This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 31, 2005 1:33 AM. The previous post in this blog was Back on top. The next post in this blog is One out of every five property tax dollars. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

E-mail, Feeds, 'n' Stuff

Monday, January 31, 2005

Let me make myself perfectly clear

In a post here on Friday afternoon, I suggested that it might be time to fight the City of Portland's real estate developer welfare system with a ballot measure repealing the city's urban renewal property taxes. It might have a chance of passing, I thought, if the perennial anti-taxers like Lars Larson got together with the outraged neighbors from all over the city (Lair Hill, Buckman, Homestead, etc., etc.) who dislike the ugly and elitist brand of development that their property taxes currently subsidize.

Based on the weekend buzz around here, it turns out that the idea may "have legs," as they say in Hollywood. But I suspect there may be some misunderstanding about exactly what I am proposing. There's so much smoke and mirrors around urban renewal generally, and around loosely guarded pork pots like the Portland Development Commission in particular, that there's a good chance my idea might be misunderstood.

So let me outline it a litle more carefully:

A goodly portion of every Portland property owner's property tax bill goes to City of Portland urban renewal projects. That includes us folks who don't live in an "urban renewal area." In fact, it says right on my property tax bill that 7.89% of my property taxes, several hundred dollars a year, goes to "Urban Renewal - Portland." That's the tax I'm talking about doing away with.

Now, I know that some folks like Lars who might also favor repealing the tax would do so out of an entirely different motivation from mine. I would definitely be willing to continue to pay the same amount of property taxes in the future as I pay now, but I'd have it be spent on police, schools, and mental health for the indigent, rather than condo towers and a sky tram to Pill Hill. Without being disrespectful, I suspect that many of Lars's followers would just as soon pocket the tax savings. So the alliances that would have to be formed to shake things up wouldn't be very easy or peaceful ones.

But sometimes you have to dance with the devil.

I'm very tired of paying 7.89% of my property taxes for the Pearl District, Convention Center, streetcar, tram, and other goofy toys that the city and the PDC keep handing us. I'm very tired of the hypocrisy that surrounds the treatment of public concerns on projects such as the 325-foot-tall view-blocking towers in South Waterfront and the Burnside Bridge Home Depot. I would gladly support a ballot measure to outlaw the use of citywide property tax dollars for the joke that urban renewal in this city has become.

Is that irresponsible? Absolutely not. Even if it was tantamount to pulling the plug on urban renewal and starting all over, the timeout would be well worth it. If the city thinks a project is worthy of mandatory contributions from taxpayers citywide, let it bring each project before the voters one at a time. I'd pay a hundred bucks a year to revitalize MLK, or build that Buckman Community Center, or spruce up some of the older retail districts. But I want to see before I agree to buy.

And if that didn't work, if we really did stop urban renewal as it's currently practiced in Portland, no one would die. But we might still have a city that reflects the values of most of us who live here.

(UPDATE, 3:45 a.m.: b!X has some better analysis of the urban renewal property tax. He suggests that the city's credit rating might be tanked if the tax were suddenly repealed. Even he confesses that he doesn't have the whole picture, but he certainly has a better grasp on it that we do at the moment. We would not want to bankrupt the city, but we would like to figure out a way to give this aspect of city government back to the voters. Let's pay off our old debts for urban renewal toys, but let's not buy any new ones without a conversation and a popular vote.

UPDATE, 9:52 p.m.: You know you're on to something when you get the politicians' attention. My friend City Commissioner Randy Leonard, whom I like but with whom I viscerally disagree about South Waterfront, began circling the wagons around urban renewal on BlueOregon this evening. Yep, I think we're on to something here.)

Comments (30)

I should step up my askance reference to the idea of studying the potential imapcts of repealing the special levy for Portland's four Option 3 districts, and say that I see no reason I shouldn't simply state that I would support such a study. I have no idea where it would lead, but I think it's data we need to have, no matter where any of us are on the issue.

b!X: I've taken a closer look, and it's hard to see how all of the 7.89% I'm paying is the "special levy." See my comment on your post on Communique.

OK, since by almost everyone's admission that no one quite understands URAs, how about a moratorium?

