Category Archives: Regional planning

Portland Metro in a State of Denial

The State of Oregon should change its name to Denial, as state and local leaders seem to be living in that state most of the time. Although Portland Mayor Charlie Hales has declared the region’s housing crisis to be an emergency–one that contributed to his decision not to run for re-election–no one wants to get serious about fixing the problem.

The latest is that Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency, has decided that there is no need to expand the region’s urban-growth boundary as there is plenty of room to accommodate the 400,000 new residents that region is expected to gain in the next two decades. Metro’s plans calls for housing 80 percent of those new residents in multifamily housing primarily located in downtowns and along transit corridors.

Downtown Austin today houses about 10,000 people.

As Texas transportation official Mike Heiligenstein pointed out at the American Dream conference in Austin two weeks ago, the idea that huge numbers of people can live downtown is absurd. Downtown Austin today seems to be a forest of high-rise condos, yet only 10,000 people live there. He pictured what it would look like with 20,000 more residents and it seems impossibly dense–yet 20,000 is less than 5 percent of the region’s anticipated growth. Most Americans simply don’t want to live in Manhattan, and given the nation’s wide-open spaces, they shouldn’t have to–yet planners in both Portland and Austin think they should.

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The Price of Hipness: Cultural Disruption & Displacement

Educator and writer Michael Copperman has discovered that Portland’s hip scene has come at a price: young people moving to Portland from other parts of the country have gentrified North Portland, traditionally a heavily black neighborhood, and displaced blacks to the suburbs. “The number of people living in poverty in Portland’s suburbs shot up almost 100 percent between 2000 and 2011,” observes Copperman.

While such income and racial integration might be welcome, it has its costs as well. While the whites gentrifying North Portland neighborhoods enjoy food carts, boutique restaurants, and ethnic grocery stores, displaced blacks are not better off in the suburbs and in many cases are worse off, replacing the single-family homes they rented with cramped apartments.

“Suburban Portland, home to the most notorious white West Coast gangs, has in some hotspots become a turf war apartment complex by apartment complex, the traditional Crips and Bloods of urban Portland overlapping areas dominated by the European Kindred and affiliates, all battling to control lucrative sex trafficking operations off the I-5 Corridor,” says Copperman, a transition that is pretty much invisible to recently arrived Millennials.

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Planning Is the Problem, Not the Solution

New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Bill English, is an antiplanner. “The justification for planning is to deal with externalities,” he noted in a speech given a few weeks ago. But, he continued, “what has actually happened is that planning in New Zealand has become the externality. It has become a welfare-reducing activity.”

As is the case in many American (and Canadian and Australian) urban areas, planning has added tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of a home in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest urban area. Recent New Urbanist rules, English says, “add $50,000 to $100,000 to the cost of an apartment.” Even more costs are added by Auckland’s urban-growth boundary. One study found that the costs of one of these rules were six times the benefits.

It’s even worse than English says. Planning has become a way for the middle class to keep the working class out without being overt about it. It has become a way for relatively wealthy people to enhance their wealth at everyone else’s expense. Planners’ build-up-not-out mentality ends up destroying the character of the cities it is supposed to save. Finally, planning results in serious intergenerational equity problems, as parents get rich off their housing equity while children can’t afford to live in the cities in which they grew up.


Build Out, Not Up

Someone has calculated that it would be less expensive for San Francisco workers to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Las Vegas and commute by air than to rent a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. They reasoned that a one-bedroom in San Francisco is about $3,100 a month while a two-bedroom in Las Vegas is about $1,000 a month, and four-day-a-week airfares would be about $1,100 a month. Even with local transport, Las Vegas is less expensive than San Francisco.

While most responses focus on the quality of life in Las Vegas vs. San Francisco, the point is that the latter is so terribly overpriced that some software engineers are actually living out of their cars.

The smart-growth mantra is “build up, not out,” but that’s clearly not working out. Between 2000 and 2010, the area of land in the San Francisco-Oakland urbanized area grew by zilch (in fact, according to the Census Bureau, it declined by 0.6%), and developers only managed to build 14 percent more units of housing. Meanwhile, Las Vegas-area developers built 52 percent more housing units as developed land expanded by 46 percent.

