Category Archives: Trends

Brave New U.S. Housing Policy

February 12, 2021- PlanGreen

To expedite building market rate housing, as well as more public housing, that is affordable to BIPOC communities and to young people, we need to lobby for TAX POLICY CHANGES that will shift our perceptions about “the American Dream”–away from homeownership and towards security, equity and legacy for all.  

HOUSING DOESN’T HAVE TO BE A COMMODITY

For the last few years, as long as the issue was housing, I could be found on Fridays at the Q&A microphone at Portland City Club Friday Forum.  I would ask: How can you square promotion of homeownership as a means of wealth building and reform of our housing system?  

An example of a Portland City Club Friday Forum recent ad for a housing forum. This one was 11-15-19. Image from XRAY-FM.

An example of a Portland City Club Friday Forum ad for a housing forum 11-15-19. Image from XRAY-FM.

Wealth building depends upon housing being a commodity to be bought and sold for a profit.  Rather, don’t we need to see housing as a social good that all have the right to access? If I could get away with a few extra seconds, I might add: The Community Land Trust, as it was originally conceived, is a NEW MODEL OF LAND TENURE that provides security, equity and legacy, but doesn’t promote housing as a commodity. Isn’t that what we need to be moving quickly toward?

Young people at this 2016 Bernie rally showed
great enthusiasm to transform healthcare.
We need to repeat that for HOUSING in 2021-2022!
Photo by PlanGreen

Housing has not gone away as an issue, but you wouldn’t know it from the last two cycles of Presidential debates, which had almost no questions of any substance about housing.  As a supporter of Bernie Sanders in 2016, I became irritated with my candidate when he virtually sidestepped local Portland TV reporter Laurel Porter’s question to him about housing affordability and homelessness. I had been attempting to get him to awaken his Millennial base to the idea that we did not necessarily need to continue the current system of housing. I tried hard to get my blog Housing Affordability: Put a Bern on It  to members of his campaign and to the candidate himself, but seemingly without success.  Since Bernie was Mayor of Burlington, VT when the largest Community Land Trust in the nation was started, he understands the potential of this new system of land tenure. He even told the CLT at an annual meeting that helping to get them federal funding was the best thing he had ever done as Mayor.

OREGONIANS NEW OPPORTUNITY

Sen Ron Wyden at Forest Grove Town Hall (with two reporters shown taking notes) lays out his tax reform priorities. They don't yet include HOUSING! Photo by Pamplin Media.

Sen Ron Wyden at Forest Grove Town Hall lays out his tax reform priorities. They don’t yet include HOUSING! Photo by Pamplin Media.

Now, young people in Oregon find themselves in a potentially powerful position.  Having been part of the nationwide push for structural reform during the last election through groups like Portland: Neighbors Welcome, Sunrise PDX, and NextUp they find that their Senior Senator, Ron Wyden, has become the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Peter Wong in a Jan. 21 article in the Portland Tribune lists the priorities for Tax Code reform that Senator Wyden laid out at a January Town Hall in Forest Grove. OR.  Corporate Taxes, Capital Gains, Energy, Health Care, and Infrastructure are priority areas, but HOUSING is not one of those priority areas—even though it is probably the largest expenditure in most Americans’ budget. 

Image of front cover of Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing by Diane Lind.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that we, as Wyden’s constituents, shouldn’t try to plant the seed for profound change to US housing policy. Wyden is up for election next year. That’s great for us in getting his ear. But we need to accept that he is not likely go where I suggest below until after he is re-elected. I loved the suggestions from Diana Lind’s  Brave New Home:Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing because they match so nicely to my own.  Lind began her book after the birth of her son because she felt isolated  and disconnected in her own single family row house–and this was before COVID-19.  She is Executive Director for the Arts + Business Council for Greater Philadelphia which hardly makes her seem like a radical.

I’d seen other authors question the mortgage interest deduction (MID) before (e.g., Matthew Desmond in Evicted and Richard Florida in The New Urban Crisis), but I believe Lind goes further when she questions the entire assumption that homeownership does or should present  a path to wealth building for most Americans.  She wonders why the government would continue its subsidization of homeownership when so many homes have now been bought up by multinational companies like Blackstone and affiliates. She also questions such a subsidy even though the mortgage interest deduction is one of the country’s largest regressive tax loopholes and even though student debt has changed the landscape of housing choices for young people. Lind travels the country exploring what people are doing for alternatives.

WE BUY UGLY HOUSES.COM HomeVestors: America's #1 Home Buyer. Photo by Mary Vogel/PlanGreen taken in east Portland, OR

WE BUY UGLY HOUSES.COM HomeVestors: America’s #1 Home Buyer. Photo by Mary Vogel/PlanGreen taken in east Portland, OR

Any system that pushes housing as an investment (hence a commodity) is bound to attract those who are ready to game the system. It should be no surprise that we see hedge funds, REITs and institutional investors buying up single-family housing and developing portfolios of thousands of properties. They comb sites like Zillow and the MLIS to find, renovate and flip undervalued properties. They buy billboards and post signs on lampposts.  Their size allows them to fix prices and this price-fixing becomes a primary reason for skyrocketing housing costs. Yet in Portland, and I believe elsewhere, these companies often face less resistance than new construction or redevelopment—even though they are likely to be bigger contributors to gentrification.

POTENTIAL ASKS TO SENATE FINANCE COMMITTEE

Borrowing from some of the federal policy suggestions in Lind’s book, I’ve come up with these broad directives that will need to be further fleshed out to be actionable:

  1. Actively transition our policies away from homeownership and single-family homes. 
  2. Investigate how best to subsidize people, rather than their property. 
  3. Regulate landlords and buyers who own hundreds to thousands of properties, while finding ways to leverage their scale for good. 
  4. Rethink zoning that privileges single family homes 
  5. Rethink the variety of ways the federal government incentivizes and rewards single family housing—e.g., IRS, FHA, VA, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac. 

I’m suggesting to housing advocacy groups I belong to in Oregon and think tanks I support (Sightline and Oregon Center for Public Policy) to seek to ally with some of the most progressive DC-based think tanks working on housing affordability to recommend new federal tax policy. We might also explore our connections to members of the coalition that got the “Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) Act” (H.R. 4351) passed in the US House in 2020 and help them to get an even stronger bill passed in the US Senate in 2021. See the National Low Income Housing Coalition site to get further info.

DC THINK TANK CONTACTS

To help with further fleshing out the directives above we might approach DC-based think tanks such as:

SHIFTING PUBLIC OPINION

Evicted website https://www.evictedbook.com screen shot. Without a Home Everything Else Falls Apart.

