Portland is experiencing a growing pain common to cities in a state of expansion: rising costs of housing. These costs are real and painful and must be addressed if the vitality of the city is to continue, and the health of our working class to be preserved.

Addressing this complex issue will involve thoughtful collaboration among city government, private landlords and developers, and the citizens of Portland. Rent control may seem like a seductive solution, but because of its unintended consequences, it would create more problems than it would solve.

In the cities, and a couple of states, that have experimented with rent control, it has rarely provided the anticipated results. More often, it impedes the development of new housing, and existing landlords are less likely to improve substandard housing stock. It freezes rent for existing tenants but does nothing to promote the creation of new housing.

Cities like New York have seen rent control result in profiteering by subletters charging rents well above their lease price and many other abuses of the system. Rent control programs designed to account for such abuses require a substantial amount of regulation, often the creation of a new rent control board. This diverts institutional manpower and funds away from efforts to foster the creation of housing.

Ultimately, the issue is supply. In the Press Herald article “Rising costs lead advocates to call for rent control in Portland and South Portland” (Feb. 13), Tom MacMillan, founder of the Portland Tenants Union, states that increasing housing supply will do nothing to keep landlords from raising rents.

That is a platitude that simply does not reflect reality. Perhaps the most basic tenet of economics is that increasing supply drives prices down in a free market. We see this in the real world: When the vacancy rate is high, rents go down; when vacancy rates are near zero, as they currently are in Portland, rents go up.

Creating new layers of regulation to provide short-term predictability to people lucky enough to currently have an apartment is not the solution. The city should take the long view to increase supply and provide incentives to maintain existing stock, thereby providing long-term relief for all residents, current and future.

The city has already taken some good steps in this direction, aiming to improve the turnaround time for standard building permits and to improve public awareness of upcoming development and infrastructure projects and opportunities for public input on such projects.

Portland’s citizenry must do its part as well. As citizen activists, it is our responsibility to pay attention to civic processes, be aware of what projects are being proposed, get involved early in the process and know that having one’s voice heard doesn’t always mean you will get your way.

We should push developers to high standards, but quashing new housing only hurts the cause of affordability. And once the administrative process has run its course, citizens must refrain from resorting to lawsuits and referendums to engineer results not obtained democratically. The winner in those instances are lawyers – not the city, not the developers and certainly not the renters of Portland.

I close by calling on the city to embrace two other conditions that can contribute to the expansion of housing supply. First, we need strong investments in our public transportation system, extending off-peninsula. Many people limit their home search to the peninsula because they do not have a vehicle.

If those same people felt that they could easily and conveniently get to their job, shopping, recreation, etc. via public transport, the geographic reach of housing stock defined as “available” to many would grow.

Finally, despite the high need and demand for on-peninsula housing, there is a surprising amount of vacant or underutilized land, particularly in the Bayside neighborhood. Many are uncomfortable living in such areas because of higher rates of nuisance crimes, litter and safety concerns.

If the city is serious about addressing its housing shortage, and serious about revitalizing Bayside, then consistent attention to the infrastructure and civic quality of life of that neighborhood must be a consistent priority over time.

Rent control sounds enticing, but its negative impacts almost always drown out its benefits. If we want to make real progress toward addressing the high cost of rent, we must address the lack of housing units available in Portland by expanding where people are willing and able to live and by fostering the construction of new units.

Citizen activists must be integrally involved to ensure that we are getting good value in our projects, and that those projects are being moved forward. Through such collaboration we can make real and long-term progress on our housing issues that will extend to all, and last through time.

— Special to the Press Herald


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