Originally when these URAs got started the idea was to take economically dis-advantaged areas and give them something of a leg up since they are less desirable to develop.

However, with everyone in PDC seeing themselves as an aesthete or the next Howard Roark (there's a solution for the South Waterfront), I think there has been an obvious mission creep.

I am still trying to digest the Police/Fire Disability Fund being 10% of my prop tax bill. At least I know where the money for schools is going.

I like the suggestion of putting every urban renewal project up for a vote. You wished for it, why not ask for it?

Change the charter such that the PDC would get a budget to do studies and issue recommendations, and that's about all. Cease the flow of taxpayer dollars trhough the PDC, and instead make it simply a filter and gatekeeper.

Any developer partnered with the PDC for a project would have to come up with its development plan without a guaranteed source of public funding. This would surely limit the opportunity for graft. (Or at least ensure that the grifters be much more clever and subtle.)

Once the development plan is vetted by the PDC, if the plan requires some level of public funding, put that *development plan* in front of the voters, where the set of voters includes every citizen-taxpayer whose rates would go up. (Citywide tax? Citywide vote!) Include penalties or fees payable by the developer for any changes to the development plan after the voters approve it.

The PDC would be reined in, you'd get your say on each project, and hell, even *Lars* might go for something with such a strong democratic check on taxes.

Here we go with the anti-Pearl District diatribes again...

The "if you want to live in Vancouver, go live there" taunt is ridiculous on its face.

People are moving to Portland. Here are our options:

1. Amend the United States Constitution to restrict freedom to change one's place of residence from state to state. And also institute China's mandatory birth control and forced abortion policies.

2. Don't build any new houses. This will have the secondary benefit of skyrocketing real estate values. Of course, anyone who doesn't already own a home, or our children, are screwed.

3. Accommodate all those new people on the outskirts of Portland in new suburban sprawl. Talk about subsidizing developers!

4. Take a cue from other cities, such as Vancouver, that are considered desirable places to live, and provide urban housing adjacent to our center city.

Portland is 134 square miles and contains 529,000 residents, as of 2000 census. The Pearl District and the South Waterfront combined total about 2 square miles. The eventual population of the entire area around downtown is certainly less than 10% of Portland's total.

Vancouver, by the way, is much more than the downtown condo towers. It is also attractive single-family neighborhoods and low-scale multi-family housing - in fact, the vast majority of Vancouver, just as it would stay the vast majority of Portland. Neighborhoods like, say Irvington.

Gordo, good comment, wrong post.

I tend to agree with you about growth and development. They're inevitable.

But this post isn't attacking the Pearl, its attacking the incentives developers get to create the Pearl. Why should Portland use funds, originally earmarked for low-income areas, to create condos for the wealthy.

Its just not a smart use of tax dollars, if you ask me.

I'd pay a hundred bucks a year to revitalize MLK, or build that Buckman Community Center, or spruce up some of the older retail districts. But I want to see before I agree to buy.

I'm interested in this line of though. I'm not opposed, in principle, to the concept of an "urban renewal project," so what areas around town could be (need to be?) "renewed"?

Could you explain what you mean by "ugly and elitist brand of development"?

Having posted in the old thread, and done some reading, I now understand better the tax issue.


I completely agree with you, Jack.

Jack I could not agree with you more, I also would be willing to pay the same amount of tax. The other issue is why mention lars, he is not paying any properties taxes because he no longer lives here. How convenient for him, bad mouth the tax system in Oregon (as a life time Oregon resident I know itís not the greatest) and then not have to pay it. To me he doesnít add up neither does the tax collected.

""""3. Accommodate all those new people on the outskirts of Portland in new suburban sprawl. Talk about subsidizing developers!""""

Developers in the suburbs are required to pay for every part of their devlopment. Streets, sewers, sidewalks yo name it. The only time they get public help is when the cities start working out Sout Waterfront like schemes to develope. Like the failed Beaverton Round.

Gordo look at www.saveportland.com
and defend the use of tax abatments and urban renewal subsisies for the pearl.

You have to bring up Lars because he is emblematic of the conservative opinion which would resist replacing the amount you pay to urban renewal throug the special levy with an equal amount dedicated to esential services. Once the right gets a tax cut, they're going to fight you tooth and nail over institutiing some new tax.