To get op-eds in major papers and magazines that will help to shift public opinion, team up with well-known authors such as: 

  • Matthew Desmond (Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
  • Richard Florida (The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class-and What We Can Do About It
  • Diana Lind (Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing)

Locally, we might team up with Sightline Institute Founder and Executive Director, Alan Durning who just authored The Problem With US Housing Policy Is That It’s Not About Housing. Durning begins: Here, I sketch the hidden reality of federal US housing policies: they are about real estate appreciation, not housing. And I spell out how they polarize wealth, exacerbate racial inequality, cut productivity and job creation, speed climate change, and exaggerate the ups and the downs of the business cycle. He plans to next address how we might form a left-right coalition to shift federal policy.

THE BUDGET AS A MORAL DOCUMENT

Photo of US flag flying at US Capitol from Oregon Center for Public Policy blog. Pop-out says In 2021 Oregon can free up money to invest in Oregonians by disconnecting from wasteful federal tax breaks.

Image from OCPP.org/agenda links to their Disconnect from Wasteful Federal Tax Breaks blog.

Many of us–especially in my Boomer generation–find it difficult to rethink long-held assumptions and perhaps to give up some financial privileges. Some of the most introspective among us–such as those in Portland’s Interfaith Alliance on Poverty have been exploring the root cause of poverty and homelessness for the several years. 

Chair, Les Wardenaar, has an eloquent “Commentary On The Budget As A Moral Document” in the January 2021 issue of the Alliance newsletter showing that he has given some deep thought to the Alliance’s series on the topic over the last few months.. He especially cites OCPP Executive Director Alejandro Queral’s presentation (Oct 2020) on the Oregon tax structure and the benefits that many of us gain from it at the obvious expense of those with lower income. That prompted him to ask himself the question: “how much of my personal finance and with it my lifestyle am I willing to sacrifice to make the system more just?”  Wardenaar goes on to conclude:

As one of my Alliance friends put it, “The Budget as a Moral Document” ultimately demonstrates that we—as Portlanders, as Oregonians, as Americans– are deliberately choosing to perpetuate social and economic injustice. We choose to force people to live on the streets. We choose to provide a sub-standard education for many of our children, thus impacting their chances of lifting themselves up. We choose to put “people of color” into a chasm of inequity that only a small minority could ever climb out of. And we make those choices year after year after year. 

Many more in the Boomer generation are even more fearful–without being quite so introspective and soul searching as those in the Alliance. Some reinforce each others fears in neighborhood associations where they attempt to block change.

HOUSING JUSTICE: CLIMATE JUSTICE AND PUBLIC HEALTH

Housing Justice is Climate Justice is a meme embraced by BIPOC advocates in Oregon and many supporters such as those in Portland: Neighbors Welcome, Sunrise PDX, and NextUp 

What if, rather than bemoan the change to our single-family neighborhoods, we embraced it instead? Ever larger American homes have become a huge factor in climate change at the same time they have led to increased loneliness. And public health officials are recognizing that loneliness is the new smoking or worse–equivalent to 15 cigarettes a day! As homes have become bigger they have led to increased emissions from heating and cooling, more furniture and appliances to fill the space and more fossil fuel to travel further distances–all with a carbon cost. “Why isn’t there a more robust public conversation about how living differently–more affordably, more communally, and more simply–could strengthen our society, economy, and health?” asks Lind.

Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing could be around the corner–we first need to permit it, fund it and build it! And the fearful may then want to get on board.

Although most of us feel that we have our hands full just to focus on local housing policy–or state housing policy at best, I’m suggesting that some of us need to take advantage of the incredible opportunity we have in Oregon to get an equitable housing policy at the federal level. It needs to be a policy that will expedite building market rate and public housing that is affordable and available to BIPOC communities and to young people. That will happen only when we shift our perceptions about “the American Dream” away from homeownership and towards security, equity and legacy for all.  

Sustainable Stormwater Management by Tom Liptan

Sustainable Stormwater Management – a Review

March 8, 2018

Sustainable Stormwater Management: A Landscape-Driven Approach to Planning and Design

Sustainable Stormwater Management: A Landscape Driven Approach to Planning and Design

Preview the book at Timer Press: http://www.timberpress.com/books/sustainable_stormwater_management/liptan/9781604694864

by Thomas Liptan, with writer David Santan, Jr

strikes an optimistic note about the future of our cities in an era of climate change:

Indeed, the cities of the future will be garden cities. Not for aesthetics, though beauty will follow as a by-product, but for the energy savings, water management, shelter from extreme heat and precipitation, noise buffers, and perhaps most importantly the habitat and urban wildlife these plants will support. Our cities will come alive with people, plants, and creatures thriving in interdependent coexistences” (p252)

Primary author, Tom Liptan, is hoping to change the nature of urban design itself.  As a sustainable cities advocate, such change is a vision that I share.

Liptan adds yet another term to the sustainable stormwater management lexicon: landscape stormwater management. No American city has implemented more of these LSM approaches than Portland, Oregon (where they both live—as does this reviewer). Portland has roughly 7,000 green stormwater facilities in place—including a few in its downtown! They not only manage stormwater, they “conserve water and energy, reduce urban heat island effect and thermal gain in waterways, recharge groundwater supplies, create habitat and support biodiversity, buffer noise, and provide a healthier, more adaptive, more resilient infrastructure”(p18). I will add that they make a walk or bike ride more pleasant and interesting and they are cheaper and more effective than pipes as well!

Tabor 2 River Green Street

This Green Street planter at SE 41st & Clay is one of Portland’s 7,000 landscape stormwater facilities. The Tabor to the River project where this street lies https://www.portlandoregon.gov/bes/47591 saved the city $63M and added multiple benefits. Image by PlanGreen, taken Winter 2018.

I first met primary author, landscape architect, Tom Liptan, in the early 90’s when he gave a presentation for a local builders group on green roofs in Europe. He issued a call for us to start applying green roof technology in Portland. Ultimately, Liptan became the Ecoroof Technical Manager in the Sustainable Stormwater Division of the City’s Bureau of Environmental Services (BES). Today we participate together  in Portland’s Green Roof Info Thinktank (GRIT). He and I were early advocates for restoring Portland area streams—a movement that gave impetus to the practices in this book.

This book is not just about Portland and its 7,000 LSM facilities. It’s about a design philosophy that puts the water in the landscape rather than storm drains and pipes. And it uses examples of LSM design from all over the world. Although it has lots of information you’d find in a manual: site assessment, site design, construction, inspection, cost considerations, operations and maintenance—it’s style and unusual organization makes it far more interesting than most manuals or handbooks.

As a professional who has long-criticized gizmo green, I appreciate Liptan’s statement that “a good designer relies on principles of design rather than products.” He won my heart when he exhorts us to “look first to native materials and natural systems” and employ “Design with native plants first and foremost.” It’s not immediately apparent to me that many designers in Portland actually do that—so Liptan and I have a lot more exhorting to do. I’m hoping this book and my review will help.