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Turning Portland into San Francisco

A couple of decades ago, the planning mantra in Oregon was “don’t turn Portland into Los Angeles,” meaning don’t make it more congested. So planners were a bit chagrinned to discover that their plans actually aimed to turn Portland into Los Angeles (see p. 7), meaning a dense urban area (L.A. is the densest in the nation) with a low number of freeway miles per capita (L.A. has the lowest of the nation’s fifty largest urban areas). Since then, Portland-area congestion (measured in hours of delay per commuter) has reached the Los Angeles’ 1985 level.

Today, the mantra is “don’t turn Portland into San Francisco,” meaning an extremely unaffordable housing market. So it should be no surprise that Portland planners are following exactly the policies that will turn Portland into San Francisco.

“We have a crisis of housing affordability in this city,” says Portland Mayor Hales. But expanding the urban-growth boundary is not the answer, he claims. “It’s not true that new housing at the edge is affordable,” he argues. “Maybe it once was when there was cheap land, cheap money and cheap transportation. That’s not true anymore.” Yes, but the reason it isn’t true is the urban-growth boundary. Get rid of the boundary and associated planning restrictions, and vacant land becomes cheap, and new homes built on the urban fringe will cost a lot less. In turn, that will force prices down throughout the city and region.

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Utterly Impractical or Practically Unutterable?

In his reflections on the debate we had last week, Charles Marohn’s main comment is that he found my ideas “utterly impractical.” What were those ideas? Privatizing local streets. Privatizing utilities. Privatizing other common goods.

Just how impractical are these ideas? Most utilities in this country are, after all private. Many streets are private–I live on one. St. Louis has privatized some of its streets.

During the debate, Marohn called himself a libertarian, but his response reveals him to be a progressive. Progressives believe that commonly owned resources are a good thing because they value the tragedy of the commons. Without the tragedy, there is no need for government intervention. Without a need for government intervention, the role of progressives is greatly diminished.

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Be Careful What You Wish For

Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency, funds its hundreds of planners out of garbage fees, which is why Portland has the highest garbage collection costs in the Pacific Northwest. But Metro also encourages people to recycle in order to reduce their garbage refuse.

As a result, Portland garbage has declined enough to threaten Metro’s budget. Metro’s response, naturally, is to tax recyclables, which would probably lead some people to stop recycling.

Since transit is partly funded out of gas taxes, if most people actually stopped driving and started riding transit (which they show no inclination of doing in Portland or elsewhere), Metro would probably start taxing transit riders. And many places use inclusionary zoning or other housing taxes to pay for affordable housing for low-income families, so if builders stopped building high-end housing and started building exclusively for low-income families, Metro would start taxing the poor to pay for their housing. It seems likely that Metro hasn’t really thought this through.


The Most Racist Urban Area in America

Yesterday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved a new fair housing rule called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. This follows the Supreme Court’s recent ruling allowing HUD to use disparate impact as a criterion for determining whether a community is guilty of unfair housing practices.

Racists. Wikimedia photo by Bernard Gagnon.

In one form of disparate impact analyses, HUD compares the racial makeup of a city or suburb with the makeup of the urban area as a whole. If the city doesn’t have enough minorities, it is presumed guilty and must take steps to attract more. Under the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, that could mean subsidizing low-income housing or rezoning land for high-density housing.

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Big Government, Shrinking Cities

The Economist laments that cities are shrinking all over the world. More than a third of the cities in Germany are losing population, as are nearly one in ten in the United States. What the Economist fails to note is that most of the cities it uses as examples–Detroit, cities in the former East Germany–were once dominated by strong governments that taxed people heavily and often tried to control how people lived.

American urban planners are no longer trying to make people live in high-rise housing that is so common in eastern Europe. Instead, they are trying to make people live in mixed-use, mid-rise housing, so-called transit-oriented developments. The type locale for this kind of housing is New York City’s West Village, where Jane Jacobs lived when she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs was convinced that the urban planners of her day didn’t understand how cities worked, but she was just as convinced that she did understand how cities worked, and in her mind the West Village was the model.

Her book, in turn, became the model for New Urbanists. Indeed, some call her the mother of what passes today for urban design. Unfortunately, she was as wrong about how cities work as the planners she criticized.

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