There was a fascinating article in the November 27 edition of Street Roots by occasional Mercury freelancer Amanda Waldroupe. The piece asked why City Commissioner Nick Fish seems to be lining up to put a parks levy on the ballot in 2010, when the need for an affordable housing levy like the one recently re-approved by 63 percent of Seattle voters seems to be more urgent.
In Seattle, the levy will generate $147 million by charging 17 cents per $1,000 on every home. A $450,000 home, for example, will contribute about $77 per year. With 8,000 people experiencing housing need in Portland, such a levy should be a no-brainer for Fish, our housing commissioner, especially in the midst of all this cold weather. But Waldroupe's article has placed him in a political bind.
Fish is also Portland's parks commissioner, and parks advocates have been lining up a 2010 parks levy for some time. Fish inherited the idea when he took over the parks bureau from City Commissioner Dan Saltzman in January, so perhaps he's reluctant to ruffle feathers by putting it on hold.
"It's like saying, 'Which of my children do I love more?'" he told Waldroupe, when asked if creating affordable housing is as important a priority as maintaining the quality of Portland's schools and parks.
So I put a poll on the Mercury's website, and 75 percent of the hundred-or-so voters said they thought a housing levy was more urgent than one for parks—but the poll was slammed by parks advocate Mike Houck, executive director of Portland's Urban Greenspaces Institute, who said it was "unnecessarily divisive."
After denying he wanted to punch me in the face, Houck admitted on the phone last Friday, December 4, that housing advocates have been less organized than parks advocates over the years. He was also remarkably frank on this point: "In Portland, there are so many things that could benefit from ballot measures," he said. "But there is, kind of, I guess, an informal understanding about jockeying for who goes first. There's been discussion about parks for years and years now."
So the timing of these levies is a matter of political and strategic convenience? Far from "unnecessarily divisive," I think asking the question here shows a willingness to challenge received wisdom and the chummy status quo.
It's up to Fish how he responds, although in this case he declined comment. Figures.