Guest columnist Allan Classen, Editor NW Examiner

Dividing the left in the name of the poor

A political equilibrium I’ll call the Portland consensus has been turned on its head so jarringly and unexpectedly that many progressive activists and traditional liberals are wondering what hit them.

Suddenly, people who have worked to improve their neighborhoods and resist crass development are seen as villains.

Those resisting unfettered housing construction are cast as enemies of the poor and homeless and labeled NIMBYs, an epithet against which there is no defense in this corporate correctness bubble.

How did responsible citizens – the ones most likely to volunteer for neighborhood cleanups, donate money to the local PTA or charity and vote for social equity – get put in this box? It is particularly hard for the pillars of the Northwest District to take; they were the ones who embraced density before it was cool and invited erection of half a dozen major public housing projects, three of which could be called towers.

The Homebuilders Association of Metropolitan Portland initiated this reality reversal in a 2015 stealth campaign it was so proud of (I say was because it recently pulled the item from its website), it claimed an award for Best Government Affairs Effort.

HBA wanted to kill a tax on home demolitions proposed by former Mayor Charlie Hales. To overcome the political climate of a city considered “perhaps the most liberal city in America,” the plan’s author (whom HBA would not identify) framed a wedge issue.

The scheme involved neighborhoods, nonprofits and other “unlikely allies” – a college professor, a mother, a gay man and an African American retiree. In this manner, a low-budget campaign deflated a proposal having the preliminary support of City Council, making it so radioactive that Hales withdrew it.

“The significance of the approach cannot be understated in a city like Portland,” HBA Executive Vice President Dave Nielson wrote.

“For too long, the HBA had not adequately framed an issue in a manner that reflects the liberal character and values of the city. The HBA seized the progressive message and partnerships and killed the demo tax.”

The magic formula was obviously too valuable to keep on the shelf after one minor defensive victory.

The same fingerprints can be detected in the current drive to pass HB 2007 in the state Legislature. This bill makes housing construction the prime goal of city policy, trumping neighborhood plans, historic preservation, design review and almost anything else that might reduce development potential.

This approach relies on the simple notion that greater housing supply equals lower cost.

Never mind that it incentivizes demolition of lower-cost housing for more expensive units. Never mind that housing costs are soaring amid a housing construction boom unfolding in Portland. If greater supply of housing ever leads to greater affordability, it will be when the newest units are old and worn – about the time the homebuilding industry would demolish them for another round of inflationary construction.

It’s trickle down economics, but the folks at the bottom never see the trickle.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of whom we trust:

The liberals and good government types who have tried to balance multiple social values, sometimes mistakenly but nevertheless shaping a remarkably livable city.

Or the homebuilding industry, knowing no values other than its own financial gain, that nevertheless poses as the savior of the poor and homeless.

The homebuilders’ true commitment to affordable housing is revealed in their reaction to Portland’s inclusionary zoning ordinance requiring 20 percent of units in larger projects to be affordable.

Developers were so unwilling to “share the wealth” that they rushed to get approvals before the law took effect earlier this year. Now they’re in slow-down mode while they lobby for a public giveaway that will make development more profitable.

The last thing they want to build is affordable housing. They want to build expensive housing and have the rest of us believe that alchemy will somehow deem it affordable.

Recent experience has convinced HBA it can get away with it as long as it keeps Portland liberals divided.