Month: August 2019

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Residents Say Portland is Not the City that Works

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

What if the self-proclaimed “City that Works” isn’t working? That’s what Portland residents are saying.

Last week the City of Portland published its most recent survey of city residents. Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed are dissatisfied with the city’s response to homelessness and almost two-thirds are dissatisfied with traffic congestion on their daily commutes.

This outrage comes after voters approved hundreds of millions of dollars for affordable housing projects and steep hikes in gas taxes to improve roads. Clearly, more money is not the answer: The more the city spends, the worse things get.

Council’s renter relocation payments, inclusionary zoning, and renter screening rules are shrinking the supply of affordable housing. While the city’s population is growing, it’s reducing its road infrastructure through road diets and replacing automobile lanes with dedicated bus and bike lanes.

Instead of punishing property owners for renting apartments, let’s loosen regulations on building and renting truly affordable housing. Instead of bringing traffic to a standstill, let’s add traffic lanes to foster a safe and speedy flow of auto and truck traffic. These aren’t radical ideas. In fact, these were Portland’s policies when it really was “The City that Worked.”

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Stop Raising Rents in Portland

By Micah Perry

On Wednesday, August 7, 2019, the Portland City Council passed yet another ordinance that will harm the housing market in the city. Landlords will now be required to register all their rental units with the city and pay a $60 yearly registration fee for each unit.

Any economist, or even a student who has taken Econ 101, can tell you that countries with more regulations are less prosperous than nations that enjoy greater economic freedom. Entrepreneurship, from the opening of a small bakery to the development of an apartment complex, is seriously disincentivized by regulations.

Rules and fees placed on the housing industry cause any would-be entrepreneurs and developers—individuals who could provide a solution to Portland’s housing problem—to think twice and reconsider investment in housing rentals. This new ordinance joins a slew of deterrent regulations on rental housing within Portland.

Over the past few years, Portland’s City Council has approved policies that restrict or complicate a landlord’s ability to reject a rental applicant for reasons such as criminal background or ability to pay rent, and that require landlords to help pay for a renter’s relocation costs. Those who have already built rental housing may find it more lucrative and safer simply to sell the property they own rather than continue to rent it. Those considering building new rentals may now balk at the opportunity altogether.

Proponents of the new ordinance will argue that the fee is critical because it funds the city’s Rental Services Office, but the necessity of the office itself is questionable. Most of the office’s responsibilities seem to involve explaining the complex landlord-tenant laws passed by the city in recent years, a self-induced problem that could be solved by simply repealing them. In addition, while the office is portrayed as a resource for tenants to utilize when being treated unfairly, the office’s website notes that it often refers those in need of help to previously existing nonprofits and advocacy groups, who would help without the city’s intervention.

There are also at least two clear structural problems with the ordinance. First, mobile homes, which provided an affordable housing solution long before the city stepped in, will be subject to the tax and almost certainly see rents rise. Second, the fee’s structure makes it an especially steep price to pay for landlords managing large complexes throughout the city, even though city bureaucrats claim that it is a moderate price.

To use an example from the testimony of one landlord, Seattle, which has a similar program, charges landlords a base rate of $175, plus two dollars for every additional unit they own. So, the owner of a 200-unit apartment in Seattle would pay $575 a year, but an identical building in Portland would be charged $12,000 a year. Landlords most likely will pass along the costs to tenants in the form of higher rent.

This new ordinance will do more harm than good. It will raise rents on most people and, more importantly, further constrict the supply of rental housing in the city.

Micah Perry is a Research Associate at the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He can be reached at info@cascadepolicy.org. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on August 20, 2019.

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The Government-Sanctioned Cat-And-Mouse Game

By Vlad Yurlov

Governments often try to pat themselves on the back. The minimum wage has long been a tool for this. As I began my trek from Foster Road to Oaks Park Way in 2015, I couldn’t wait to earn my own money! The minimum wage was $9.25 at the time, school was out, and I began working.

Starting off at about twenty hours a week, I was having a productive summer. A year later, I came back to an early Christmas present, the Portland Metro area received a minimum wage hike up to $9.75 on July 1st of 2016, which was just fine with me.