Sustainable Stormwater Management is organized into two major sections: Landscape Stormwater Design: Water Management from a Landscape Architectural Perspective and Landscape Stormwater Management: Vegetative Approaches to Water Management. The four chapters of the first section cover guiding principles, economics, policy and politics and something of an exhortation to the landscape architecture profession that Liptan sees as the potential leaders of this movement.

It is true that landscape architects have a jealously-guarded stranglehold over specifying plants in commercial facilities in Oregon. As a streams and natural areas restoration volunteer and native plant/ecology focused tour leader, I throw up my hands about this stranglehold every time I examine a rain garden or stormwater planter facility in Portland and see mostly over-used, alien ornamental species—some of which are invasive elsewhere. And I’ve spent much time reporting deliberately planted INVASIVE species in the past.

I now advocate that only those trained (formally or informally) in ecological restoration be allowed to design Portland’s stormwater facilities. (Just like most architects get little training in urban design, most landscape architects get little training in plants before they get their credentials—though the latter seems to be a more tightly kept secret.) Liptan admits this later in the book: Addressing the engineering, architecture and landscape architecture disciplines: “Water, soil and plants as stormwater management elements are new territory and we all have a lot to learn”(p249). “Good designers are not born but educated. . .Better education for designers and city review staff can reduce the waste of money and space.” (p250) Portland would do well to reward and learn from those of us who agree with Liptan.

The far longer second section, Landscape Stormwater Management: Vegetative Approaches to Water Management, has most of the data, tables, rules of thumb and cautions that you might find in a manual. But, with its pleas for further research, rallying cries for creative approaches, page-after-page of captioned photos and its call to design with nature using native materials, this book goes beyond a manual.

Sandy Boulevard Rain Garden

Sandy Boulevard Green Street Rain Garden in Hollywood Neighborhood of Portland. Image by PlanGreen.

Chapter 5—Water-Accepting Landscapes—is the chapter that covers Rain Gardens and Stormwater Planters, Green Streets, and Rainwater Harvesting amongst other topics. Liptan barely uses the term bioswale conceding that it is like a long rain garden. Rather he distinguishes between rain gardens with their sloped sides and planters with their vertical structural sides. Besides that there are three types of either system: 1) infiltration landscapes, 2) partial infiltration landscapes, and 3) flow-through landscapes.

Although Liptan devotes only a half page of text under the heading “Green Street” he does have ten pages with captioned photos of green streets.   The reader can find more green street commentary in his discussions of Nashville’s Deaderick Street, Seattle’s SEA Street, Ballard (Seattle) Roadside Rain Garden Project, Portland’s Tabor to the River, Halsey Green Street and Headwaters at Tryon Creek projects. In fact much of the latter half of Chapter 5 on Site Design is devoted to making green streets work better—covering such areas as site assessment, sizing, directing flows, plantings and soils, construction, plumbing, cost considerations and operations and maintenance (O&M). (Although I understand “The intent is to focus on the outcome of the approach rather than a specific type of implementation. . .,” I found this organization a bit confusing.)

I’ve long been impressed by Tom Liptan’s minimalist approach: “The ideal LSM design should never need irrigation, pruning, or fertilization.” He cautions that O&M plans must state explicitly how plantings should be managed, otherwise most landscape contractors will default to their standard approach: “Spray it, soak it, mow it, blow it away.” Ninety percent of street planters in Portland are not irrigated—resulting in huge O&M savings. (However, as a Green Street Steward in downtown Portland, last summer I was begging nearby retailers to water the downtown planters I steward so that they wouldn’t lose any more plants.)

Most of Chapter 6—Vegetative (Living) Cover of Impervious Surfaces—is devoted to what Portland

Central Library Ecoroof in downtown Portland

Central Library Ecoroof in downtown Portland. Image courtesy of Timber Press.

calls ecoroofs, with Liptan using the more generalized term “vegetative roofs” to appeal to a wider audience. However he moves through vegetative walls, vegetative planters, trees, and vines before returning to research on vegetative roofs and then to their design.

He is again minimalist: Simpler vegetative roof designs found in Europe are “as good or better than most North American designs.” I would be disappointed if I didn’t see the Red Cinder Ecoroof design that Liptan developed in Portland. It’s comprised of a moisture mat, soil, and sedums planted in red cinder mulch. It’s low cost, low-maintenance, self-sustaining with no irrigation and adaptable to any roof or membrane system AND it protects the roof membrane, manages stormwater and creates habitat. “The sedums with the red cinder retard colonization by other plants for many years,” maintains Liptan.   Some additional recommendations he makes for vegetative roofs: 1) some kind of mineral mulch if not red cinder—for both moisture retention and shading the soil; 2) integrate solar panels on your roof so the plants can benefit from the shade; 3) manage solar reflections on vegetation where possible—one solution is to cover dead plants with a thin layer of rock to protect the soil and perhaps allow some plants to return.

Tanner Springs Park

Tanner Springs Park doesn’t really daylight Tanner Creek, just replicates such daylighting. But the nearby nature it brings in is great for education. Image by PlanGreen.

Chapter 7 asks the reader to think about how much impervious surface we really need then moves on to discussing porous pavement, depaving and stream daylighting. Liptan sees a bright future for buried creeks to reappear in our cities proclaiming that “A daylighted stream can be the nexus for the dramatic green transformation of an entire neighborhood.” Both the daylighting and depaving movements have been led for many years by unpaid volunteers who have formed non-profits and enlisted more volunteers to get the work done. I’m glad to see Liptan exhorting design professionals to do more in this arena.

Liptan’s is a captivating vision for change in the way we design/re-design our cities. I hope more designers and advocates too will take to heart a fragment from the book that is going up on my bathroom mirror: “…the door to creativity stands open. Enter unencumbered by the boxes of conformity, and be amazed.”

____________

Mary Vogel is a CNU accredited planner and founder of PlanGreen, a Woman Business Enterprise in Portland, OR that has paddled upstream for years to bring ecosystem services to excellent urban design. After achieving on-the-ground restorations and some important policy accomplishments in several of Portland’s and the region’s long-range plans pro bono, she would like to get paid work—perhaps outside of Oregon where she can best use her skills.

Community Land Trusts Gaining Ground Fast

Tony Pickett speaking on Community Land Trusts as a tool against displacement at Oregon Metro on March 17, 2017

Tony Pickett speaking on Community Land Trusts as a tool against displacement at Oregon Metro on March 17, 2017

The Community Land Trust (CLT) concept is gaining ground FAST, not only in North America, but around the world says developer Tony Pickett: Advancing ‘in-placement’: Four housing and development lessons from Denver and Atlanta by Tony Pickett. To prevent gentrification and to develop permanent housing affordability, Pickett is working to develop the Community Land Trust concept in both Atlanta and Denver.

