Hall Monitor 

A Bad Omen for City Hall

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A FEW YEARS AGO, in a more publicly collegial era for Portland City Council (emphasis on "publicly"), an idea this reasonable would have been embraced as an everyone-takes-credit no-brainer—unanimously approved the first time it was brought up.

But not in 2014. Not in a Portland City Hall rubbed raw by personal beefs and increasingly stumbling into a reliance on transactional politics.

For the second time since he raised the idea in June, City Commissioner Dan Saltzman's dream of using newfound annual revenue from short-term rentals to help offset their looming dark side—an inevitable loss of affordable long-term housing—will die at the feet of his temperamental colleagues.

Saltzman had long ago pulled in his predecessor atop the Portland Housing Bureau, Commissioner Nick Fish. But Saltzman, after reviving his idea late last month, was unable to persuade anyone else—despite a dramatically improved lobbying effort. which included face-to-face meetings and supportive letters from housing advocates, developers, and communities of color.

And now, as of press time, what was supposed to be a victory party this Wednesday, August 6, will look more like an execution.

Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Steve Novick remained as opposed as ever ["Round Two," News, July 30]—despite sympathy for the housing advocates supporting Saltzman. Fritz, in particular, couldn't get past the notion that this discussion, about money already spent elsewhere, was taking place outside the city's budget process. (And when the Portland Housing Advisory Commission wrote the council lending its support, Fritz wrote everyone back making that point deadly clear.)

So it also went with Mayor Charlie Hales, who'd been held up as Saltzman's best hope. The break between the two is especially striking, given how often they've agreed on housing and development issues.

Saltzman has dutifully lined up behind Hales' push to redevelop Old Town and Chinatown by waiving infrastructure fees. Saltzman also kept out of the way when Hales tried to immediately expand the city's embrace of short-term rentals to apartments and condos.

Saltzman's office didn't return calls seeking comment, apparently leaving that up to Fish.

"Here's a way, upfront, to say we acknowledge that there's going to be a negative impact" because of short-term rentals, he says. "We want to take the modest first step of taking revenue we wouldn't otherwise have and using it to fund affordable housing.

"This is not a defeat. It's just a setback. If we can't prevail tomorrow, then I'll work overtime to get funding in the budget cycle."

Maybe that will bear fruit. By next spring, as part of a larger discussion of the city's finances, Fritz might be willing to sign on.

But it's not clear if Novick or Hales would ever be so eager. Not with Saltzman and Fish so closely attached to the proposal. Not with their opposition to the biggest transactional issue in city hall this year—Novick and Hales' voter-free push for a street fee—so fresh in everyone's minds.

Saltzman deeply angered Novick this spring—costing himself a re-election endorsement—when he questioned not only the tactics around the fee, but also whether the city even needed one. Novick also called Fish a name (once!) in an email shared with the press.

If Hales felt himself burning as brightly, he's never let on—but it wouldn't be surprising. Hales is known for having a temper. And it's been plainly obvious that his relationship with Fish, already touchy at times, has cooled.

That may all be noise. Hales, in breaking with Saltzman on short-term rental revenues, can certainly cite legitimate policy differences. Novick already has. But the notion that various grudges could even exist is discomfiting.

And on a council where merely counting to three has somehow become more preferable than finding a good reason to count all the way to five, Hales might be the one who winds up losing the most.

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