Then the hours shortened. New hires arrived. Overtime was a dirty word. The cotton candy I was making went up twenty-five cents! What happened?

As business-owners may tell you, these reactions were just a logical response to the pressure of the minimum wage. You get more wages, but you also work fewer hours, benefits are cut, and price increases are inevitable.

While contradictory studies continue to be published, simple logic dictates what employers do when the minimum wage rises. They try to find ways to keep their wages in step with the amount of profit workers create, and forcing fifteen dollars an hour won’t change that.

Vlad Yurlov is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Congestion Pricing in Portland: Good in Theory, Bad in Practice

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

“Good in theory, bad in practice.” Sure, it’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché because so often it’s true. It looks to be especially true regarding congestion pricing in the Pacific Northwest.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is pursuing plans to impose tolls on parts of Interstate 5 and Interstate 205. Portland recently announced the formation of an “equitable mobility” task force, with “congestion pricing” as a key component. Not to be outdone, Metro, the Portland area’s regional government, is launching a study it hopes will lead to region-wide congestion pricing.

One would expect that something as big and complex as congestion pricing would require substantial public input. However, Metro has made clear that, at least for its technical evaluation of scenarios, its process does “not anticipate significant public outreach.” This is likely because a key takeaway from a survey by DHM Research concludes tolling “is not a popular idea and residents are skeptical that it will be effective at reducing congestion.”

Done properly, congestion pricing reduces congestion. It increases traffic flow while reducing travel time and greenhouse gas emissions. Who knows, it many even reduce blood pressure and road rage. It also raises money. And, done properly, the money would be used to improve and increase road capacity, which in turn further reduces congestion. In theory, congestion pricing is a near-perfect solution to congestion.

But, it’s a long and winding road from theory to implementation. By the end of the trip, the plan that’s put in place often looks very different from the near perfection seen in textbooks. Along the way, policymakers see the dollar signs and shift the goals from minimizing congestion to maximizing revenues to feed their never-ending need for spending on policy priorities and pet projects. In the Portland region, there appears to be little appetite for using money raised from tolls to expand or improve the road network.

As plans progress, interest groups shift the focus from willingness to pay to ability to pay. If they get their way, the pricing scheme becomes less about reducing congestion and more about income redistribution. The way things are going, it’s likely the tolling schemes under consideration will look like nothing seen in a textbook, and roadway users will be worse off.

Recent research by ECONorthwest provides an indication of how much worse off Portland-area residents could be. The study, commissioned by Uber, estimates the costs and benefits of a tolling scheme under consideration in Seattle. The scheme would draw a line around the city of Seattle and charge every vehicle entering the cordon. The tolls would vary by time of day, based on projected congestion at those times.

The study estimates the time-saving benefits of reduced congestion against the costs of the tolls. It concludes that Seattle-area drivers would be almost $40 million a year worse off under the scheme they studied. In other words, the amount paid in tolls would be about $40 million more than the value of time saved from reduced congestion, not including rebates or benefits that could be funded by toll revenue.

While Portland-area policymakers give lip service to reducing congestion, the transportation policies they’ve put in place can only be described as congestion by design. “Road diets” such as lane reductions have choked off major arterials and sent drivers scurrying through side streets. Reduced speed limits have slowed traffic to a crawl in many areas. Speed bumps seem to be popping up faster than dandelions in spring.

Politics has a way of turning good ideas into bad policies. It’s very likely Portland-area politics will turn the good theory of congestion pricing into the bad practice of punishing drivers.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article appeared in The Oregonian on August 14, 2019.

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Metro: Where Temporary Means Forever

By Rachel Dawson

Milton Friedman once famously said that “nothing is more permanent than a temporary government program.” If Friedman were currently living in Portland, Oregon, it is likely he would instead be saying “nothing is more permanent than a temporary Metro tax.” The Metro Council unanimously voted in July to approve funding for planning and development grants supported by the regional government’s construction excise tax (CET) in the 2019-20 fiscal year. This CET is riddled with problems, including the removal of its sunset date and mission creep.

The CET was originally adopted by the region in 2006 as a temporary tax to support development planning for areas newly brought into the urban growth boundary (UGB). The tax is paid by anyone applying for a building permit for construction within the UGB, with some exceptions.