This slide from his March 17, 2017 slide show in Portland briefly explains the CLT concept: Typical CLT Model explained

After his presentation at Oregon Metro, Pickett met with a few Transit Oriented Development (TOD) managers and public officials from around the Portland metro region. Says Pickett: “Control of TOD land for shared-equity housing can accomplish the critical linkage of low-cost public transit access and affordable high-quality housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income families.”  One might hope that the wheels are in place for shared equity housing, both rental and for sale, at every existing and future MAX station around the region. But it will take more than this one time, singular effort by Metro. We need to put pressure  on elected officials in the Portland region to adopt the CLT model with Transit-Oriented Development that Pickett promotes .

In both Atlanta and Denver, land-banked properties at transit stations and future stations are developed under the CLT model—not just housing, but community centers and small business space–even a charter school. Portland metropolitan agencies such as Metro and Trimet have done some of this land banking in our region, but their model has often been to sell off the land to a private developer who meets their guidelines. Those of us from the Portland region need to be more active in insisting our public agencies support the CLT model.

The reason I’m excited about CLTs is well-expressed by Gabriel Metcalf, author of Democratic by Design: Community land trusts represent the nascent form of an alternative system of land ownership. In that sense, they illustrate the broader strategy of alternative institutions as a way to make change: create the alternative, and then try to grow it, with the goal of displacing the mainstream set of institutions over time.[1]  CLTs are a new model of land tenure that could ultimately replace our current housing system.

Thankfully, a number of cities around the globe —not just Denver and Atlanta–are seeing the CLT as a solution to gentrification and skyrocketing costs. Even Vancouver, BC, a city that Portland sometimes likes to emulate, is adopting the concept. According to A Speculation-Free Zone in The Globe and Mail[2]:

Vancouver Land Trust Foundation Project under construction

 A growing number of people in British Columbia are viewing this fledgling organization, and community land trusts in general, as the way to provide an important new option in the escalating struggle over housing. . . . Advocates talk passionately about how land trusts help remove property from the speculative land market and preserve it forever.

Vancouver Community Land Trust Foundation is vying to become the largest Community Land Trust in North America. Burlington, VT now has that honor!  Again, from The Globe and Mail:  But, in the Vancouver version, people are also attracted by the other power of land trusts – their ability to harness the energy of hundreds of isolated non-profit housing societies and co-ops, combining their land equity and their clout to be able to finance new development.  We also need to exert pressure on the Portland area’s various Community Development Corporations (CDCs) and other non-profit housing builders to join under a Community Land Trust umbrella–either under our existing CLT, Proud Ground–or an umbrella organization that we create.  

In New York City the New York City Community Land Initiative (https://nyccli.org) is an alliance of over two dozen organizations, academics, affordable-housing developers and community activists who educate the public about community land trusts and advocate for their inclusion in city policy.  (Which organization or academic in the Portland region will help put together a similar coalition to take on the work mentioned above?)

NYCCLI was successful in getting Mayor DeBlasio and the NYC Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) to release a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) from groups interested in forming community land trusts using city-owned property.

In a press release, HPD writes: “The CLT’s land ownership, paired with a governance structure that reflects the interests of CLT affordable housing residents and the broader community, can offer a unique housing model that empowers residents and neighborhoods. . . The release goes on to say that it is evaluating making city-owned properties in East Harlem, the South Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens available for development and operation by one or more CLTs.

NYCCLI lauds HPD saying it has “taken a big step by recognizing the potential of CLTs to advance a truly progressive housing policy.” There was no word on the HPD or NYCCLI sites about whether any decision has been made.

Tony Pickett, for his part, could hardly be busier, with invitations from around the globe to help form CLT’s. He shows the growth of the movement in the US alone in this slide:

Unfortunately, the graph stops at 2010.  Fortunately, the trajectory since then has been even more geometric.

If you are really interested but need more inspiration to take action, think about going to Intersections 2017, the national Community Land Trust conference in Oakland, CA this year: https://groundedsolutionsnetwork.swoogo.com/Intersections2017  Intersections 2017 in Oakland

 

[1]http://www.rooflines.org/4392/interview_with_gabriel_metcalf_author_of_democratic_by_design/

[2] A Speculation-Free Zone http://www.theglobeandmail.com/real-estate/vancouver/how-community-land-trusts-could-help-build-affordable-vancouverhousing/article34026679/

Portland Region 2040 Vision–What’s Next?

April 4, 2016

“How do you think Metro should respond to the key issues and trends affecting the region’s ability to realize the vision of the 2040 Growth Concept?”  

I was asked this question recently and here’s what I said. . .

Since its inception in 1995, the 2040 Growth Concept has promoted compact, mixed-use, transit-oriented development in centers and corridors.  This has been central to shaping regional growth patterns, limiting sprawl and creating livable communities.  In fact, directing growth into centers & corridors has been the region’s primary strategy for preserving farms, forests and natural areas outside the Urban Growth Boundary.  Metro policymakers (and I myself) believe that compact development is the premier tool to address climate change, ensure equity, create jobs and protect the region’s quality of life.

I see three key trends that have only gotten stronger since 1995:

Trend 1: Walkable Urbanism Preference

Beaverton's Broadway Vision

Most cities in the region know that they must promote walkable urbanism–but sometimes their policymakers forget. This image is from Beaverton’s Civic Plan.

Boomers and Millenials both show a strong preference for “Walkable Urbanism.” Some suburban policymakers responses to Metro’s Climate Smart Communities (CSC) project shows that many of them are not aware that this first trend means that they should be focusing more of their infrastructure dollars towards “retrofitting suburbia” rather than building and widening roads. I worked hard to see that urban form/urban design was in the strategies tested in the CSC project (and indeed it tested at the top!), but many suburban policymakers would rather focus on electric vehicles and other technology for lowering tail pipe emissions. More needs to be done to alert them that their present course will potentially lead to stranded assets where there is little market left for suburban single-family homes that don’t provide the opportunity to walk to needed services and amenities.

Trend 2: Recognition That Inequality Hurts Us

There is a growing recognition of the unacceptable impacts of inequality (racial, social, financial).  Inequality impacts such issues as housing affordability, homelessness, displacement and even sprawl as people seek more affordable housing in towns outside the Metro Urban Growth Boundary.  Thanks to Bernie Sanders, financial inequality (the widening income gap) has become a chief topic of presidential debates and led to more discussion of the role that the Federal government should play. Meanwhile, Metro has attempted to address several aspects of inequality.

Equitable Housing Report

This report mentions Community Land Trust as a strategy. But it needs to become THE major strategy if we are to address housing costs for a 2040 workforce.

Regarding Metro’s Strategic Plan to Advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Metro’s COO Martha Bennett said “the priorities are to learn more about best practices, apply equity plans to its service-delivery areas, improve community engagement and use equity as a measure of decision-making in spending money.” Any build out of the 2040 Growth Plan will need to address gentrification, displacement and contracting opportunities in an equity strategy that focuses on communities of color.

