Capitol Notebook: Portland’s comedy of errors

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Portland’s hot real estate market has spawned two ballot questions dealing with housing and zoning issues, which were almost kept off the ballot because of errors by City Hall staff.

Complaints about an opaque city planning process and the failure of the City Council to stem an affordable housing crisis in a gentrifying city have brought the two referendums to the ballot.

The city’s tight housing market, where rents have skyrocketed, inspired a citizens’ initiative question that will likely not solve the problem it intends to, and may create more. Question 1 would limit the power of landlords to raise rents, and create a cumbersome administrative board, dominated by tenants, to resolve disputes. The lengthy ballot question is printed on the ballot in its entirety, despite objections by the proponents that it would suppress support for the question.

The housing crisis is acute, but the net effect of this referendum could make it less attractive for owners to invest in the Portland market, where many rental apartments have transitioned to Airbnb and other short-term rentals.

And it would not effectively target relief for the working and middle-income residents who are being priced out of apartments. It could not be altered by the council for five years.

This and another referendum question on zoning were almost kept off the ballot because the clerk had initially misread the amount of time necessary in advance of the election for the required public hearing. The problem was solved only when it was discovered that the rule causing the new problem had never been properly adopted, and a more generous timeline was still in effect.

But the plan to create a new landlord-tenant bureaucracy might be doomed in a City Hall that already stumbles over its own rules.

The need for affordable housing in a city that has seen costs spiral in the last few years means that Question 1 may find strong voter support, especially with young voters who have been priced out of apartments. But developers and real estate companies have opened their wallets to oppose the measure, and the anti-Question 1 PAC, Say No to Rent Control, reported raising $146,000 in their most recent report.

The Fair Rent referendum may have a greater chance of passage than Question 2, a problematic scheme that would allow a minority of neighbors veto power over proposed zoning changes. It would enable 25 percent of registered voters within 500 feet of a proposed zone change to veto it by signing a petition. A developer could only overrule that petition by securing 51 percent of voters who live within 1,000 feet of the proposed zone change within 45 days.

This would stall all development in Portland, including the much-needed affordable and workforce housing that is the only solution to the problem described in Question 1. Developers who already deal with a complex City Hall process might be dissuaded from Portland. Question 2 is opposed by affordable housing developers and social service providers, including Mark Swann of Preble Street.

This second referendum sprang up because of neighbors’ discontent with a zone change in their Stroudwater neighborhood that allowed a developer to shrink allowable lot sizes by more than half, from 15,000 square feet to 6,500 square feet. Neighbors felt their voices were not heard in a city planning process that approved the transition of a former farm into house lots smaller than what would have been previously allowed. Question 2 would be retroactive to nullify the approvals of Camelot Farm.

It was also fueled by the city’s recent decision to increase height limits to clear the way for a cold-storage facility on the western Commercial street waterfront that is considered crucial for the marine shipping industry. While some neighbors remain unhappy with a process that spanned 40 public meetings, others felt the process, though difficult, had improved the project.

Although there is often a lower voter turnout in an off-year election, the result of these referendums, and a ballot question on whether to fund building improvements for two or four of the city’s elementary schools will be important for Portland.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.