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Monday, August 23, 2010

Portland "urban renewal" tax suction: $92.4 million last year

An alert reader points us to this Oregon Department of Revenue document, which shows, among many other facts, how much "urban renewal" schemes around the state wind up draining in property taxes. Table 3.1 (toward the back) reveals that last year, Portland's 11 "urban renewal" districts ate up the property taxes on $3.79 billion in "excess values" -- the amount that property values have risen since the various districts were created. In other words, about $92.4 million in taxes was raked in by the Portland Development Commission. That's up 16.8% from the year before. Then there's another another roughly $14.5 million in special "urban renewal" taxes that show up on all Portlanders' property tax bills, not just those in the favored districts. That's quite a chunk of change for the PDC to play with.

It gets a little murky from there, but as best I can tell, Table 3.2 shows that if the $92.4 million of taxes on the "excess values" had gone where property taxes normally go, $23.2 million would have gone to Multnomah County; $32.6 million would have gone to education; $33.9 million would have gone to the city's general coffers; and $2.7 million would have gone to other public purposes. (For some reason, the state doesn't project where the other $14.5 million from citywide "urban renewal" tax would have gone, but since everybody in the city pays it, surely it would have gone somewhere.)

Now, the proponents of "urban renewal" will be quick to point out that without the streetcars and $20 million parks and free sidewalks and bioswales and totem poles and all the other PDC pork that's been lavished on the condo set, property values in the districts wouldn't have risen as much as they did, and therefore property tax collections would not have been as large. That's true as far as it goes, but the question remains how much the values in those areas would have increased even without "urban renewal." It might not have been the $3.79 billion value increase that we've seen since the districts' start dates, some of which go back several decades, but it would have been an enormous number, and the taxes on that increase would have been available for basic services.

Moreover, while the fans of "urban renewal" like to tout the tax revenue that's generated by government-subsidized gentrification, they don't often 'fess up to the greater ongoing expenses that it necessitates. As property values have increased in places like the Pearl District, so too have the costs of providing public services to those areas.

In both those important senses, then, "urban renewal" has stolen, and continues to steal, from other governmental units and their constituencies -- the poor people that the county serves, and yes, from the schoolchildren. Some "stakeholders," it seems, are more equal than others.

Comments (14)

I know "recalls" don't work in this town, but these elected servants need to go. Start with the "SamRand" twins. All this money to fill their buddies' pockets...and they want more. Vote No an all their bond issues.

Every time I read the bloated PDC claims of greater tax revenue thanks to their improvements in infrastructure, I think of areas that are thriving, no thanks to urban renewal bonds. How does Mississippi Avenue's percentage of property tax growth compare to, say, Lents'?

Now, the proponents of "urban renewal" will be quick to point out that without the streetcars and $20 million parks and free sidewalks and bioswales and totem poles and all the other PDC pork that's been lavished on the condo set, property values in the districts wouldn't have risen as much as they did, and therefore property tax collections would not have been as large. That's true as far as it goes, but the question remains how much the values in those areas would have increased even without "urban renewal." It might not have been the $3.79 billion value increase that we've seen since the districts' start dates, some of which go back several decades, but it would have been an enormous number, and the taxes on that increase would have been available for basic services.

I think you've put your finger on the key issue --- I would have a lot less heartburn with URA/TIF schemes if there was a reasonable attempt to make the calculation suggested in your post -- i.e., not allow the project to cream off all the benefit of general appreciation that would have occurred whether the particular urban renewal boondoggle happened or not.

There needs to be some sort of reference imposed, either a control area (suitably matched to the project area) or simply an "overall regional appreciation index" that would be used to correct the measured appreciation by subtracting general appreciation that occurred everywhere first.

Of course the pirates in the PDC would howl because they've profited for years from our built-in post hoc ergo propter hoc error. But, if we thought about it, it's possible that a more honest, careful method of doing all this would work to their benefit as well, in the upcoming deflationary years. E.g., doing it my way might mean that, if PDX values as a whole decline by 5%, but only 2% in the URA, you could make a good argument that the urban renewal project has, in fact, produced measurable benefits.

Or maybe we could start doing it because it's more honest and, therefore, the right thing to do.