Metro has pursued affordable housing strategies for many years—the latest effort being the Equitable Housing Initiative headed up by Councilor Sam Chase. From Metro’s web site: The Initiative’s Report discusses a variety of tools that could help, including financial assistance for residents, renter protections against evictions and nonprofit community land trusts. . .

I agree that Metro should utilize the Community Land Trust model, but not just for the involuntarily low-income. I would like to see governments in the region, including Metro, promoting the CLT for ALL OF US.  The original impetus behind the CLT movement was to create a new institution to keep housing permanently affordable.  The first people I ever met living in a CLT were NOT low-income, rather middle-income people who saw it as a better way. Probably the local government that best understood its potential was Burlington, VT under then-mayor Bernie Sanders.  The City of Burlington under Sanders helped to support the formation of the Burlington Community Land Trust.  It’s now the Champlain Housing Trust, the largest CLT in the US and a model for local governments looking for systemic solutions.

Champlain Housing Trust Image

Champlain Housing Trust is the largest Community Land Trust in the nation. It enables housing to be kept permanently affordable by holding title to the land under both multifamily and single family homes–both rented and owned. Image from CHT 2014 Annual Report: http://www.getahome.org/learn-more/publications.

I believe the CLT is the best tool for transforming our housing system.  By taking the land under housing off the private, commodity, speculative market, it helps to change the concept of housing from a commodity to be bought and sold for a profit. Instead it encourages us to see it as a social good that everyone needs and deserves.

“By looking at housing as a fundamental human right rather than a market good that goes to the highest bidder, and with shrewd political organizing in a hostile environment, housing advocates in Burlington have created a sustainable model for affordable housing that deserves to be emulated across the country” says Daniel Fireside in Burlington Busts the Affordable Housing Debate.

The Portland region has a Community Land Trust, Proud Ground (formerly Portland Community Land Trust and Clackamas Community Land Trust). Personally, I feel that it is far too focused on home ownership rather than a mix of ownership and rental. Nonetheless, Metro should explore developing a relationship with it similar to that of Burlington and CHT.

Woolsey Corner in the New Columbia area of Portland was developed as a Community Land Trust by Proud Ground utilizing Orange Splott as its builder. Photo courtesy of Orange Splott.

Woolsey Corner in the New Columbia community of Portland was developed as a Community Land Trust by Proud Ground utilizing Orange Splott as its developer. Photo courtesy of Orange Splott.

For the shorter term, it should work with innovative housing developer Orange Splott, LLC and its network of other small  incremental developers in promoting more alternatives to conventional home ownership. Let me repeat, these alternatives should be marketed not just to “the poor” but to ALL OF US!  For Metro, this work could come under the banner of the Equitable Housing Initiative, but it needs to be larger than “affordable housing.” Rather it needs to focus on housing affordability involving ALL income levels.  In the long run, hopefully before 2040, such efforts by Metro will help to change the concept of housing from a commodity to a social good.

Trend 3: Need for Excellent Urban Design

Residents of existing neighborhoods will be far more supportive of new development when it includes excellent urban design encompassing:

  • appropriately scaled buildings
  • streets designed for walking, biking, pushing baby strollers. . .and even cars
  • neighborhoods with diverse uses
  • people of diverse incomes, class and ethnicity
  • sufficient parks and natural areas, protected streams, wetlands, and steep slopes
  • infrastructure for arts and culture

Metro might look into working with the Regional Arts and Culture Council to produce a toolkit to encourage every community in the region to integrate arts and culture. Transportation for America has produced a Creative Placemaking Handbook that could provide a good start.

Towards a Walkable Tigard

Tigard Mayor welcomes New Urbanist Jeff Speck for two days of talks and workshops on making Tigard, a suburban community in the Portland Metro area, more walkable. Photo by PlanGreen.

Members of the Congress for the New Urbanism have a great deal of expertise in excellent urban design.  Metro should continue to develop a partnership with the Portland-based non-profit National Charrette Institute, a leading affiliate and powerful voice within CNU. As presented at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference by Council Member Craig Dirksen, the Investment Areas Approach with its Shared Investments Strategy  highlighted both the City of Tigard and the Tigard Triangle in the SW Corridor Investment Area. New Urbanists are having strong influence over Tigard’s redevelopment and this trend should be encouraged.

Metro is involved with connecting its natural area at Canemah Bluff with a riverwalk along the Willamette River.

Metro is connecting its natural area at Canemah Bluff with a riverwalk along the Willamette River. This will make Oregon City even more appealing as a place to live and work. Photo by PlanGreen.

Metro should continue its long-standing relationship with The Intertwine regarding the integration of parks and natural areas into developing centers and corridors. This coalitions of organizations have long been involved with implementation of Titles 3 and 13 of the 2040 Concept. It should consider expanding relationships with environmentally oriented organizations that represent communities of color (some of whom are in The Intertwine). As mentioned above in the inequality trend, any urban design efforts must take into account gentrification and displacement. They must also take into account inequitable air quality impacts.

What do you think about my three key trends re: implementing the 2040 Growth Concept–and my ideas on what Metro should do about them?  What are your ideas?

Toronto: Florida to the Kees with Greater Portland Inc.

Oct. 17, 2015

Richard Florida

Richard Florida, Professor; Co-founder CityLab.com; Sr. editor The Atlantic speaking to our Greater Portland, Inc. group.

Our discussion of “The Next Urban Crisis”  at University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management was another highlight of my Greater Portland Inc. trip to Toronto Sept. 27-30, 2015. There we spoke with professor, author and CityLab co-founder Richard Florida as well as  Real Estate Developer, & Architect in City blogger Brandon Donnelly.  During this discussion Spacing Magazine editor Matthew Blackett  also shared some of the interesting insights I reported on in my Part 1 blog.

Richard Florida expressed his frustration with the Mayor Rob Ford era which declared that the war on the car was over and that the problem was those young, pointy-headed university folks. “In Toronto, everyone still thinks they have the right to drive,” he lamented.  “If there’s an urban crisis, it’s the suburbs,” he said.

Florida reminded us that: “Building urbanism is a lot more expensive than building sprawl” and “The new frontier is the old frontier in the center of the city.” He left us with three points to deal with the next urban crisis: 1)  Build more housing,and make it more affordable; .2)  Build more transit;  3)  Provide a livable minimum wage–reduce the huge bifurcation we see now.

Brandon Donnelly

Brandon Donnelly described the affordability crisis for families and a solution in mid-rise housing. Photo from The Guardian

Brandon Donnelly discussed with us some of the crisis in keeping housing affordable during Toronto’s fast-paced growth. There’s a pressure on prices re: low rise, but high-rise has stayed stable, he said.  He described an Avenues and Mid-rise Building study. “ We see it as a market to build more units for families who are priced out of single family homes,” he said.

