Commissioner Steve Novick found an apt way this morning to describe what, at bottom, is a crushingly wonky city funding mechanism.
"It's a way to take other people's money," Novick said of the city's efforts at revitalizing blighted areas. "People need to understand how seductive it is for the city to use urban renewal as much as possible."
The comment came just before Portland City Council drastically shifted how much of "other people's money" the city sweeps up.
Portland over the years has carved up more than a dozen "urban renewal areas"—special swaths of land where tax valuations are frozen so that money collected because of rising property values can be reinvested within their bounds. The idea is that this reinvestment will increase how much the property's worth, and that when the district is put completely back onto the tax rolls everybody has more money.
But while a district is carved up like this, Portland is essentially snatching tax dollars from Multnomah County, Portland Public Schools, and others. The city's also losing general fund money that it can use for citywide efforts.
"For every dollar we lose for the general fund, we get four dollars of other people’s money," Novick said.
And the landscape for all this snatching is about to look completely different.
In a passel of votes—many of them unanimous—City Council approved what Mayor Charlie Hales has called the first ever "comprehensive reform" of the city's urban renewal plan. Two districts were scrapped, another shrunk, and, in the most controversial votes of the day, two districts were actually expanded and given longer lives.
The upshot is that $800 million of taxable land is back and available for taxing entities that aren't the City of Portland.
"We have used this tool very successfully in Portland," said Hales, who's been pushing what he calls "right-sizing" the urban renewal landscape for the last year. "In fact, so successfully that now we have this opportunity to declare victory" in some areas.
Like I say, two tweaks had naysayers. The first—most discussed today—involves the "North Macadam" district, the urban renewal zone that's been used to transform South Waterfront from a dirt plot to a shimmery condominium wind tunnel.
As explored in this week's Hall Monitor, the district has been a subject of outcry recently for housing advocates. That's because the city has not kept up with its promises for affordable housing in South Waterfront, and as recently as October was talking about taking some of them back.
Now that's all changed. A project featuring 200 affordable units (defined, in this case, as affordable to people making 60 percent of Median Family Income or less) is now promised. And council also voted this morning on a resolution—sponsored by Commissioner Nick Fish—that commits the city to buying another acre of land for affordable housing.
Sources in city hall say a concrete deal on that land is just weeks away. Fish tells the Mercury the city's looking at two spots, and a deal worth $3-5 million, with up to 200 more cheap apartments in the offing. The Portland Development Commission, which is handling the deal, demurred when asked for specifics. Commissioner Amanda Fritz this morning aluded to a hearing "very shortly" over a land deal.
Regardless of the details, the situation today in South Waterfront is far, far different than it was five months ago.
But some housing advocates say city council's commitment isn't enough. They're urging the city to abide by past promises, which had some tricky terms but amount to no less than 520 more cheap apartments in the South Waterfront, with many of those carved out for the "poorest of the poor."
"The resolution is seen as a win, but it really isn't," said longtime advocate Leah Greenwood, one of a parade of people who urged deeper commitments. "We need leadership."
Others cheered resolution.
"If not now, when?" said Jes Larson, director of the Welcome Home Coalition. "If not North Macadam, then where?"
That other renewal tweak that drew heat today? A proposal to increase the size and lifespan of an urban renewal district in the Central Eastside. Commissioner Amanda Fritz voted no on the expansion, saying money in the district has been used for the Eastbank Esplanade and streetcar service—not directly on ending blight.
Fritz is especially skeptical of a small increase to the district—the "Clinton Triangle"—which she believes benefit only two property owners: the city of Portland and longtime Hales supporters at the firm Stacy and Witbeck.
The mayor says the expansion's all about creating a better environment around a planned stop for the fast-approaching MAX Orange line.
"It’s a terrible place to wait for a train," Hales said today. "If we do this right it will be a great place sometime soon."