To strike fear into the heart of the Portlander, you need only utter two words: “San Francisco.”
The Bay Area and its marquee city are the model for everything that's gone wrong with urbanism in America today — lack of new housing, little affordable housing, and widening income inequality — which means “San Francisco” is a frequent topic of conversation in Portland.
” 'Let's not be San Francisco' — I hear that everywhere, from top politicians to grassroots activists,” says Margot Black, a math teacher by day who is also one of Portland's main tenant organizers. “We generally point to San Francisco as an example of what we don't want to be.”
Not that having a model to avoid is helping — or working at all. As the Bay Area becomes increasingly unaffordable, more and more Californians are fleeing to the Northwest — but, with the miracle of the internet, they are taking their Bay Area jobs and Bay Area salaries with them, driving up prices in Portland. This means, in a real way, San Francisco's loss is Portland's loss.
The problem is that Portland and San Francisco — and Seattle as well — have more in common than not. “All three cities are dealing with housing shortages, and,as a result, overpricing,” says Raquel O. Rivera Pinderhuges, a professor of urban studies at San Francisco State University. “All three are dealing with gentrification, displacing low income people from neighborhoods, and all three are dealing with homelessness.”
It would be easy to say that housing supply is the chief cause of all of this. But that's not quite it. “The housing crisis is not just a consequence of supply,” Rivera Pinderhuges adds. “It's a consequence of a pricing problem.”
It's an obvious statement — perhaps even more obvious than “we need more housing” — but nobody would pay $4,500 for a one-bedroom apartment unless they could. And while there's lots of talk about fixing zoning laws in California to build more housing, there's not a lot of talk about building our way out of income inequality.
“Nobody's really looking at that piece,” Black says. “To me, that's the most obvious reason.”
Not that the tech boom swallowing the West Coast has been all bad for Portlanders. Housing activist Chloe Eudaly, a longshot candidate for Portland City Council, started a Facebook page called “That's a Damn Shed” to highlight shoddy housing going for astronomical prices. In a shocking upset, she won a primary campaign earlier this spring and advanced to this fall's runoff.
Seeing a grassroots housing activist achieve political success is cause for PDX pride. But in other ways, slightly more-affordable Portland may be worse off than we are. San Francisco at least enjoys a few amenities Portland does not. A key one is rent control, which is preempted by Oregon state law. “We're seeing senior citizens get $500, $600 rent increases, buildings getting emptied out with 90 days' notice,” says Black, who adds that Rip City has lately acquired a virulent nativist streak — or, more accurately, a “real hostility towards Californians.”
Hostility, but also hope — as in a hope we get a handle on all these problems before they spread too much further.
“California has to succeed,” says U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a dapper fellow with a penchant for bow ties and bicycles who represents Portland and some surrounding areas in Congress. Blumenauer looks and talks as though he'd do well in San Francisco — but like Black and other Portlanders, he's counting on us to not ruin his home as well. “If California is a basket case, Portland is toast,” he says. If so, at least the toast will be artisanal.