He distinguished Towers 1.0 and Towers 2.0.  Towers 1.0, many built in the suburbs, did not take as middle class housing and became largely the affordable housing of today. Towers 2.0 is basically all ownership vs. all tenants in 1.0, he said.  He finds it an encouraging sign that anchor office tenants and retailers are moving into the city as well.

Mid-rise housing

This mid-rise housing was across from a string of parks similar to Portland’s Park Blocks and gets my vote for best place to live in Toronto. Photo by PlanGreen

Park across from mid-rise housing

This park was one of a string of parks across from the mid-rise housing above. It was centrally located on the way to the Distillery District. Photo by PlanGreen

Robert Reich

Robert Reich, former Sec. of Labor, UC Berkley Professor and prolific author.at the Rotman School auditorium. Photo by PlanGreen

On our way out, we had an unexpected opportunity to hear Robert Reich, who was doing a guest lecture at the Rotman School around his book, Saving Capitalism : For the Many, Not the Few. 

I was especially impressed by how many of our group stopped to listen to his talk.  “My aim is to shatter the myths that keep us from taking the action we must take, and to provide a roadmap of what we must do – to rebuild our economic system and restore our democracy.” Reich was saying.

There is  a “huge misunderstanding” that underlies  a false political dichotomy between the so-called “free market” and government intervention. “There is no choice to be made between the free market and government. Government determines the rules of the market. The real question is what those rules are going to be and who is influencing those rules and whether the market is going to be working for the vast majority as a result, or whether it’s going to be rigged in favour of a small minority.” Reich’s book was for sale at a table outside the open-sided auditorium where he was speaking.

At Rotman we had the opportunity to hear some of the most forward-thinking leaders of the day who are dealing with questions around the environment, housing, urbanism, equity, millenials, the creative class, public involvement and the economy.

Ryerson University

The Planning students who attended our reception at Ryerson University were interested in displacement, equity and resiliency issues. Photo by PlanGreen

It was a great segue to our reception and  “Sharing Best Practices between Portland and Toronto” session at Ryerson University Architecture School.  All of the students I met at the reception were from the Ryerson School of Urban and Regional Planning rather than Architecture.  Those students were looking for answers to rising housing costs, displacement, equity, brownfields, resiliency planning in an era of climate change, etc.  I stayed after the session to talk with them. Several promised to look at my blogs on mycoremediation and suggested that one of their professors might be especially interested. So far, no one has followed up but I’m still hoping to hear from them.

Jennifer Keesmaat

Jennifer Keesmatt was our featured evening speaker. Image courtesy of York University. http://yfile.news.yorku.ca/2014/11/06/chief-toronto-planner-discussed-urban-spaces-and-achieving-a-sustainable-healthy-city/

Chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, is a longtime Toronto resident, a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism (like myself), and a pedestrian advocate.  She had been a principal in the Toronto planning consultancy Dialog prior to taking the job as Toronto’s top planner.   She is also an inveterate user of Twitter @jen_keesmaat–discreetly putting out these tweets while she was on a panel with Portland Chief Planner, Joe Zehnder:

Portland is seeking to create *greenways* throughout neighbourhoods to address stormwater issues. Think “greened” street medians.  Portland has met Kyoto carbon emission reductions, even while growing. “Your midrise is hi-rise for us.” Portland Chief Planner explains that 4 story bldings are causing consternation in his city. Wow. If only.

Mountain Equipment Coop in downtown Toronto

Mountain Equipment Coop in downtown Toronto installed an extensive green roof of 6,500ft.2 during the construction of the building in 1998. Photo courtesy City of Toronto

“I talk about Portland all of the time,” she told us.  We’re growing but our air quality is getting better – as a result of our green roof policy mitigating the heat island effect.  I cringed a bit to think that while Toronto passed the world’s first mandatory green roof program in 2010, Portland discontinued its Ecoroof Incentive in 2012.

In response to moderator Ann Marie’s question about green infrastructure and resiliency in the face of climate change, Keesmaat lamented that she has only three  people working on green streets, a superstar team, but only three.

She did add that Toronto is a city of ravines and that there is an ongoing Ravine Strategy currently being developed.  She will be holding her final Chief Planner Roundtable of 2015 (Dec. 15) on the topic of Toronto’s ravine network.  I did not get the chance to ask her about the re-naturalization of the Don River, but I plan to do that at the next opportunity–maybe via Twitter!

Land Value Tax for Downtown Portland

Testimony given May 19, 2014  to Strategic Advisory Committee on the West Quadrant Plan

Neighbors in the West End portion of downtown Portland are tired of walking by block-long stretches of surface parking lots while some of our historic buildings are razed for redevelopment. One solution to this problem that the City of Portland should seriously consider is taxing land at a higher rate than buildings.

Taxing land and buildings at the same rate per square foot means that as long as you don’t put any buildings on your land, your tax bill is going to remain relatively low. If you’re a speculator, this means that you only need a modest amount of revenue from people driving into the city for work or to go shopping in order to sit on that land indefinitely.  Or you might hold out until someone comes along offering your “pie-in-the-sky” price.  Either way, the effect is to keep the land out of the hands of many of those with genuine interest in putting it to productive use.

By taxing land at or near its development potential, however, owners of land being used at less than maximum productivity would be paying a disproportionate amount in taxes in order to keep it that way.

Aside from the obvious goal of raising money to pay for public services, we levy taxes

  • to discourage a particular behavior in favor of another (taxes on cigarettes and alcohol discourage consumption and thus promote lower health care costs), or
  • because a given resource is scarce while demand for it is high (i.e., the gasoline tax).

But if the city is trying to encourage development—and to attract the 70,000 more downtown residents it seeks by 2030—it hardly makes sense to place the greater tax on development behavior.

A Good Illustration: The block between SW 11th & 12th and SW Taylor and Yamhill that the

Parking Lot at Rear of Medical Dental Building pays 5x less taxes/sf than the building.

Parking Lot at Rear of Medical Dental Building pays 5x less taxes/sf than the building.

Medical Dental Building at 833 SW 11th Avenue (built 1928) sits on provides a good illustration. It is a block with a 10 story commercial building, a 2 story parking garage and a surface parking lot.

When you look closely at the property tax bill for each, it becomes clear that the conventional property tax deters development and risk-taking.

  • The surface parking lot spans 20,000 sf, and its owner pays $1.33 per-square-foot of land in annual property taxes to the city.
  • The 1928 parking garage on the same block spans roughly half the area (10,000 sf), and despite the lot’s structural improvements, pays only a bit more than the surface lot in property tax —$1.37 per-square-foot of land.
  • The Medical Dental Building (which occupies 10,000 sf of the block), however, pays $6.13 per-square-foot of land—a rate almost 5 times higher than the surface parking lot.

12 West pays 42-45x more than the parking lot diagonal from it.

12 West pays 42-45x more than the parking lot diagonal from it.

An illustration that takes into account newer construction is the corner of SW 12th & Washington where 1227 SW Washington, aka 12 West (2009), is assessed $59.90 per sf of land compared to the surface parking lot diagonally across from it that is assessed only $1.42 per sf of land occupied[i]. 12 West has a tax liability that is 42x that of the surface lot.