You are laying bare the tautological nature of "urban renewal": tax moneys are employed to "renew" urban areas in order to increase tax revenues so that "renewal" can continue.

Of course, the "benefits" of "urban renewal" are not actually shared equally by those who pay the taxes that fund it. Is it any wonder that commenters on this blog so frequently assert that they are abandoning this merry-go-round and relocating?

A similar funding tautology was described in yesterday's O regarding the campaign to entice people to visit downtown Portland:

Parking fees and fines have been increased to fund a campaign to induce people to pay increased fees and fines when they do drive downtown.

Of course, the campaign planners, voicing the current quasi-theological mythology, would argue that people should not drive their cars -- Smart cars, electric cars, hybrids, subcompacts included -- downtown but rather take public transportation. They seem to be ignoring the tautologists at the regional transportation agency, who have been raising fares and eliminating bus routes as quickly as they can.

Clearly, logic is not a required course for city planners. Neither, it would certainly appear, is ethnography -- the study of how humans actually behave. The result of such incompetence is a city that is fast becoming unlivable for its residents. The empty houses awaiting buyers have been steadily growing in number in many inner SE neighborhoods.

Perhaps the millions imagined by forecasters to be moving here -- despite the failure of jobs to materialize in areas of "urban renewal" -- will find Portland to be their City on the Hill. Perhaps they will all have trust funds.

Moreover, while the fans of "urban renewal" like to tout the tax revenue that's generated by government-subsidized gentrification, they don't often 'fess up to the greater ongoing expenses that it necessitates.

Or, they outright blame people who have used the 40+ year old bus system - which is being sacrificed so TriMet can pay $5 million each year to the City of Portland Streetcar - and claim that those who don't live where the Streetcar goes are to blame for all of life's ills - "subsidizing" "auto-dependent" lifestyles, pollution, runoff into the Willamette River, Ross Island pollution, etc.

Good point, Don. Hawthorne, Mississippi, NW 23rd, Alberta, Burnside and 28th, Sellwood, et al took off thanks to the investment of individual business owners, favorable rents at the time (less so now with gentrification), and supportive neighbors and shoppers. All market forces. Although the PDC and other government agencies have done some useful things in those areas such as street and storefront upgrades, they were late to the party.

Other than the Pearl District, what PDC-led redevelopment projects can be called successful? One only has to look at the SoWhat district, the disappointing pace of redevelopment along the Yellow Line on Interstate Ave., and the barren Vanport Square and other PDC projects along MLK for the answer. If Lents ever takes off, it will not be due to the Lents Town Center or the new Green Line stops, but rather investment of entrepreneurs and the efforts of the young homeowners moving to the area working to make the long-depressed area safe and enjoyable for their families.

Government can never consistently pick economic winners and losers, and shouldn't even try. It's why the PDC's new venture-capital fund and "industry clusters" strategy are so laughable and infuriating. They will end up betting on the losing horses, and/or will be manipulated by well-connected developers and CEOs pursuing their own personal or corporate profit. The money would be better spent on such boring but essential needs as infrastructure and building human capital (i.e., education), which no private entity is able or willing to pay for and which will promote economic prosperity in the long run.

This is why TIF schemes do not work. And do not forget there are the epic fails of projects like SoWhat that require many more millions to support.

Yes, blame the people who do not want to live in subsidized housing cells and would rather take a bus than "crime ridden rails".
Is density really such a good thing?
So density is good for some, but not for others, and what kind and where? In some places fancy density, in others ghetto density. Lets be careful how we promote the word then when it represents different outcomes.
One other point, if city leaders are so concerned about earthquakes, etc. why stack people up with no way of getting out say for example fires? Anything like that happening here, and within seconds, we would have instant gridlock. Smart growth?? Just because it is called smart, doesn't make it so.

I'll have to read this, but overall they took 6.3% more in taxes from us than 2 years ago (page 1) and still don't have enough.

I really wish they'd drop the exhaustive RMV analysis telling us what a great deal we are getting. Guys, that was almost 20 years ago when M5 passed, give it up. YOu seem to have enough now.

The TIF slice is depressing when you think of how PDC tosses the money away instead of it going for schools and sewers.

