The ballots are already out, but the endorsements keep coming in.
Last week, a coalition of Portland’s leading affordable housing advocates endorsed the charter reform proposal on this November’s ballot, Measure 26-228.
Kim McCarty, the Executive Director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, the state’s largest tenant advocacy organization, said “Measure 26-228 is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to align Portland’s city government in a way that is more responsive to and representative of the nearly 50% of Portlanders who are tenants.”
The advocates also expressed concern about disincentives to building affordable housing that would result from an alternative charter proposal recently floated by Commissioner Mingus Mapps. The Mapps concept would divide the city into smaller, single-representative districts, with a possible seven to nine districts mentioned.
A powerful New York Times opinion piece by Ezra Klein, The Way Los Angeles Is Trying to Solve Homelessness Is ‘Absolutely Insane,’ illustrates what those disincentives to building affordable housing might look like. The Los Angeles City Controller told Klein,
“We want the best possible housing for everybody . . . But let’s stop making the perfect the enemy of the good, or the good enough. How do we create more micro units or shared units? What about dormitory-style units, where maybe you don’t have your own kitchen but you have a place to eat in the building? . . . These aren’t perfect approaches, but with so many people dying every day, there has to be a sense of urgency.”
And what is standing in the way? Many things, but part of the problem is the neighbors. Klein quotes local homeowners opposed to a 140-unit building for homeless and low-income families which is planned to be built in a city-owned parking lot:
The development is being fought and even sued by a collection of local homeowners who charge, among other things, that “Venice desperately needs this parcel to address our chronic parking shortage,” that the new housing would be “an eyesore completely divorced from sound architectural principles” and that it is being developed “with no environmental review in a designated tsunami zone and FEMA Special Flood Hazard Zone.”
It turns out that keeping the neighbors happy is expensive. Multiple redesigns, star architects, aesthetic concessions, lawyers—those things cost real money, and they end up jacking-up building expenses.
But another problem might be the system of governance itself. According to a recently published research paper, Warding Off Development: Local Control, Housing Supply, and NIMBYs, economist Evan Mast shows that a move from “at-large” elections to smaller, single-member district representation results in a 20% drop in housing unit permits. He explores the history of different voting methods—for example, at-large voting as a way for a majority bloc to suppress the representation of a minority bloc. And he posits that the decentralization achieved through smaller districts gives rise to NIMBYism. Using statistical methods, Mast shows, empirically, a strong correlation between decentralized voting methods and lower housing growth. (A pre-publication, working version of the paper is available here.)
And what about Los Angeles? It has 15 single-member districts, just the sort of system Mast says invites NIMBYism.
Former BikePortland news editor Michael Andersen sees a move to smaller, LA-style single-district representation as “the sort of switch proposed by Portland’s Commissioner Mapps.” In a recent article for the Sightline Institute, Andersen surveys the relation between housing affordability and the local form of government. He concludes that there is reason to think that a winner-take-all system that would elect its entire council from smaller, one-winner districts “would throw fuel on the fire of Portland’s deep housing shortage.”
Intuitively, it makes sense that small districts invite local thinking at the expense of what is good or needed for the city as a whole. The seven districts of the Mapps concept happen to be the same number as Portland’s seven coalitions of neighborhood associations. But nine districts is also being floated.
Measure 26-228 also divides Portland into districts, but only four large ones. The idea is that the districts are large enough to avoid the NIMBYism of smaller geographic representation. And with ranked choice and single transferable votes, a fuller expression of voter concerns can percolate up to electable candidates. I’ve noticed that discussions of Measure 26-228 tend to focus on candidates and identities, but I think of single transferable vote as a way of capturing the range of topics and ideas that voters care about, not just the top one or two hot-button issues.
Disclosure: Lisa Caballero, in her role as the transportation lead of her neighborhood association, was involved with local opposition to a proposed multi-unit townhouse development. The development was approved.
Lisa Caballero has lived in SW Portland for over 20 years. She is on the Transportation Committee of her neighborhood association, the Southwest Hills Residential League (SWHRL) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.