A special election for Portland City Commissioner Position 2 takes place on August 11, 2020. The AHC asked the two candidates running for this position, Dan Ryan and Loretta Smith, about their views on equity, livability, and emergency preparedness issues as they relate to the city’s built environment. Thank you to the candidates for sharing their ideas.
QUESTION 1 – For more than 25 years, the Architectural Heritage Center has partnered with Portland’s African American community to document, recognize, and protect buildings and places that acknowledge the Black experience in Portland. This work culminated in a recent major documentation project, just approved by the National Park Service, which makes it easier to list properties associated with the Black experience in Portland in the National Register of Historic Places. What efforts would you take to strengthen historic preservation policies to further ensure the recognition of Portland’s African American places, culture, and history?
Loretta Smith: The very first thing we have to do is invest resources in the time consuming process of researching and identifying building and places that have played an important role in the history of Portland’s African American community. Due to the forced displacement deconstruction of the African American community in Portland, much of the oral history that would bolster preservation efforts are quickly fading away. We need to capture as much information as possible to utilize in a campaign to not only rebuild Portland’s historic African-American community spaces, but to both preserve them and support efforts for integration into the needs of Black Portland’s future. We should also be focused on ensuring that our relationship with the National Register of Historic Places and the National Park Service remains strong and relevant for the times ahead of us. We need to nurture partnerships that already exist, create new partnerships where there is a clear needs gap, and center the historic preservation work for Portland’s African American community in future community development considerations.
Dan Ryan: Elevating Black history in Oregon is an important step to recognizing the racist past that is ingrained in Oregon’s history. These stories are central to the work that has to be done in our city and in or state to address the institutional racism that has helped make Portland the whitest city in the country. The historic preservation, and elevation of Black culture, history, and stories is a priority that I will always support and stand with.
QUESTION 2- A major earthquake could impact thousands of older and historic buildings throughout Portland, including the approximately 1,650 unreinforced masonry buildings and thousands of single-family residences that have not been seismically retrofitted. These are the buildings and homes that offer affordable places to work, play, and live. What specific ideas do you have to address the citywide need for seismic upgrades to its older buildings – including single family homes, apartments, commercial buildings, and houses of worship – that would engage all impacted community members and work toward a positive, rather than punitive solution?
Dan Ryan: The Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF) allows for complete retrofitting of buildings and homes and will provide $30M-50M annually that can be leverage and matched because it has to flow through non-profit community organizations. Working through PCEF also ensures that the money and the jobs stay local and are well paid.
Loretta Smith: We can’t punish current property owners and community members for Portland’s past failures to adequately plan for the future. We also can’t ignore the need to aggressively plan for a major earthquake that would completely devastate our region. Most often, when community members are penalized with undue financial burdens, it is because the city has failed to identify how to fund needed community improvements – often due to the aforementioned lack of foresight into the needs of Portland’s future. In the absence of an open checkbook for seismic upgrades, we must undergo the work of identifying a tiered approach to investing public dollars in retrofitting these older buildings. There is a clear and urgent community need to be satisfied in this effort, so we should be investing in this work moving forward. I believe that simply passing the buck onto community members and building owners is a failure of leadership on the part of city leadership and does not place the burden of charting a path forward with the appropriate party. I will convene stakeholders to think through how to prioritize the most important buildings and structures first, identify funding sources that place the city’s leadership in the driver’s seat, and work to ensure that we accomplish as much as possible before a major earthquake hits our region.
QUESTION 3 – Portland City Council will soon be voting on the Residential Infill Project (RIP). While certain to increase density, there is no guarantee that implementing RIP will increase housing affordability, and in fact, the opposite may be true. Studies have shown that lower-income residents in established neighborhoods, especially communities of color, will be forced out of rented single-family or multi-family homes, with little choice, but to either move to the suburbs or live in small apartments that lack the living and green spaces that are important parts of a thriving community. What proposals do you have to implement Portland’s Residential Infill Project that will encourage the maintenance of existing affordable housing and result in less displacement of low- and middle-income households and families with children?
Loretta Smith: I have to be brought up to speed on the unintended consequences of the Residential Infill Project to ensure that frontline communities and communities of color aren’t harmed during implementation and that housing affordability is the top priority for future development projects. If we have studies that have proven that lower-income residents in established neighborhoods are forced out of their homes and communities, then we need to understand why and develop guardrails that prevent the same from happening in Portland. There is no way around the conversation about the need for increased density to address our housing crisis, but we can accomplish it in a way that is equitable and that accomplishes the ambitious goals we have to mitigate further displacement, Portlanders being rent burdened, and the lack of access to livable, walkable communities.
Dan Ryan: Portland suffers from adherence to old patterns. For a community known for fostering a creative culture that creativity doesn’t seem to make it through the doors of our city hall.
Above all, we need to bring the impacted communities into the decision making process from the beginning. As for proposal and options, I would begin with the following:
The Portland Clean Energy Fund is also a good option for maintaining and upgrading existing affordable housing stock. Much of the impetus for PCEF was to get much needed resources into underserved neighborhoods to upgrade housing stock. There is a provision that protect residents from rent increases if multifamily owners use PCEF funds to improve their buildings. We can also get creative in the use of the Metro housing money that is coming to Portland. And thirdly, we can work more with national partners who have stake in Portland like the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, whose sole purpose is to build work force housing.
QUESTION 4 – With an incomplete inventory that is nearly 40 years old, the City of Portland has never fully documented the historic resources within city limits. This makes it difficult for anyone to understand the buildings, neighborhoods, structures, and spaces that are important to the community. At the same time, the review process for renovating historic properties currently falls under the umbrella of the City’s Bureau of Development Services. The burdensome fee structure associated with this process is highly inequitable and serves as a disincentive to preserving historic buildings and neighborhoods. How would you address the lack of recognition of historic properties citywide and the inequities in the current system in order to encourage sustainable historic preservation and make it possible for current and future generations to enjoy a more complete Portland story?
Dan Ryan: I will recommend that we consider moving this function over the either housing or planning and sustainability where an inventory of existing structures is valued as a asset list for our city and not simply hurdle for developers. We are going to have to look to new ways to get this done, especially in the next few years as we recover from COVID’s health and economic impacts.
City Craft Ventures has a unique neighborhood redevelopment process that begins with an inventory of every “asset” in the proposed area – including all existing structures, environmental areas, and the existing human community. And the goal is always to lift up the neighborhood without displacing existing residents and businesses.
Each area is inventoried before it receives any sort of redevelopment monies, whether from the housing bonds, PCEF, or even tax incentives. Fees are levied on developers to help cover the costs.
Loretta Smith: I think we have to take a global look at the fees levied by the City’s Bureau of Development Services to call out the clearly identifiable inequities found within the system. I would like to see the review process for renovations to preserve historic buildings and neighborhoods viewed through the lens of a public service. I don’t know if it’s possible to completely waive those fees, but I do know that we can lower them if we view the service as a benefit to the broader community rather than a revenue generation tool. I also believe we can incentivize sustainable historic preservation efforts through ongoing grants targeted towards specific areas of the city or communities that have often been overlooked or underreported on in the telling of Portland’s history. After we address those initial issues, we can then collaboratively think through how we achieve a broader review of the inequities found within the historic preservation efforts in our city, beyond the current fee structure.