I don't think TIF financing in general is the problem, used properly it can be a powerful and effective tool. The problem is that we never let these formerly blighted regions go back on the property tax rolls. Urban renewal areas get extended and expanded, so that "one more" project can be brought under the umbrella.

Let's take our foot off the county's throat and let these areas expire. If another project wants TIF financing, it better be in a still blighted area.

No Beeman.
"TIF" is the problem. There is no proper use for it.
It's a ponzi scheme that takes form existing revenue streams and pretends it was created.
The scheme has become so a blatant that it's now entrely wrapped up in lies and misappropriation.
The loss to basis service's funding must be replaced with higher fees and taxes and/or service get cut.
The idea that such a dishonest means to misappropriation "can be a powerful and effective tool" is the stuff of con men.
There isn't any public project where TIF is preferable to a tax levy or general obligation bond.
The only reason TIF addiction became so abused is because it is an easy snow job that allows irresponsible politicians to spend large sums.
Even without extension or expansion
the idea that the UR projects generated larger increases in property tax revenue than non-UR areas is not even accurate.
Studies have shown that the opposite has occurred but here in Oregon all of the adjacent properties within or near an UR district cannot increase more than 3% yearly.
So it wouldn't matter if TIF paid for a Taj Mahal the neighboring property would still increase only that 3%.
If you look at Portland UR districts they are 100s and even 1000s of acres in size with nearly all of the property already developed, on the tax rolls and increasing on average 4.5% yearly without any of the "projects".
Portland has over 12,000 acres in UR districts and over $6 billion in assessed value not funding essential services.

Or, better yet, fix it so that each area creation has to go for a vote of all the people in all the districts that will get shorted by it. That's the real answer.

Right now it is just another form of income redistribution from the poor to the wealthy. Somebody needs to start totaling up the sub-market property transfers from the public to private sectors the Portland kelptocracy has pulled on us in the last ten years.

First, they shouldn't be letting go of them, because prior good citizens sweat blood to get them in the first place and because we'll just have to buy them back again at above-market rates later. Second, they should only go, if really surplus, by a public auction. Then, third, if it is truly predictable that the public will not need that property again for the foreseeable future, the auction should be for a 99 year lease, not a full sale.

Ben, perhaps this comment is too late for anyone to see it (no ability to subscribe to comments, Jack?), but I agree that TIF as implemented is flawed. It would be a simple fix, however, to allow the county's share of tax receipts to increase with inflation, so that projects can only borrow against real increases in value. You can't tell me that property values in the Pearl aren't greater now (despite the condo bust) than they were when the URZ was created.

Beeman, as this description from the NYT two days ago suggests, there is considerable (potential) tax revenue generated by appreciation of some "urban renewed" areas:


WHAT: A one-bedroom one-bath condo

HOW MUCH: $399,000

SIZE: 1,037 square feet


SETTING: This condo is in a building called the Edge Lofts, a 123-unit development in the Pearl District, a warehouse district turned condo-and-gallery neighborhood just outside downtown Portland.

Restaurants, shops and galleries are in walking distance, including an REI store on the first level of this building, and Powell’s City of Books, the 68,000-square-foot flagship store. The building is five blocks from a park and one block from a streetcar stop.

INSIDE: This unit, on the seventh floor, has an eastern exposure with views of the city and Mount Hood. It consists of one long, loft-like room with a bedroom separated by a partial wall. The building was constructed in 2004. The current owner renovated the kitchen and installed custom lighting throughout. In the entry hall, there’s a storage room with a washer-dryer and built-in shelves. The living area has floor-to-ceiling windows. The unit comes with two parking spaces.

OUTDOOR SPACE: A shared outdoor patio

TAXES: $5,051 a year; $372 a month in homeowner’s association dues

CONTACT: Dana Cody, Coldwell Banker Barbara Sue Seal Properties, (503) 720-5224;

Perhaps it would be edifying to track the $5051 in taxes for a modest 1037 sqft 1bd condo through its distribution after receipt by the county? (There is no mention whether this unit still enjoys a 10-year tax abatement. Perhaps that gift from other taxpayers has concluded, making it incumbent upon the owner to sell?)


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