Journalism: Urbanism: Urban Conditional: Rent too high? Use this sneaky trick

July 11, 2016

Rent too high? Use this sneaky trick

by Zack Barowitz

Housing construction everywhere and not a place to sleep.

Ironically, Portland’s housing shortage corresponds to a boom in residential construction on the Portland peninsula. But the problem is that developers cannot build at a level that is affordable to the majority of Portlanders without taxpayer subsidy. Most everyone agrees that adding to the supply is good, the problem is how to make up the gap between what can be built and what people can afford. One way to make rents more affordable is to reduce the overall cost of living; and about the quickest way to do that is to get rid of your car. Automobiles account for roughly one-third of household expenses or about $.60/mile. Eliminating that expense pays an immediate, pre-tax, dividend. 

I can hear your protestations through the pages of this newspaper; and I understand, you need your car, especially to get to work. But if Portland is going to be the kind of city that it wants to be; the majority of residents should be able to get to work, shopping, and recreation by foot, bicycle, or public transportation — and if you must drive, we have a car share program in Portland.

Mayor  Ethan Strimling has made housing a priority of his administration. The issue is complex and the public recommendations varied, but the Landry Plan (put forth by native son Alex Landry) has been gaining widespread support. What the Landry Plan calls for is to address the housing shortage with enlightened transportation practices: upzoning (higher residential density) along the bus routes; village centers (“nodes”) in off-peninsula neighborhoods; and the elimination of minimum parking requirements so that new developments and restaurants are not burdened with the development or procurement of parking spaces.

Unfortunately, automotive blight tends to be longitudinal. Long busy streets with fast-moving traffic make walking unpleasant, unsafe or impossible and are not the sites that developers are knocking each other over to purchase. Arterial streets tend to have either run-down buildings or lower real estate values than comparable areas with better bicycle and pedestrian facilities. (For example, a stroll from along Congress Street from the Eastern Prom to Forest Ave is almost the exact same distance from Forest Ave to the Denny’s overpass at I-295 exit 5. The former is generally considered walkable while the latter isn’t — solely on account of the quality of the pedestrian experience.)

Bicycle and pedestrian friendly environments create better cityscapes, reduce pollution and promote economic development; that is why First Friday Art Walk is held on Congress Street and not Marginal Way or outer Washington Ave. To understand the blight that heavy traffic makes, consider that when traffic is minimal children play in the streets, when it is low they will play in the sidewalks, if traffic is busy they may play in backyards, but when the traffic is heavy even the backyards are blighted; so that children must either play inside or get driven to a play area — thus creating more traffic.

With all of this in mind, it was something of a shock when the City Council Housing Committee Chair Jill Duson decided to spring a vote to eliminate the $6,000 line item of the part time bike ped coordinator on the questionable grounds that since the City’s Transportation Program Manager used to be the Bicycle Pedestrian Coordinator, then he can now do both jobs (apparently in City Government if you get a new job you are still obligated to do your old one). Nevermind the $6,000 saving accounts for only tiny fraction of the annual budget; the bike ped coordinator was responsible for managing hundreds of thousands of dollars in critical project funds that are now in jeopardy. 

More vexing than the false economy of saving a bit of staff salary is the fact that Duson is an avid cyclist and a volunteer with the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. Councilors Nick Mavadones (who works for Casco Bay Lines Transit District), David Brennerman and Jon Hinck voted with her, although Hinck has since expressed regret for the vote.

These councilors did not understand that making Portland an easier place to get around without a car not only puts money in people’s pockets but revitalizes neighborhoods by reversing the blight caused by automobiles.

The Landry Plan calls for building housing along the major bus routes like outer Congress, outer Forest, Brighton and outer Washington where much or the current housing is currently considered less desirable. We need better planning along the arterials because these areas are of little interest to investors; but if bicyclists and pedestrians come, they will build.