These are the chief reasons why I care about housing policy — and specifically, why City Hall needs to do a lot better when it comes to building more housing in-town:
- As an environmentalist, I'm most concerned about global warming and our addictions to fossil fuels. In Maine, a lot of our electricity already comes from renewable sources, and we're making good strides on energy efficiency in buildings. Moving more people closer to where they live and work — into neighborhoods where they can walk and bike to run most errands, or, at the very least, drive much shorter distances — is the most effective thing we can do at the local level to make a dent in oil addiction.
- More in-town residents means more sales for local businesses (plus more local businesses starting up to serve residents: see Reny's, for instance). I don't think that it's any coincidence that the boom in new restaurants and storefront occupancy downtown has coincided with the rapid rise in gas prices during the past 8 years: people living downtown earn similar wages as people from the suburbs, but because they don't spend nearly as much of their paychecks on cars and gasoline, they have a lot more disposable income to spend in the neighborhoods where they live (and not at the Maine Mall).
The more housing we provide in Portland, the more we'll shift regional household spending away from Big Oil corporations and towards local businesses.
- And as a corollary to the above point, more local businesses, and more foot traffic on local streets, means that our streets and sidewalks become more vibrant, safer, and more interesting.
- Last but not least, I'd like Portland to remain an egalitarian place for everyone to live. A place where the working poor and recent immigrants can find opportunity and secure a measure of economic security.
The city's recent inflation in housing rents is a big threat to those ideals. Turning people away isn't a solution (unless you're OK with Portland suffering from the same kind of gentrification-onset blandness that ruined places like Cambridge and Brooklyn — and while a lot of shitheads are perfectly OK with that, I don't consider myself a shithead), and we should be pleased that there's an increasing amount of demand to live in-town.
But if demand is rising, then the only reasonable way for the city to combat housing price inflation is by aggressively expanding the supply of housing that's available here.
I know that some of this blog's readers are more interested in architecture or bike infrastructure, but I hope that these points will convince you to be concerned about the city's housing policies, too.
I'm posting this this evening because earlier today my biweekly column in the Portland Daily Sun addressed the city's new plan to tackle homelessness in Portland. This, too, is a big issue that affects the security and sense of vitality in Portland's downtown streets and public spaces like Congress Square. The visibility and lousy treatment of our homeless population reflects poorly on our city. As I write in the column, the city's new plan is a good first step — but it also needs to come with meaningful commitments to the city's social services, and to building more apartments citywide.