Over the past few weeks, an ugly fissure in Portland’s Bureaucracy has bubbled to the surface. A report from the Oregonian, using Portland Police statistics, shows that 3% of the folks living in Portland are homeless, but those 3% are committing up to 50% of the arrests made by Portland Police. That’s a sad, unfortunate statistic that taken on its face highlights exactly why solving our housing affordability crisis is so critical.
Mayor Wheeler’s response to these findings was odd and sort of tone deaf. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to push an agenda that helps the homeless off the streets and into transitional housing, Mayor Wheeler seemed to question why the homeless were being profiled by police. The insinuation being that Portland’s Police Department might be treating the homeless unfairly and singling them out while ignoring other crimes throughout the City.
In a response that could have only been followed by a string of “OHHHHHHHHH SNAP” jeers, Portland Police Association President Darryl Turner pointed out the prevalence of aggressive panhandlers, homeless tents and human feces littering Portland’s streets and called the city a “cesspool.” You can read his full statement here.
While PPA President Turner may have been a little harsh, he wasn’t wrong. Take a walk downtown or on Powell Blvd. There is a good chance you will be harassed for change, threatened/confronted by a homeless population that manages to be both under-served and unrestrained. A recent drive of Powell Blvd. included garbage floating through the streets and weeds growing from the sidewalks up to 4 ft tall. What happened to maintaining the City? Where are Portland’s tax dollars going that it can no longer manage to keep the City somewhat clean?
The members of our homeless population are no doubt desperate, in need of food, housing, medication and in some cases substance rehabilitation. For anyone who has lived in the Metro area and watched Portland deteriorate from one of the cleanest cities in America to the unsafe, dirty place it has become can’t help but be disappointed in both the condition of the City and the collective lack of an answer to the problem at hand. What are Mayor Wheeler and the Council doing to stabilize or solve homelessness?
Its worth noting that this problem comes back to a lack of affordable housing and proper supply. While it may not be the only issue contributing to homelessness, its certainly a major factor. What good does it do anyone to get a low wage job if the low wage won’t lead to a roof over your head? How can we expect thousands of people to pay rents and purchase homes when housing might eat 70-90% of their income?
The unfortunate part here is that our leaders at the City of Portland, Metro and many other jurisdictions throughout the Metro Area are ignoring the genesis of the issue and are instead trying to convince tax payers to cover up their mistakes. Our housing problem is the inevitable result of failed policy decisions made over the past two decades:
- A lack of land supply has led to incredibly high land prices. The top 10 cities for homelessness all share one common trait: Incredibly high land prices. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York City, Chicago, Honolulu and Portland are in the top 10 for homelessness. In all these cities, the cost of housing is way above the national average. While each City has its own special constraints that create high land prices (an ocean for Honolulu, transportation struggles for Los Angeles etc.) only Portland and Seattle have created this problem artificially with urban growth boundaries. While the evil specter of “sprawl” has been pushed on most of us since birth in the Metro region, our local officials and voters didn’t notice their fear of sprawl artificially created unsustainable land prices. Now we have a mess of our own making.
- Local cities and counties refuse to address their role in the high cost of housing. Whether the market builds apartments, town homes or single-family homes, it simply cannot achieve an affordable equilibrium for a majority of the population because land costs too much and because jurisdictional fees and charges are costing new homeowners 10-20% of the price of a home. For too long, these jurisdictions, especially Portland, have treated new housing like a piggy bank for their bureaucracy, which leads to those expenses being passed through to consumers. Its time to hit the reset button for the sake of affordability.
- Examine all the factors creating affordability issues and share the impact across the spectrum. Instead of asking voters for hundreds of millions of dollars in 2016 (and now hundreds of millions more in 2018) to build more housing, why didn’t Portland, Metro and the other jurisdictions collectively look at the factors creating affordability issues and work together to lessen the impact from a variety of different sectors. Private industry has always been willing to sit at the table and consider ways it can support the affordability movement, in part because it creates more customers and is good for business. Unfortunately, the only answer from dozens of elected officials throughout the region is more money from a taxpayer base ALREADY struggling to pay for housing. In Portland, they are asking for massive taxpayer money for the same thing TWICE!
Is Portland now a “cesspool” as PPA President Turner says? It certainly is not the Portland it used to be and by all outward appearances it’s not being maintained or well managed. Police officers and public officials have long touted the “broken window” theory as the best way to manage public and private resources throughout their jurisdictions. The theory is “a broken window invites more broken windows, then graffiti, then more crime, lawlessness and anarchy.” If as a jurisdiction you keep up on the broken windows, allocate your resources to prevent more broken windows and police the broken windows, your citizens will reward you with their loyalty and with further investment.
Portland and its city government may not be a cesspool, but it is one big broken window and it seems as if no one is trying to fix or replace it.