Steve Schopp wrote: "Developers in the suburbs are required to pay for every part of their devlopment. Streets, sewers, sidewalks yo name it."

Pay in full? Down here in Salem, the Systems Development Charges paid by developers tend to fall well short of the whole cost for the new infrastructure required.

Gordo, I live in Irvington. In my 27 years in Portland, I have also lived in Buckman, Lair Hill, Alameda, unincorporated Washington County, First Addition in Lake Oswego, and Mountain Park. If you have a problem with where I live, please find some other place to post about it.

Thanks for mentioning all the other neighborhoods you have lived in, Jack. Irvington, Buckman, Lair Hill, Alameda, and Lake Oswego's First Addition are all classic examples, more prevalent in the Portland area than in most U.S. metros, of older neighborhoods that have been revitalized, or, if good to start with, have become even tonier. To your former home list we can add Laurelhurst, the area around Hawthorne Street, Mt. Tabor, Grant Park, Hollywood, Sellwood/Westmoreland, Eastmoreland, and of course the Northwest Portland "flats." Now in the path of the revitalization march: St. Johns, the Mississippi Avenue area, Alberta, Montavilla, Woodstock, Rose City and Roseway.

Compare that record with other U.S. cities. How many of Cleveland's old neighborhoods have revitalized like Portland's? How about Detroit? Milwaukee? Atlanta? Houston? To be fair, all of these cities, and others, have small revitalization and neighborhood maintenance success stories. But not to the level we have here in Portland, not even close.

Are you going to argue that this pretty unique success story for Portland has happened IN SPITE OF downtown redevelopment? No, it's happened (and is happening)BECAUSE of downtown redevelopment. Starting with, yes, the infamous Goldschmidt's moves to create Pioneer Courthouse Square, and tear down the old Harbor Drive expressway. Light rail was the next step. And then, of course, the Pearl District. And, soon, unless it is stopped by the interesting alliance you propose, the South Waterfront.

My thesis is that, if it weren't for all this awful redevelopment in central Portland, you would feel compelled to move your family to some sterile suburb north of Vancouver, or west of Beaverton, or south of Lake Oswego. You would be making the choice that families in most other U.S. metropolitan areas feel compelled to make. But not in Portland.

Unless it all gets ruined.

Not only did our tax dollars fund the building of the Pearl, we continue to do so by making up the tax deficit caused by the 10-20 year property tax abatement given to many of the condo/faux loft owners. They pay $nothing$ towards schools, roads etc. Thank you Homer, Vera and the PDC.

As a followup to the notion that suburban developers pay in full for their impacts, it's simply not true.

The most glaring example is new schools. Both California and Washington allow local school districts to charge systems development fees for the costs of new school construction related to new development. But not in Oregon. In Oregon a school district must pass a bond measure and pass the full cost of the new facilities onto existing property owners.

Furthermore, many cities and counties choose not to charge the full cost of new development even where it is allowed, for parks, roads, sewers, water systems, and storm drainage, under the assumption that this will lower the cost of housing, or aren't "fair" to the developers.

So subsidies occur both in the central city and on the fringes. They just come in different shapes.

Actually, the city of Minneapolis has a revitalization plan far far superior to Portland's. Every neighbourhood receives a subsidy and It puts funds and decisions in the hands of the people who actually live in the neighbourhoods. If that were happening here, as a Buckmanite I'd vote for a smaller scale development at the Burnside Bridgehead, done by Beam. And a community center, of course.

Gordo: To attribute the success of places like Hawthorne to dollars spent downtown is laughable. Plus, you can talk about all the places that revitalization is going to get to "any day now," but areas like Hollywood and Alberta are hurting, and they've been blatantly ignored by the Goldschmidt set for decades -- decades.

And you know what? I've heard enough ad hominem stuff about me and my family for a while. So you get to take a few days off from this blog.

I regards to developers and what they pay for I as contrasting what the typical developer pays for and the chosen who get tax help to pay for things.
I was talking about the site work and immediate infrastructure requirements.
I never said "suburban developers pay in full for their impacts"
HOWEVER, if I did bring that up I would condemn the fallacy figures municipalities have come up with to justify their System Development Charges.