Parking Lot Diagonal to 12West pays 42-45x less than 12West

Parking Lot Diagonal to 12West pays 42-45x less than 12West

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is completely backwards. From the city’s perspective, the Medical Dental building and 12 West are the best and most preferable uses of land in their respective locations, while the surface lot is the least. And yet, looking at the tax figures one would think exactly the opposite. By simply taxing land at a higher rate than improvements, owners would be motivated to maximize the productivity of land. Parking lots would still exist of course, but they would be condensed into above- or underground garages rather than surface parking lots. In this way, by removing the penalty for development, two-rate taxation is actually a form of economic stimulus.

But two-rate taxation is about more than encouraging dense urban development and reducing sprawl. As Rick and Walt Rybeck note in Break the Boom and Bust Cycle http://bit.ly/R1CPVm, two-rate taxation also addresses the root cause of the boom-and-bust cycle of the real estate market:

Higher land taxes discourage land speculation by making it less profitable. Prior to the Great Depression, there was a nationwide real estate boom and bust. Not surprisingly, land values in major U.S. cities declined drastically. Between 1930 and 1940, land values declined in New York, 21 percent; Milwaukee, 25 percent; Cincinnati, 26 percent; New Orleans, 27 percent; Cleveland, 46 percent; Los Angeles, 50 percent, and Detroit, 58 percent. But Pittsburgh adopted a two-rate property tax in 1914. As evidence that this reform reduces speculation, Pittsburgh’s decline in total land values was only 11 percent between 1930 and 1940.

After increasing the tax differential between land and building taxes in the late 1970s (land was taxed at a rate 5.77 times higher than buildings), Pittsburgh also saw significantly increased development activity at a time when most cities its size were experiencing declines.

There are obstacles to implementation. Current law requires state enabling legislation for the two-tier land tax that I am suggesting, but there are indications that Gov. Kitzhaber would favor that.

Appendix – from Portland Maps

833 SW 11th Ave. – Medical Building

$61,291.51 taxes on 78,148 square feet on 10,000 sf of land or $6.13 sf of land

Market Value $4,976,640.00
Assessed Value $2,542,330.00

837 SW 11th Ave. – structured parking lot

$13,751.20 taxes on 20,000 sf on 10,000 sf of land or $1.38 sf of land

Market Value $1,251,810.00
Assessed Value $570,390.00

804 SW 12th Ave – City Center Parking on SW 12th between SW Yamhill & Taylor

$26,664.86 taxes on 20,000 sf or $1.33 sf of land

[i] I was not able to easily find the taxes paid on the 3 parcels that make up this corner where a City Center Parking lot operates because Portland Maps just said “No address is avaialble.” So I used the tax figure for the grassy lot next to it at SW 11th & Washington which is $1.42 per sf. This figure is higher than that for the City Center Parking lot at SW 12th & Yamhill which is $1.33 per sf. If $1.33 per sf is used, then 12West is assessed 45 times more per sf than the parking lot.

I have been a friend of Rick Rybeck (cited above) and admired his work for a long time.  But, I want to acknowledge that I borrowed the approach of looking at individual parcels and some of the language above from the Streets MN blog Tax Land, Not Buildings by Chris Keimig.  Thanks, Chris!

Oregonian Climate Change Editorial – Response

Lima

AP Photo/Martin Meija- Compliments of The Oregonian

On Dec. 20, 2014 our statewide newspaper, The Oregonian, published an editorial that gave those who care about climate change opportunity to express our incredulity at their short-sitedness. I was one of many who did:

Dec. 24, 2014 Letter to Editor, Oregonian – Stimulate a Clean Energy Economy

On Dec. 20, your editorial board maintained that climate change is best handled on the federal and international levels, hence Oregonians should not “adopt unproductive measures that either cost them money or reduce employment opportunities” (Dec. 20, 2014).  Rather than reduce employment opportunities, the Governors of California, Oregon, Washington and the premier of British Columbia are working to coordinate efforts to STIMULATE A CLEAN-ENERGY ECONOMY rather than accept jobs in dirty energy industries that may soon have stranded assets. In a region with a combined gross domestic product of $2.8 trillion and 53 million people this WILL make a difference.

California and British Columbia have already placed a price on greenhouse gas emissions and adopted clean fuel standards–with no harm, only good, to their economies. Not only should Oregon follow suit, but the Oregon Legislature should also require that the 30% of our electricity now produced by coal convert to clean energy by 2025.  This will stimulate more jobs in industries with a great future!

Mary Vogel                                                                                                                                           PlanGreen                                                                                                                                          Downtown Portland

Headlines

Buena Vista Pictures – Courtesy of Wash Post

And on Dec. 30, 2014, the Washington Post asked small business owners to comment on headlines they would be thrilled to see in 2015. Here’s how I answered their brief questionnaire:

Name:  Mary Vogel
Title: (Owner, President, CEO, etc): Principal and Founder
Company’s name:
PlanGreen
Company’s location (city, state): 
Portland, Oregon
What the company does (concisely, one or two sentences):
PlanGreen brings the services that nature provides for free to excellent urban design and planning.  We consult on planning and urban design towards a regenerative future!

Headline you would like to see in 2015 (max 10 words): Keystone Pipeline Dead, Columbia River Gorge No Alternative!

Why that news would benefit your company (one paragraph, please be specific about the expected effects on your company or small businesses in general):  My company, PlanGreen, is about redressing the highly inefficient and environmentally damaging way we have developed in the US for the last 60+ years because of cheap fossil fuels.  The compact urban form and walkable neighborhoods that I help to create would see even greater demand if fossil fuel development were not subsidized and/or facilitated with pipelines and rail/barge shipping.  In the case of the Columbia Gorge, it is difficult to promote the kind of denser redevelopment of the historic downtowns that the rail lines go through in the Gorge when coal trains are spewing health-damaging coal dust and oil trains offer the possibility of blowing up their entire downtowns.  If fossil fuel development had to pay for all of its externalities, we would see much faster development of the kind of distributed renewable energy that PlanGreen promotes.

Thanks for the opportunity to participate!  Have a great new year yourselves!                           Mary

Lacamas Northshore Development – PlanGreen In the News

The blue is business park, gold is large lot SFH, orange shades are multifamily, pink is commercial and green is open space. A 3-lane arterial will replace the 2-lane road.

The blue is business park, gold is large lot SFH, orange shades are multifamily, pink is commercial and green is open space. A 3-lane arterial will replace the 2-lane road.

