A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why I Care About Housing

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.


henry said...

you were so close. i was with you right up to the entirely-unnecessary 'shitheads'. like, i agreed with everything you'd written, and then, boom, like a big, stupid asteroid, 'shitheads'.

now, i only lived in brooklyn from 1996 to 2006, so you probably know a lot better than i do what impact gentrification has had on the place -- i mean, after all, you feel qualified to speak in pretty broad terms, so i assume you've spent more than a decade living there, and also teaching public school, which is what i did while i was there, learning less about it than you obviously know. all i did was get a college degree there, live in three different neighborhoods, and have two siblings in other neighborhoods, all the time being obsessed with how the place had been, and how it was changing.

so obviously, having only seen this change first hand for 10 years, i don't know nearly as much about the gentrification of brooklyn as you do, so when you say 'shitheads', i have to defer to your obviously better-informed point of view.

however, while i was there, in brooklyn, for an entire decade, teaching and living with people who'd been there their entire lives, it seemed to me that while, yeah, 80 or 100 thousand well-heeled beardos showed up, they were dramatically outnumbered by the 4 or so MILLION other people already there. has the borough changed? sure. do the people bemoaning this think of kensington when they make statements about the entire borough? no, they don't, because really, they mean park slope and greenpoint and fort greene, because they, like the people they're calling shitheads, don't generally get that much farther down the f line than 15th st prospect park. the g goes a stop or two past bedford, or they'd see that really, most of brooklyn looks about the same.

and having spent 10 years in brooklyn and 6 in portland, it also seems -- sorry to both towns -- comical to compare the two, but what do i know? now granted, portland has almost 3% as many people as brooklyn, so they're definitely pretty similar in that sense. i mean, if you took every single person in the state of maine, crammed them into a space maybe 8 miles by 8 miles, you'd only have to have 3 times that many people to populate brooklyn, so really, it makes a lot of sense to look at the two as though they were basically part and parcel of the same phenomenon, and at the same point in their urban lives. i mean, what sort of well-informed individual wouldn't see the sense in those comparisons? and you'd have to be well-informed if you felt comfortable going around calling people shitheads. well-informed, or fifteen years old. whatever.

in closing, i get it. affordable housing. i've actually been there, and seen how this works. but 'shitheads'? come the fuck off it. in the first place, you don't know what you're talking about, in the second, your comparison of brooklyn to portland is naive to the point of being quaint -- it's cute, really -- and in the third, even if you weren't saying insane shit, 'shitheads' is un-fucking necessary. did you spend any time on smith street in the 1990s? because the problem with fucking gentrification is, it has an upside, and the real problem with it is, no single shithead gentrifies. it's fucking *complicated*. hurling insults at individuals for a problem that occurs at the sociology-study level is, i mean, why?

tl; dr: i agree with everything else in this article and you've pissed *me* off. what the fuck good are you doing? who are you helping?

Anonymous said...

While I think Henry is a little over the top, I have lived in NYC for 15 years and it is quite a bit different than Portland. Their issues and problems and housing and economies and all the rest are just entirely different animals.

On the other hand, I will say that Portland has some really interesting problems with housing. The first is that it is a largely multifamily residential housing city and it has ridiculously draconian laws about destroying housing even if you are making way to to create even more units. Additionally, the space is underutilized and overly regulated to favor existing development and large scale property owners in the city. Having grown up in Portland in the 80s, the city owes a fair debt to the property owners of the city who stuck it out when downtown was a disgusting ghost town and the old port still conjured up the working waterfront past its prime.

On top of that there is significant room for renters, the market is just not that bad overall. The problem is that the economy of Portland is skewed towards providing services to an older demographic. Service jobs tend to require a large amount of capital that does not flow easily to labor, thus creating a vacuum in the middle. The problem is not that Portland has no affordable housing, its that you can't afford it. There is a big difference in those two thoughts.

Furthermore, while I tend to agree with concentrated housing in principal, I believe in individual choice even more. Additionally, I also think that concentrated housing in Portland would have environmental consequences that would be terrible for Portland and in fact change its character for the worse. Do you really want say more condos on the piers? Or to support more coastal building that will inevitably end up underwater?

Portland's main problem is their horrendous public transportation and the reliance on individual car transportation. As the surrounding communities continue to grow and Portland is projected to decline in population a more robust Metro or alternative transportation alternative would make more sense that increasing the (already desnse by most standards) concentration of housing in Portland.