True they maybe if all a city relies on for expansion is new development expansion. But that is simply a farce. The real mission behind SDC's is to back fill what has been siphoned off by bogus Urban Renewal. It's no wonder cities need the backfill. The amount they divert towards playing developer with other peoples money is insane. Then throw in several thousand properties with tax abatements all over the place and the problem of shortages is OF COURSE in need of FEES. The whole thing is a shell game and ponzie scheme with little clarity, no accountability and not one shred of genuine measurement of merit or sustainability.
I've seen hundreds of homes built around me here in Tualatin where there were none. All of them now paying anywhere from 4000 to 6500 in property taxes. All of the street improvements and infrastructure was paid by the developers. All of it. Now the city is raking in all that tax money like it should.
The wild fees and UR are so cities can continue the farce that development won't happen without Urban renewal helping out.
Of course they also had to go out and redefine the word blight. Before it was truly raunchy dilapidated property no one wanted. Now blight means any property the city wants to dabble with.
Any swell idea the city "planners" dream up with help from their "partners" becomes a need. Property purchased by a city, sold for a loss, subsidized to develop, tax abated for years while the rest of us pick up the slack and the city cries cause it's short on money for basic services. Of course they are short.
As more and ore of these ventures stack up the problem will worsen. That is one of the central crimes in South Waterfront/Tram. It will create an enormous gap in funding and lengthen the time frame for genuine remedies.
We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars having to be paid back with the future tax revenue for many years to come. And it won't be going to schools, parks, libraries, police, and fire.

Not only did our tax dollars fund the building of the Pearl, we continue to do so by making up the tax deficit caused by the 10-20 year property tax abatement given to many of the condo/faux loft owners. They pay $nothing$ towards schools, roads etc. Thank you Homer, Vera and the PDC.

I'm confused. Is this separate and apart from the normal TIF process in urban renewal areas through which increase in value goes to the bonds rather than to the taxing jurisdictions?

Ah, yes, apparently so.


Property Tax: $146.74
Market Value: $841,890.00

Property Tax: $146.74
Asking price: $1,975,000.00

$53.5 million tax money diverted
$27.5 Million Tax Lost Due to Exemptions
$32 Million for Development & Planning
Most of Downtown is Urban Renewal

What Does it Cost YOU?

Let's get back to Jack's main topic: abolish or "fix" urban renewal in Portland?

1. If urban renewal is abolished, the city and the PDC are required to pay off all bonds before they shut down the PDC. They would not be allowed to start any new projects. Hence, the city's bond rating would remain unchanged.

2. 'Willing to pay more taxes' for schools, etc. The tax money currently diverted to urban renewal would return to all the taxing districts affected by PDC after the bonds were paid off. So, you would be sending the current urban renewal money to its new and proper home ... those other agencies. And if you are just dying to pay even more money, you can always simply donate to the government agency of your choice.

3. If people attempt to 'fix' urban renewal, what do you think would happen? Well? Right. Nothing.

4. Forget Lars, please. The issue is fair and proper public policy. Citizens have never voted to pay for a single urban renewal project. In the mid-1950s, voters approved a law/const amendment (??I'm not sure which - think const. amendment) which they were told was needed so cities and counties could accept federal urban renewal money. Before that, the feds couldn't give local jurisdictions money for that purpose. The very LAST paragraph of the mesure the voters had to consider, added an omnibus line to the effect that local property taxes could also be used for the purposes in a tax-increment financing scheme. How many Oregonian, now or then, do you think understand TIF? Do any of you??? I suspect a few posters on this discussion group do, but all? probably not.

5. Ask the state dept of rev how much money goes to urban renewal around the state and how many cities have an urban renewal plan and agency. It's about 60, the last I looked. This monster has to be stopped. County assessors slowed the train down about a decade ago, but it is back up to speed now and combined with PERS, should bankrupt the state oh, any day now.

6. Check Ptld Bus Jrnl at http://www.bizjournals.com/portland/stories/2005/01/24/daily53.html?f=et75
for Portland City Club recommendations. Not bad, but don't go far enough, IMO.

Umm...you can put this up for votes if you want, but it doesn't matter. The people voted down light rail extensions, but the governments put the trains in anyhow.

