WHAT A WEEK for the persistent teakettle shriek Portland's taken up because of house demolitions.
First, on Wednesday, October 14, Mayor Charlie Hales had the temerity to bring forward an idea he said could sharply reduce the razing of old houses in Portland—181 were brought down in 2014, according to the Oregonian—and raise a good chunk of cash for affordable housing from the ones it couldn't save.
The mayor's tinkering with the idea of slapping a $25,000 tax on developers who eliminate one modest old home for a new one. He is not being rewarded for that tinkering.
Hales took fire from all sides at a lengthy hearing last week, earning reprimands from homeowners who thought he was making their "dream home" impossible to build, reproach by developers who hinted at legal action, and dissatisfaction from anti-demolition types, who predicted $25,000 was too small a penalty in Portland's ultra-lucrative housing market, and could just be pushed onto would-be homeowners anyway.
"It's an idea," a defensive Hales said amid the stream of negativity. "Maybe it's a good deed that should be punished, or maybe it isn't, but it's a proposal!"
(Whether that proposal will now be quietly scrapped as too flawed is a matter of some interest within Portland City Hall. The mayor indicated he wanted to answer questions about what he says is an "innovation" before bringing it back before council.)
The day after the hearing, all that disaffection got Portland-style "real" out on SE Hawthorne, where a man used climbing gear to ascend a monkey puzzle tree and perch atop a century-old home hoping to stop a demolition worker's backhoe. A black, horned goat looked on from atop a minivan.
The gambit didn't work, of course. The contractor even tore off the porch with the demonstrator still on the roof. Eventually, the climber came down, and the property owner magnanimously declined to have him arrested.
And late last week, another piece of news: Commissioner Dan Saltzman's office told me it's going to respond to the furor with a new "demolitions coordinator" position within the Portland Bureau of Development Services, which Saltzman controls. The job, as explained by Saltzman Chief of Staff Brendan Finn, will be to provide a listening ear in a building code bureau that can seem as officious as they come.
That's not just for the developers ripping old homes to shreds, either. The job Saltzman envisions will track all of the city's demolition applications, and reach out to neighbors to explain city process.
"At the end of the day it's gonna make the demo procedure something that's a bit more transparent and understandable," Finn says. He expects the position will be filled by the end of the year.
Will it quell the fractious public hearings, or stop the city's goats from gazing enviously up at house-perchers? Not likely. This stuff isn't going away.
But maybe Saltzman's new employee offers an opportunity to stop shrieking—just for a minute—and better understand how this city operates. Then find ways to make it operate better.