Kevin Keating walked the streets of San Francisco wheat-pasting posters urging vandalism against ‘yuppie’ infrastructure infesting the Mission district some 15 years ago. Alise Munson floated balloons 85 feet in the air to illustrate the height of a proposed 8-story condominium on N. Williams Ave. in Portland earlier this summer. While their tactics obviously differ, their target was similar: gentrifying development that displaces lower income workers with housing only salaried professionals can afford.
The developers and politicians pushing condos and expensive new apartments like to speak in terms of supply and demand – that with influxes of new residents, new housing must be built to control market price. More recently, politicians have adopted language asserting that increases to ‘urban density’ are vital to combat global warming. While it may be true that low vacancy rates cause rents to rise, this is based purely on speculation, as it does not cost landlords more money to run their building if other buildings in the area are full. When hearing politicians like Portland city commissioner Steve Novick insist high-end development is needed to ward off climate change, it’s hard not to laugh considering Novick claimed there was nothing the city could do to stop the very coal exports accelerating this crisis. Such relativism is a red herring meant to turn eco-advocates against housing justice activists. The issue is not whether to have or have not density, the issue is on top of whom density is being built.
At present, the Portland market for condominiums has largely gone bust. The glass towers of Portland’s SW waterfront still have double-digit levels of vacancy, a sterile monument to a kind of growth machine that sputtered out five years ago. In the condo wake has risen a new boom of apartment construction for a rapid influx of young urbanites. Unfortunately, this wave of new apartments is being rushed with little thought or concern for existing spaces and the people that already occupy them. More unfortunate still is how routinely common this sort of urban apathy is.