We need to get creative about Portland’s housing crisis.
Last night I went to a meeting organized by a coalition of community organizations to discuss Portland’s housing crisis.
People lined up to tell their eviction stories: a retired veteran, a homeless grandmother, minimum-wage workers, a mother trying to raise an autistic child, people with disabilities. They yelled. They cried. The held each other for support.
The housing crisis is a human crisis.
The groups that organized this meeting have a list of measures they’d like to see enacted — everything from an immediate moratorium on no-cause evictions to increasing rental and general assistance.
These kinds of things are absolutely necessary, and will help people who are being affected right now. These are people don’t have the luxury of waiting for committees or studies or public debates. Their need is urgent. It’s only ethical that we act to help them, as quickly and effectively as possible.
But the housing crisis is also an economic crisis.
Why are people being evicted? Why have rents skyrocketed? Because there is not enough housing.
There’s high demand and not enough supply, and that means rents go up and evictions increase (to make room for higher-paying renters).
So, the only long-term way out of this crisis is to increase the supply of housing.
City councillors at the meeting last night talked about creating tax incentives to build new housing. That’s the kind of traditional solution that hasn’t done anywhere near enough in other cities like San Francisco.
This is a once-in-a-century crisis, and just creating some tax breaks isn’t going to cut it. We need to think outside the box. We need to be bold.
For example, why are there so many parking lots in this city?
Have you noticed that the Peninsula is covered in surface parking lots? There are acres of land that are used for nothing more than storing cars for part of the day, especially down in the Old Port.
In a city that desperately needs more housing, this makes absolutely no sense.
So why don’t we build housing on top of them?
Why can’t the City zone and tax these parking lots in such a way that encourages them to be turned into housing?
Could we apply a special tax to these surface lots — a tax that disappears if the land is used for additional housing? (If a landowner wants to keep some parking on the ground floor and build housing above it, all the better.)
This may not be the right implementation, but still—there are all these parking lots around town just taking up space. There must be something we can do about that.
And here’s a crazy idea: let’s expand Portland’s mass transit.
What does mass transit have to do with housing? Everything.
The Peninsula is the economic center of the city. Many people who live and work on the Peninsula don’t have cars, because it’s small enough that you can walk from your job to your home — even in the winter.
But as soon as you leave the Peninsula, you need a car. That’s an economic impossibility for quite a few people — many of the same people who currently have insecure housing.
But if the city put a little more effort (and money) into its mass transit, then Portland residents could live off-Peninsula and still work on-Peninsula.
That would require more busses along better routes, more frequently and more reliably. It also means promoting mass transit a little more seriously.
Better mass transit would connect the on-Peninsula and off-Peninsula economies. It would encourage more housing off-Peninsula, and take some of the pressure off the city center.
And we really need to talk about Airbnb.
Have you looked at Airbnb in Portland lately? There are hundreds of units being rented out short-term to visitors.
People make a lot of money doing this — far more than they would if they rented them out to Portland residents.
In fact, there are quite a few people who own multiple units around Portland solely for the purpose of Airbnb renting. These units have been effectively removed from the overall housing supply, so they’re another cause of rising rents and increased evictions.
Why is it okay for someone to effectively run an unlicensed hotel out of houses and apartments and condos that they own around town?
I say, if you want to run a hotel, then open a hotel.
But if a home is not your primary residence, it’s unfair to take it out of the housing supply to rent it to short-term visitors. It may mean more money for you, but it means higher rents and more evictions for the rest of us.
The City of Portland should regulate Airbnb rentals. San Francisco and New York have done it — so can we.
tl;dr — let’s get creative.
This housing crisis is huge and unprecedented, and it will take some unprecedented actions to get ourselves out of it.
The typical solutions are not enough. We need to be more creative. We need to be bold.
But whatever we do, we have to do it soon, because many of our neighbors don’t have the luxury of time. Their no-cause evictions are coming — maybe not next month, but maybe the one after that, or the one after that. Every day we vacillate is another person who becomes homeless.