-end of the market.

The restaurant industry is feeling this rather acutely. One large waterfront restaurant canceled their planned lunchtime service because they could not find staff. Another restaurateur who has multiple locations brings in Jamaicans on guest worker visas and then finds them temporary housing on (or near) the Portland peninsula— a daunting prospect. And if you mention poaching in a restaurant, it is less likely to refer to a cooking technique and more likely to refer to the practice of “recruiting” staff straight off the floor from one establishment to another.

Sure, industry wages could rise more, but higher labor costs would drive up housing and menu prices. Could Portland sustain a $20 tuna fish sandwich? Not when the people who can afford it are here only two weeks out of the year.

And despite all the new restaurants, most of the peninsula is effectively a food desert, as is found more typically in under-served neighborhoods.

There is not a single super market in downtown and almost everyone, whether they shop at Whole Foods on the high end, or Save-A-Lot on the low, is obliged to drive or take a cab to do their food shopping. The gap could be filled by Portland’s numerous small independent African, Asian, and Middle Eastern grocery stores, many of which pack quite a variety of products into a small footprint, but at the moment it isn’t. (The Portland Food Co-op is probably the closest thing to a downtown supermarket, but their elevated mission is diminished somewhat by their elevated prices.)

Portland needs a lot more housing to be able to retain and increase its population, not just to provide a labor force, but because without it, Portland will become just a seasonal hollowed-out version of itself.