Portland's going to put in the tram to Pill Hill and the skyscrapers, by hook or by crook (mostly the latter).

I'm not Don McIntire, but I do know him. He and Tom Dennehy used to be the state experts on urban renewal and tax increment financing. I don't know who their successors are besides me and I got out of that game several years ago. Seems I just can't let go when the subject comes up, though. :-)

People wonder what's so bad about UR? Here's my observation from having looked UR projects at many cities in Oregon and Minnesota. While the new project is as bright and shiny and exciting as a new penny, the neighborhood right next door to the project looks a little shabby, a little dirty, a little neglected. UR projects suck all or most of the life out of the surrounding areas.

What about the nice Portland neighborhoods mentioned in some of the posts above? They were nice before urban renewal, and if their residents aren't deprived of enough extra spending money to take care of their places (by UR taxes, for example), those neighborhoods will stay nice.

The worst thing about UR is that it is money forcibly removed from the citizens and used for projects that are not of any benefit to most of them and that actually hurt many of them - Ahavath Achim, Lair Hill, etc. in the present context. Do you know how many churches and synagogues have been destroyed by UR? Just a question. Maybe b!X knows?

Ahavath Achim, the only Sephardic congregation in Oregon, lost its home to an earlier UR effort back in the early 60s, I think. Not sure about the date, but I think the congregation was in NW Portland before being forced to move.

The first thing to be done is to defang (or do away with completely) the PDC. These are the folks who have given away MILLIONS of tax dollars in the form of property tax abatements and developer "loans" i.e.distributed pork to the usual good ole boys and so on for decades. Each of their little "projects" seems to sink the city (read: the public) further and further into debt. It's reached the breaking point now- tax payers can no longer make up the difference because most of them are paying grossly inflated property taxes. Something's gotta give.

What about the nice Portland neighborhoods mentioned in some of the posts above? They were nice before urban renewal, and if their residents aren't deprived of enough extra spending money to take care of their places (by UR taxes, for example), those neighborhoods will stay nice.

This sort of circles back around to two of the remaining up-in-the-air points in this discussion. One, is the "urban renewal - Portland" line in property tax statements really just for the special levy needed by our Option 3 URAs? Two, do those Options 3 URAs actually need the special levy money?

I still don't have an answer to either of these questions. I just wanted to repeat myself, in terms of re-mentioning that if that line-item really is just the special levy for those Option 3 URAs, and if those URAs really do need the special levy money in order to make up the Measure 50-created gap, then it's not as simple as just up and abolishing that line-item,

So theoretically, if those two open questions turn out to be answered with "yes", that line-item is going to remain in place until the Option 3 URAs expire.

Each of their little "projects" seems to sink the city (read: the public) further and further into debt.

I really don't see this. Projects in a URA are funded through bonds based upon the expected increase in property values above and beyond the fixed base when the URA was created. The city isn't being stuck with urban renewal bonds to pay back out of its general fund or anything -- those bonds are paid back out of the increasing value of the URAs themselves.

Where exactly do you see URA projects causing the City some sort of debt problem?

it would help this discussion tremendously to understand where all that URA money goes to. Everybody seem to understand that the city has to invest something to get things going. No disagreement here. There is, however, this perception that some people enrich themselves too much in the process. Can we have some numbers to validate that perception? Like full accounting of PERL, or projected accounting of Macadam or South Waterfront. Randy is right the instrument (URA) is essential to ensure the future for the city. Trim the fat, throw out the rascals, but keep the essence intact. Numbers please, from those who assert fraud first.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Let me make myself perfectly clear:

» You Can't Fight City Hall Jack from PDXLawg.us
There once was a time when the advocates of Urban Renewal had to find a public purpose in the government effort to eliminate blight. Yet, as is typical of so may pieces of legislation, once we authorize one category of spending or taxing then everybody... [Read More]

» North Macadam Urban Renewal from BlueOregon
B!x has done the community a service with this excellent explanation of Urban Renewal Districts. Urban Renewal is very arcane stuff and his explanations are good. I was in the State Senate in 1996 when Measure 47 passed, the [Read More]

Clicky Web Analytics