Its original sunset date was slated for 2009 or until Metro collected a certain amount of money. When asked if this was a permanent tax in 2006, Metro responded by saying, “No. This tax takes effect July 1, 2006, and will remain in effect until $6.3 million is collected.” This fund threshold was met and the original sunset date was passed, however, the CET was not allowed to die.

The CET was extended another five years until 2014, and again extended in 2014 until 2020. Instead of extending the CET once more, Metro voted to eliminate the tax’s sunset date in 2019, using its powers to create a continuous revenue stream. The resolution approved by the Metro Council states, “Collection of the excise tax will continue into the future until such a time as the Metro Council determines it is no longer necessary or effective.” Based on this language, the tax will never end, because Metro will never find such a flow of cash unnecessary.

It now appears that Metro has taken the liberty of shifting the scope and purpose of the tax, leading to mission creep. By the end of the CET’s original sunset date, the vast majority of the planning work the tax was established to carry out was completed. Metro no longer had enough projects to justify the tax’s existence.

Therefore, Metro expanded the scope of projects eligible for funding in 2009 so that tax revenue could be used for planning in existing urban areas in addition to the newly added territory. The purpose of the CET has again changed in recent years to prioritize “equitable development” projects within the UGB.

For example, Albina Vision Trust was awarded $375,000 for its community investment prospectus as part of Metro’s new equitable development category. Albina Vision Trust does not own any of the land referenced in its proposal. Rather, the project focuses on “community-based programming” and the “investment potential” of the lower Albina area. The desired project outcome is to pre-develop scenarios of what the community could look like and how the organization could maintain “social values” in Albina. The CET was originally created to plan development of land incorporated into the UGB, not to think about how a nonprofit can maintain social values in a neighborhood it does not own.

Metro’s approval of the Albina Vision Trust prospectus highlights another problematic change that has been made to the CET: Metro now has the authority to approve grants to private organizations instead of only to public entities. Metro should not be picking winners and losers by investing tax funds in ideas which may not be successful at the expense of other potential players.

Concerns regarding the CET do not stop there. Metro’s auditor concluded in a 2016 report that Metro has poorly managed use of CET funds. Administrative costs have increased since 2009, the program is becoming less aligned with regional planning priorities, and its regional impact is unknown. Furthermore, no performance measures were in place when the program was reviewed, and project monitoring was weak. For example, Metro amended funding of a project that was already largely completed and approved two different contracts that likely funded the same project.

Most area residents are unaware of Metro’s CET and its troubling history. This lack of regional oversight has allowed Metro to manipulate the CET to accommodate its wishes without regional approval or knowledge. The CET should have expired in 2009 when it raised the original amount of funding and completed the work it was created to support. If Metro wants to pay for other projects with CET revenue, it should go through the process of winning voter approval to create a new revenue stream.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Portland’s City Council Wants Rent to Go Up

By Micah Perry

The Portland City Council recently passed a new ordinance that will require landlords to register all of their rental units with the city and pay a $60 yearly registration fee per unit.

While regulated affordable housing will be exempt, other types of rentals, like mobile homes, will still be subject to the fee. It is almost certain that landlords will pass on the increased costs to their tenants.

During one council meeting, current landlords noted that the registration fees will siphon money away that could be used for maintenance. They also said that increased housing regulations will discourage potential developers and landlords from wanting to build new rental units in the city. Many landlords are incentivized to sell their units, rather than rent them, because of the increased regulation.

The money raised by the fee will fund the Rental Services Office, a new, needless expansion of Portland’s bureaucracy that will only serve to grow the number of rules placed on housing in the city.

This ordinance adds to the long list of policies that disincentivize the operation and construction of rental units in Portland. If the Portland City Council keeps pursuing policies like these, rents will continue to go up and rental housing will continue to disappear.

Micah Perry is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Oregon Distilleries Deserve Better

By Helen Cook

How much would you be willing to pay in taxes for your local business?

Thirty-three percent of total sales from Oregon distilleries currently goes to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. This means, on average, that the state makes a greater profit from tasting room sales than the distillers making the product. In comparison, beer and wine crafters remit 0% of tasting room sales to the state.

