Business group endorses boost in housing density
When the City Council finally votes on long-anticipated programs to increase residential density, it can expect enthusiastic support from the members of Business for a Better Portland, a young but growing small business organization that embraces progressive policies.
Unabashed support for more housing — including the effective elimination of single-family zoning called for in the controversial Residential Infill Plan — was on display when the organization held an evening discussion on housing policies in Northwest Portland on Thursday, Oct. 3.
Approximately 200 business owners and others showed up at the event. It included talks by three guest speakers involved in getting government to allow or create more housing: Democratic Portland-area Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who called on the federal government to create more public housing across the country; Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Director Andrea Durbin, whose agency is preparing the new programs for council consideration; and Ernest Brown, a board member of the Oakland, California-based East Bay for Everyone, which is lobbying California and local leaders for more homes to reduce housing costs.
Calling housing a fundamental human right, Blumenauer said the nationwide affordable housing crisis is the result of "conscious housing policy decisions made year after year," including lending discrimination and public subsidies for expensive single-family homes. He said the nation must "atone" for them.
The evening also featured a discussion by a panel that included Brown and Marisa Zapata, a Portland State University urban planning professor, who said she believes all housing should be socialized to guarantee everyone has a home they can afford. Zapata also is the director of PSU's Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative.
"I want to decolonize my whole orientation toward housing," said Zapata, who called the idea that we should all aspire to homeownership a lie rooted in racism.
Some of the speakers characterized Business for a Better Portland as a counterpoint to neighborhood associations, which they accused of fighting higher residential densities to preserve the privileged lifestyle of single-family homes supported by racist housing policies.
Brink Communications founder Leslie Carlson said she has tried, but failed, to change the minds of some association members on the issue, and accused them of professing progressive values that they do not believe.
The final panelist, Hope Beraka, a principal broker at Think Real Estate, said that she had been slow to understand the problems caused by single-family zoning. However, after looking into the arguments of the neighborhood activists that oppose demolishing existing homes to produce more housing, she realized they were wrong.
Brown said he was an early member of the YIMBY movement, meaning Yes in My Back Yard, which he said started in the San Francisco area in opposition to NIMBYs (Not in My Back Yard) who oppose additional housing.
"We must build more housing," said Brown, whose organization also supports renter protections such as those approved by the council.
Organization Executive Director Ashley Henry said Business for a Better Portland was founded in February 2017 as an alternative to existing business organizations active in city politics. She credited Blumenauer with inspiring its creation, calling him the organization's "patron saint." Since then, it has grown from 15 to almost 400 members.
Henry said that most small business owners could not spare the time to testify at council meetings, and said the organization was their "outsourced government affairs arm and civic engagement on-ramp."
Durbin invited those at the event to become involved in the Housing Opportunities Initiative, the name recently given to a trio of proposed housing policies working its way through the city approval process. One, Better Housing by Design, is intended to improve the design and encourage the production of apartment buildings. The second council hearing on it is scheduled for Nov. 9.
Another policy, the Residential Infill Project, would allow up to four units on practically every residential lot in the city. It is opposed by many neighborhood associations and is expected to be the first considered by the council in December.
The third is an anti-displacement policy that is still being written.
Every speaker expressed concern over residents being displaced by the development of additional housing, with Brown saying the preservation of existing homes should be a priority that would help reassure those opposed to higher densities. He did not say how else lots would become available for the new housing, although he thought it should be allowed in neighborhoods currently zoned exclusively for single-family homes and near transit routes.
The speakers also worried that not many residents would be able to afford much of the new housing that will be built, even though most of the units will be smaller than current new single-family homes. Beraka said if policies are not enacted to guarantee long-term affordability, "we will have failed."
The event was held at Red Fox Commons, a former warehouse that has been redeveloped into Class A office space near where a proposed extension of the Portland Streetcar line that will end within blocks of Montgomery Park.
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