Why does a big re-zoning decision in Camas, a small town in the Columbia Gorge, matter so much?  Find out in the newspaper coverage and commentary in these three newspapers:

  • The Oregonian/OregonliveCamas approves 460-acre development near Lacamas Lake despite objections at packed public hearingSeptember 10, 2013
  • The ColumbianCamas approves a 460-acre development, September 3, 2013
  • Camas Post RecordCamas approves Lacamas Northshore development, Tuesday, September 10, 2013

PlanGreen's Mary Vogel & Carolyn Foster

PlanGreen’s Mary Vogel & Carolyn Foster testified before Camas City Council on Sept. 3, 2013.

In the Camas Post Record, I wrote:  If Camas really wants to create a “sustainable, walkable community, mixing single- and multi-family housing, businesses and commercial development with parks and bike paths,” the zoning would accommodate the kind of development shown in the Commerce Center Templates (http://www.gvmc.org/blueprint/CommerceCenters.shtml )my New Urbanist colleagues did for the Grand Valley (MI) Metropolitan Council. The Kellogg Foundation funded these templates in order to help make Michigan more competitive in attracting future industry and the young people who will work there.

The zoning that the Camas Council approved does NOT support the kind of mixed use in the templates, rather it segregates each type of use and separates the housing and commercial from the industry or business park with a major arterial. While I applaud the denser housing, I believe the developers may be building the townhouse without the town by putting such housing so far from existing services and shops. Even if this area were built out with 3000 homes, that would not be enough to support a grocery store or other essential services that people want to walk to–for their health and the health of the planet.

It seems Camas planners HAD proposed mixed-use zoning for at least part of the area, but that zoning got nixed by the Grove Field airport issue. Regardless, that would not have overcome the core problem with seeking to build the area now—LEAPFROG development.

To become truly sustainable and truly attractive to the market of the future, Camas should be reproducing its delightful grid of downtown streets in areas adjacent to downtown, rather than 3.5 miles away from shops and services. I have walked the Pacific Crest Trail through the entire state of Oregon, but I would not likely walk 3.5 miles along an arterial street to get to basic services on a regular basis.

Yes, they are planning a new shopping center/commercial area segregated from the housing along the shore of Lacamas Lake, but there will not likely be enough density to support that commercial. There is a far better way to zone for a walkable community!

Camas Council: Consider Trends Before You Decide!

Below is the Draft Testimony of Mary Vogel,CNU-A, principal of PlanGreen, regarding the Lacamas Northshore proposal that Carolyn Foster covered in her blog earlier in August.

I know that you are concerned with the city’s economy—in the long term, not just today.  I suspect that you believe that the proposed master LN Concept Plan Mapplan will help the city’s economy.  But I want you to consider some future trends before you make up your minds.

Maureen McAvey, Senior Resident Fellow for the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in Washington, DC  was in Portland last year to discuss the ULI publication “What’s Next? Real Estate in the New Economy“.  The event notice read: A paradigm shift is unfolding over the course of this decade, driven by an extraordinary convergence of demographic, financial, technological and environmental trends. Taken together, these trends will dramatically change development through 2020. My notes indicate that McAvey said:

  • More single-family homes are being occupied by renters, changing the feel and politics of suburban communities
  • Seventy-five percent of households in the Portland area do not have children under 18
  • 47 percent are non-families
  • Twenty-somethings on tight budgets prefer places to congregate with friends — in parks, bars, restaurant clusters and building common areas — and can tolerate smaller living spaces.

Arthur C. Nelson, one of the nation’s most prescient housing market researchers, says declining homeownership, tighter lending standards, a sell-off of single-family houses by the nation’s fastest growing demographic — senior citizens—and even rising household sizes due to more multigenerational living will have an impact on the market you may be trying to attract with the single family home portion of the plan.

Nelson, professor of city and regional planning at the University of Utah, reports that the US faces a massive oversupply of large-lot single family houses and an undersupply of multifamily units. By 2020, Nelson sees 1.5 to 2 million homes from seniors coming on the market, and between 2020 and 2030, there will be a national net surplus of 4 million homes that they cannot sell. And Nelson believes those are conservative figures for what has been dubbed “The Great Senior Sell-Off.”

The 2009 American Housing Survey (AHS) found that 28 percent of houses are attached, 29 percent are detached on small lots, and 43 percent are detached on large lots. Three studies — by National Association of Realtors, the Robert Charles Lesser & Co. (RCLCo),USPreferencevSupplyHouseType and Nelson — all found a nearly identical, imbalance in US housing supply and demand.  Only 24 to 25 percent of Americans would prefer to live in large-lot single-family houses (see graph “Housing preference versus supply”).

Consequently, there’s an oversupply of approximately 28 million units in what developer, professor and author Christopher Lineberger calls “the drivable suburbs.”  Attached housing and small-lot housing, on the other hand, are undersupplied — by about 12 million and 13.5 million units, respectively.

Millennial Renters Survey

Source: RCLCo Consumer Survey

This imbalance is likely to grow in the years to come, reports Nelson. The generation that is currently moving into the housing market — Millennials — is the most urban-oriented cohort since World War II.  Melina Druggall with RCLCo reported at a National Association of Home Builders conference in January 2011 that 81 percent of Gen Y renters want to live in an urban setting.  (Wall Street Journal reported that number as 88% at that time and they were quoted in numerous sources such as Better Cities & Towns and Grist).

Ninety percent of the increase in the demand for new housing will be households without children, and 47 percent will be senior citizens (the latter resulting from the rising tide of Baby Boomers who started turning 65 last year). Both of these demographic groups—the Millennials and the Boomers—lean toward multifamily and away from large-lot SFH.

Referring to a recent National Association of Realtors (NAR) finding on percentage of households that prefer to live downtown or in mixed-use city or suburban neighborhoods, Nelson says “Back in ‘70s or ‘80s, people wanted drivable suburbs. Now 70 percent want to walk to discernable destinations, from transit to grocery stores. This wasn’t the case until recently.”  Nelson believes the most popular locations will be mixed-use, walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods.

This Lacamas Northshore master plan is being portrayed as both walkable and mixed-use, but the concept plan I’ve seen so far indicates to me that it is not.  The zoning proposal shows a segregation of uses. Business parks, by their very nature, are drive-to!  The single-family and the multi-family seem quite segregated from each other and all are segregated from the shopping area.

Amazon Headquarters image

Rendering courtesy of NBBJ. Amazon Headquarters adjacent downtown Seattle, WA

As far as economic development is concerned, there is increasing evidence that the kind of high tech, light industrial firms that you hope to attract are choosing to locate near where their employees want to live.  Consider the choice of Amazon to locate adjacent to downtown Seattle and Adobe Systems to locate in downtown San Jose.

I hope you will take into account the “extraordinary convergence of demographic, financial, technological and environmental trends” that ULI talks about before making your decision on this zoning change and the future development that it presages.  I agree that a master plan with changed zoning is what is now most desirable for this area–but NOT the kind of segregation of uses we see in this plan. I urge you to delay approval of a zoning change–until you can get it right!