Oregon is a “Liquor Control State.” This means that all liquor is owned by the state, entitling it to a certain percentage of each liquor sale. The revenue that distillers do receive from tasting room sales is actually a commission for selling the state’s liquor.

Distilleries are struggling to stay afloat because of this control system. In fact, Cannon Beach Distillery recently decided to close rather than pay remittance to the state. Others are worried they might have to do likewise.

Granting distillery tasting rooms the same privileges as the beer and wine industries could be what keeps craft distilleries in Oregon from disappearing. Oregon distilleries deserve better.

Helen Cook is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Think TriMet’s New Electric Buses Run on Wind Power? Think Again.

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet unveiled five new battery-electric buses (BEBs) in April 2019, the sides of which all donned images of windmills and sweeping gusts of wind. The BEBs each cost around $1 million, nearly twice as much as a traditional diesel bus. And these buses are just the beginning: The TriMet board voted last year to replace the entire fleet with battery-electric buses for $1.18 billion by 2040, a $500 million premium over a diesel fleet.

TriMet has been hailed an environmental hero for “riding the winds of change.” TriMet Spokesperson Roberta Altstadt claimed that TriMet was the first in the United States to “operate an electric bus on 100% renewable energy.” Without further research, it would be easy to think that TriMet’s new buses ran on clean wind energy. And that is exactly what TriMet is hoping you would think. But you would be wrong.

If the buses don’t run on 100% wind power, how is TriMet able to get away with saying they do?

TriMet spends $228.75 per month on what are known as renewable energy certificates (RECs) from PGE. RECs are a tradable commodity sold by renewable energy facilities (such as wind farms) to the wholesale market, that purport to represent the “environmental amenities” of certain renewable energy projects. By purchasing the RECs, TriMet has bought the legal right to claim it is using renewable energy; however, the agency has not purchased any energy itself.

This would be like my paying someone else to exercise at the gym for me, and then telling my family and friends I go to the gym. The person I pay reaps both financial and physical benefits while I merely get to pretend I have them.

Supporters of RECs claim the certificates offset fossil fuels and pay for the generation of new renewable energy. However, these claims are not entirely accurate. According to Daniel Press, a Professor of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz, “RECs do little to reduce emissions in the real world because they have become too cheap to shift energy markets or incentivize businesses to build new turbines.” The income generated from RECs does not come close to the millions needed to construct more wind turbines, which means that RECs themselves don’t offset fossil fuels.

Despite its claims, it would be impossible for TriMet to run on 100% wind power unless it disconnected from the regional mixed grid and hooked up to its own personal wind farm. Even then, TriMet would be forced to rely on other backup power sources due to the volatility of wind generation.

While a wind turbine may be available to produce energy around 90% of the time, the average wind farm in the United States in 2018 had a capacity factor of only 37.4%. The capacity factor refers to the amount of energy produced in a year as a fraction of the farm’s maximum capacity. Wind farms produce electricity when winds reach about nine miles per hour and stop at roughly 55 mph to prevent equipment damage. If the wind isn’t blowing (or isn’t blowing strongly enough), little to no power can be generated.

This poses problems, as the electrical grid requires constant equilibrium or blackouts will result—power supply must meet energy demand. Every megawatt of wind power has to be backed up by an equal amount of traditional, “non-green” sources like coal and natural gas to account for times when wind energy isn’t generated. This would be like keeping a car constantly running at home in case the one you’re driving on the road fails.

Instead of a wind farm, TriMet receives its electricity from Portland General Electric, the same mixed grid your home is likely powered by. In 2020, this mixed grid will be made up of 37% natural gas, 28% coal, 18% hydro, 15% renewables, and 2% purchased power (power purchased on the wholesale market). Since wind only makes up a portion of renewables used by PGE, less than 15% of the electricity used by the “wind” buses is powered by wind. A greater percentage of the electricity used by TriMet’s BEBs comes from coal plants than wind farms.

If TriMet were honest with its riders, it would replace the windmills on the sides of the new buses with coal, natural gas, and hydroelectric power plants. In the name of accuracy, TriMet could place a windmill in the corner, demonstrating the small percentage of power generated by wind farms.

So instead of riding the “winds of change,” keep in mind that you’re just riding a really expensive bus.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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