People of Portland, I greet you as a traveler from the future. But don’t worry, I’m not a crazy person. What I mean is that I am a transplant from the San Francisco Bay Area, and I have seen how the blessing of population growth can darken to a curse without a smart approach to building housing, preventing displacement and preserving a city’s character.

The view from the Portland Observatory shows 147 Congress St. in the foreground, one of the buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1866. “To accommodate new residents, we need to build. That means we may need to grit our teeth and allow an ugly slab to crop up among elegant Victorians,” John Rudoy writes. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer, File

I cannot offer an easy solution. They have not solved this in the futuristic utopia-dystopia of Berkeley, California, from whence I came. But I can offer some observations to help us on our way:

Demand is real. We’re in this pickle primarily because Portland is a desirable place to live. Are there effects of seasonal residents, users of short-term rentals and shadowy real estate speculators from former Soviet Socialist republics? Sure, those factors are a bit of it (some more than others), and balanced regulation is needed to prevent them from crowding out full-time residents, but the fact remains that real people (like me!) are moving here because it’s nice. That should make us happy, and we should welcome that, but that influx of real-life full-time residents is going to overwhelm us if we insist it is all a mirage and refuse to prepare.

Supply matters. To accommodate new residents, we need to build. That means we may need to grit our teeth and allow an ugly slab to crop up among elegant Victorians, or accept that our neighborhoods will grow denser. Attempting to prevent change in our housing stock will accelerate change in our population. If wealthy newcomers can’t move into shiny new construction, they won’t give up; they will displace our vulnerable population from existing homes. It’s hard to build a new condo in Berkeley, but a 1,000-square-foot cottage there goes for $1 million-plus. There certainly is value in preserving memories of the past and maintaining Portland’s character, but somewhere between freezing our city in time and razing it for a raft of Soviet-style apartment blocks, there is a progressive view that allows our city to evolve while remaining recognizable.

Econ 101 is for college freshmen. The Econ 101 view of supply and demand is simplistic, particularly when it comes to housing. Portland is a nice place, a luxury good, and if we allow the invisible hand to shape the city, it will fill us with people who can afford luxury goods. It’s fine if only rich people drive Teslas, but a city dulls if it is not inclusive and diverse. Portland will remain a great place to live only if we stay the invisible hand and ensure our artists, teachers, nonprofit workers, journalists, small-business owners and many others can live here. Simply encouraging development, even of affordable housing, is not enough. We are unlikely to ever build enough to maintain a reasonable market rate, and a smattering of new affordable housing will not make up for the overall creep in prices. We need to invest in subsidies to tenants and property owners that prevent displacement and preserve Portland as fine mosaic, and we need to ensure that our infrastructure, such as transit, health resources and schools, evolves apace to support a more dense, diverse, inclusive city.

Assume good intent. The vast majority of community members truly want some version of the same thing: an affordable, vibrant city that we can still recognize as Portland. The issue is complex, though, and reasonable people can come to very different conclusions of what must be done. That should not divide us into warring camps convinced that those who disagree are “I’ve-got-mine” NIMBYs or pawns of rapacious, money-hungry developers.  We must agree that we have these same basic goals, that our intentions are positive, or good-faith discussion is impossible.

Smarter people than I are thinking these problems through, I’ll admit. But what I’ve learned from my time in our fraught future is that unless the full community can accept a common understanding of the problems’ character, any technocratic solution will fall flat. This is a great city. We have a challenge to rise to. Let’s do it together.

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