Ted Wheeler Needs to Take BDS Under His Wing

The City of Portland gets a lot of grief on this website.  No need to feel sorry for them, most of their wounds are self inflicted.  The City is apparently incapable of managing technology (see the Water Bureau and the Bureau of Development Services) and too often allows NIMBY groups to drive policy that is counter to housing affordability.  Still, the City of Portland is the jurisdiction to which all eyes turn in the region, especially when addressing housing affordability.

Mayor Ted Wheeler came into office with a vision for changing Portland City Government.  Unlike his predecessor, Wheeler is generally viewed as an individual with a plan and a great deal of resolve.  He has the unenviable task of wrangling an unruly council under a a form of government (the Commission System) that does not favor efficiency or consensus.

Since Wheeler’s arrival, there have been hits, misses and inherited troubles.  Our current housing affordability crisis really began to rear its head just as Wheeler took office.  He and the council have made grand gestures about solving the problem (declaring a housing emergency and securing $258 million in property tax dollars for affordable housing acquisition), but very little has actually been done.

Now Mayor Wheeler has a chance to make a major difference.  Rumor has it the Mayor is considering a shakeup of the departments each Commissioner manages.  Chief among his concern is the Bureau of Development Services.  The Bureau has been adrift since Randy Leonard left office and has been passed around through Commissioners who either did not care about the department or actively used it as a weapon.  As a result, the department’s internal bureaucracy has assumed control with little public oversight.  This has resulted in ever increasing fees, charges and delays that are exacerbating the housing affordability crisis in Portland.

Most recently, Mayor Wheeler placed Commissioner Chloe Eudaly in charge of BDS.  It was a puzzling move given that Eudaly has no experience working with the development community and appears to have little interest in BDS’ core functions.  Its clear Eudaly is not going to address the core problems at BDS, either because she is over her head or because she cannot unpack the bureaucratic clog the department has created.  In either case, Mayor Wheeler cannot fiddle around waiting for Eudaly to get up to speed.  Its time for the Mayor to take this Department back and make changing its culture a top priority.

Chief among Wheeler’s first duties should be to have his staff systematically walk through the entire BDS planning, engineering and permitting process.  Either with help from private industry or on their own, the Mayor and his staff need to consider the price and length of time of each process, then find a way to lower both. Projects taking up to 30 months to get through your process and costing double of some other cities is unacceptable and doesn’t show leadership.

The City of Portland doesn’t just have a housing affordability crisis, it has a housing affordability sickness.  The virus driving Portland’s sickness is an overgrown, overly bureaucratic Bureau of Development Services.  Housing is never going to get well in the City until Mayor Wheeler takes this department back, beats it into submission and changes the culture.  Whether Mayor Wheeler likes it or not, the housing affordability crisis in his city may well define his time as Mayor.  He needs to embrace the issue and fundamentally change how the City does business.