My View: Unreinforced masonry - What price safety?
Discussions about mandating retrofits for 1,640 unreinforced masonry buildings in Portland raises concerns about the direction in which the proposed policy appears to be moving.
While we agree with an attempt to make our unreinforced masonry buildings safer, we cannot support the burden placed on private property owners and the businesses and residents that reside in those buildings.
Mandating that owners retrofit their buildings at unaffordable costs without provisions for adequate and reliable sources of funding can only lead to forcible building sales, demolition of Portland's character and important structures, and the displacement of businesses and residents.
Placing a mandate on private property owners, while considering special provisions (funding) and exemptions (lowered standards) for city owned low-income housing, churches and nonprofit buildings is unfair and inequitable in a city that prides itself on equity.
Even if the Oregon Senate eventually passes proposed bill SB 311 that "Authorizes city or county to adopt ordinance or resolution providing property tax exemption to commercial, industrial and multifamily buildings built before Jan. 1, 1993, that will be seismically retrofitted, for period not to exceed 15 years," the arithmetic doesn't work.
An owner with an annual property tax of $8,000 would receive an exemption of $120,000 over 15 years, while still having to pay upfront retrofit costs that could be double or triple the amount of the exemption. A similar-size building in a higher-value economic area will receive double or triple the tax exemption benefit, with comparable retrofit costs. This makes SB 311 inequitable.
The likelihood of SB 311 succeeding is questionable. It will defund programs supported by property taxes, including Portland and Oregon school funds, when public funds already are depleted and when public schools and critical buildings should be prioritized.
The policy committee led by the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management seems determined to enact a policy without full consideration of its impact and with minimal representation of those most affected. Other topics that require more in depth conversation include:
• Are the projected retrofit costs realistic or too low?
• Is the timeline for retrofits fair and realistic? When 1,640 buildings will be competing?
• Will a longer timeline allow more owners to succeed or for new and less costly retrofit technology to evolve? Currently a spray system is being developed.
• Where do the displaced go (7,000 residential units and 1,415 commercial buildings)? Why is the committee exempting relocation fees for displaced residents?
• What will happen to affordability? The policy recommends building owners raise rents.
• Portland Public Schools' representative warned that mandating private buildings will make it more expensive and difficult for schools. If 1,640 buildings are competing for funding on the same timeline, the mandate will be unsustainable.
• The Restore Oregon representative warned that SB 311 would yield little benefit.
• The Central City Concern representative asked for a longer timeline and was denied.
• For city-owned low-income housing, there's one year after a mandate is passed to decide whether it's "feasible." No other buildings get to do that. The Housing Bureau representative reported that the city doesn't have the resources to meet timelines.
• What effect will the imposition of fines have on churches, nonprofits and owners who cannot afford to retrofit their buildings within prescribed deadlines?
• No special circumstances or hardships were discussed for 1,415 commercial buildings, businesses or housing that is not low-income. Should their voices not also be heard?
• While we fear the "big one" that some experts say has a 10-15 percent chance of occurring within 50 years, is diverting scarce private dollars in this time of an affordability crisis the wise thing to do?
Portland bureaus with all good intentions often become enamored of their own proposed mandates without considering the full impact or unintended consequences. The unreinforced masonry mandate is far too important and consequential to allow that to happen. Portland must take a much deeper dive into this issue and not rush something through just for the sake of getting it done.
Portland resident Stan Penkin wrote this on behalf of Friendly Streets: friendlystreets.org