A Tale of Two Portlands: Occupy vs Subsidizing Developers

Contrast these two stories from The Oregonian: In Saturday's (11.19.11) Business section, "A disgruntled California developer is suing Portland's urban renewal agency (Portland Development Commission) for more than $1.7 million" after an upscale remake of an old mill along the waterfront falls apart, and "after taxpayers have already invested $12.5 million into the site, which is no closer to development today than when the (PDC) bought it in 2000. " And then the ongoing story of how the City has allegedly spent some $750,000 on a clearly over-armored police response to Occupy Portland, aggressively clearing several hundred protestors and numerous homeless people out of two downtown encampments.

Not only are the price tags to the taxpayers of these two expenditures shockingly disparate, but, of course, the $12.5 million goes to the 1 percent and the $750,000 goes to sweeping the demands and the obvious needs of the 99 percent out of sight once again. Perhaps we could take that now empty mill site and convert it to affordable housing for the City's many homeless.

The Working Families Party along with a number of unions, churches, veterans groups and other community organizations urged Sam Adams not to evict Occupy Portland, arguing that the problems he cited at the Occupy Portland encampment simply reflected the tremendous income disparity and lack of social services, mental health services, and affordable housing that the Occupy Wall Street movement has so effectively brought to the fore.

In a later Oregonian editorial, Dennis Morrow, of Janus Youth Programs, was quoted as calling the camps a "recipe for disaster" because of the attraction they held for homeless youth. The mayor and city commissioners constantly repeated that argument as justification for the eviction, citing life-threatening drug overdoses and assaults at the encampments. When challenged about why the city was not proposing solutions, Mayor Sam Adams tried to deflect blame onto shrinking federal programs and subsidies. While there is certainly much blame to be placed on the federal government and the vastly disproportionate spending on Wall Street bailouts and tax breaks compared to education, social services and affordable housing, the city of Portland is certainly not without responsibility.

For starters, the city has spent way too much on the luxury developments for Portland's 1 percent. The Pearl, South Waterfront, the tram, the streetcar -- are all aimed at bringing more wealthy people to the inner city. Promised affordable housing has either not materialized at all or at a pace that is way below what was promised or imagined. While there was some private money in those developments, the city highly subsidized all of them either directly or through tax expenditures. The other night I drove through the South Waterfront and found myself laughing in despair as I drove under the Tram and right next to two sets of tracks, one for the streetcar and one for the MAX. Enough already. Meanwhile, the promised veterans housing and other affordable housing in South Waterfront is way too long coming.

Despite the fact that the encampments cost the city in police overtime, they and Occupy Wall Street encampments all over the country have contributed immeasurably to changing the public discourse. Before the occupations began two months ago, one heard little discussion of income inequality. Now it is all we are talking about. That alone is more than worth the price, which pales in comparison to what we have spent subsidizing and bailing out private developers, mortgage lenders and investment bankers.

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