Friday, July 31, 2015

Den$ity: People over profit in Portland

Real estate rage in Portland! Or, ode on a purple shed

Up for rent in Portland, February 2015: a tiny purple structure in someone’s backyard, apparently a converted garden shed. At 165 square feet, it had the same area of 5 sheets of plywood laying side by side. The price was normally $1200/month, said the ad, but could be reduced to $950 for renters interested in helping organize in the main house.
photo of a very small purple shed for rent as a dwelling
Screencap from the craigslist ad, posted on Facebook by Karl Lind.
Pop quiz!  Was this:
a) An outrage, fully worthy of its own often-hilarious Facebook group, “That’s a Goddamned Shed”? ;
b) a classical demonstration of the dynamics of supply and demand? ; or
c) a sign of grassroots creativity in housing?
Don’t answer that right away, because the Portland housing market is absolutely crazed right now. Anyone who tries to rent, buy, or sell here finds themselves in a surreal world where the formerly inconceivable is now, well, the norm. And in my opinion, the path back to sanity goes right by that purple shed.  With a few twists, such dwellings are a solution for urban density that’s radical and reasonable at the same time.
That purple shed ad is not unique.  Other recent craigslist ads have offered garden structures as residences. The competition for rentals has become so frustrating and ridiculous it’s inspired a whole new genre of literature, the satirical housing ad.  For example, as featured on Curbed, one ad offers a place with “Industrial feel with open floorplan,” while it pictures photo of a sidewalk with gray fence and box.
Satires like these have become common on forums like craigslist, reddit Portland, and facebook.  They’re wonderful relief from the real stress and pain of gentrification and densification.
But just beyond the comedy is rage.  There are dozens of examples, but here is the most visual one, a flyer stuck on a “For Rent” sign in the North Mississippi area of Portland:
picture of flyer on
Photo posted by facebook user Danny O’Connor.
Real estate isn’t just a financial topic in Portland, it’s an emotional one.  There’s a sense of betrayal among the kind of creative, idealistic people who helped make Portland desirable.  Rising rents are pushing many further to the fringes.  Portland is getting richer and whiter, according to a city report – does that mean some of its creative blood is leaving too?  On reddit and Facebook, there is talk of moving to Detroit, Chicago, or even, god forbid, Eugene.
In San Francisco, home to even more extreme housing prices, someone posted this clever lament for the old days.
photo of a milk-carton style flyer lamenting the loss of
Photo posted to facebook by Erika Knutson.
Perhaps Portland will have its own milk-carton victim soon — how about a prize winning barista on a tall bike?
Those looking to buy receive their own humiliations. Reports indicate that when bidding on a house, it is no longer enough to simply bid far above the asking price.  To beat out cash-laden investors, you must include a heartfelt letter/selfie combo demonstrating why you are most deserving.  Portland Monthly created a mad lib to help you get started.
a mad-lib style letter begging to be allowed to buy a house
Real estate Mad Lib! It’s just like being a kid again.
Meanwhile, those who already own houses can’t just hunker down and avoid the fray, because the city changes around them. Those in proximity to transit corridors watch one-story houses get demolished and turn into much bigger structures, which occasionally blot out the sun, as this piece of activist filmmaking, “Den$ity,” shows:

There’s a palpable sense of despair in “Den$ity,” among those trying to slow the juggernaut of densification and gentrification.
But from another perspective, this is what success looks like.  Decades ago Oregon and Portland made strategic long-term decisions in the interest of environmental conservation and quality of life, such as the creation of urban growth boundaries to prevent sprawl and save rural land, a commitment to transit, and (one of my favorites :) ) public ownership of the Oregon Coast.
And now it appears to have worked: Portland is a great place to live, and everyone wants to move here.  There is simply a lot of demand for housing and a limited supply.  A city report projects that between 2005 and 2035, the number of households in Portland will grow by more than 100,000.  Those people have to live somewhere.
Because the growth boundaries constrain development geographically, new housing supply in Portland often comes from “going up,” as in multistory apartment blocks, or “filling in,” as in vacant lots.  Projects likethis one, replacing a one-story house with a 3-story apartment building, kinda do both.
From this:
Photo borrowed from Portland Chronicle.
To this:
Photo borrowed from Portland Chronicle.
This is basically the plan.  The city is supposed to get denser, especially near transit.  No one in “Den$ity” seems to say it’s possible or desirable to stop densification.  But its citizens seem desperate for a way to steer Portland’s growth in a gentler direction — in particular, away from looming examples of “going up,” like this one.
Photo borrowed from Portland Chronicle.
“There [has] to be a happy medium,” says a Richmond neighborhood resident in the film.

No comments:

Post a Comment