Category: Land Use

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Public Debt for Public Housing

By Vlad Yurlov

In the 2018 general election, voters approved a bond measure that enabled Metro to borrow about $652 million for low-income public housing in the tri-county area. This money will be given out to localities within Metro. With the minimum of 3,900 housing units to be built, the price-tag would be more than $165,000 per unit.

When pressed for completion times for this project, a high-level Metro staffer stated new units can be expected to be used in eight to ten years. This schedule should not surprise anyone who has dealt with government bureaucracies, but a decade is a long time to wait for a crisis we’re having today.

For comparison, more than 6,700 housing units were constructed per year between 2010 and 2018 in the tri-county area, based on the U.S. Census Annual Housing Estimates. This means that even a target of 3,900 units would be roughly 60% of just one year’s worth of private construction. In addition, if Metro does build homes, private companies have less incentive to build, thereby compounding the current crisis.

A good government delivers public services on time and on budget. Right now, Metro is taking the bucks, without making much of a bang.

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

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Metro Wants More Money—For Parks You May Never See

By Helen Cook

How much would you be willing to spend to buy parkland that would ban your dog?

Metro hopes Portland area taxpayers will spend $475 million to buy land kept from public use for many years. That’s the purpose of a Metro bond measure on the ballot in November.

Much of the new tax money would go to acquiring natural areas that will be unusable by the public for an unspecified amount of time. If this feels like déjà vu, that’s because Metro passed a similar bond measure in 2006.

Rather than let the previous tax increases sunset, Metro wants more money, ostensibly to create parks for historically underserved communities. But much of the land Metro plans to buy is located far from the communities it’s intended to serve.

Metro also claims the new bond measure won’t increase taxes. This is not true. If the bond measure fails, property owners’ tax bills will go down. A “yes” vote is a vote for higher taxes. A “no” vote will save the average homeowner about $48 a year.

Metro’s new bond is neither the beginning nor the end of a cycle of buying remote natural areas that won’t allow recreational uses. Make sure to look for this measure on your ballot in November and vote no.

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

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Read My Lips: Metro’s Promises Are Doubtful at Best

By Miranda Bonifield

There’s nothing so permanent as a temporary government program, and nothing is quite as immortal as a temporary tax. Metro promised in 2006 that its parks bond would leave no need for new taxes until 2016. Instead, the money was sent to a general fund and additional taxpayer support was requested in both 2013 and 2016.

Now Metro is planning a new 400-million-dollar bond measure to support expansion of its parks and nature programs. The organization argues that tax rates wouldn’t be raised and that the funds would combat the challenges posed by population growth, climate change, and racial inequity.

What isn’t said is that your property taxes would go down without approval of the new 20-year bond measure. Metro can and probably will want to issue additional bonds and levies in future years, including a potential transportation bond in 2020—meaning that taxes would rise in the long term.

Metro’s auditor found in 2015 that Metro’s land acquisition often lacks clear connection to its long-term goals. This means that not only is Metro stretching for more money, it’s not even entirely sure what it accomplishes by spending it.

Read my lips: Metro’s version of no new taxes is doubtful at best.

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

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Oregon Taxpayers Can’t Celebrate $146 Million Debt Service on the Elliott State Forest

By John A. Charles, Jr.

This week our State Treasurer, Tobias Read, issued a press release bragging that investors around the country “stood in line” to loan Oregon $100 million so that Governor Kate Brown could buy part of the Elliott State Forest, which we already own.

According to Treasurer Read, “There was three times more demand than supply” of the bonds, which will be repaid to investors over 20 years at an interest rate of 3.83 percent.

While this may have been a great day for investors, Oregon taxpayers have no reason to celebrate. They will be paying roughly $146 million in debt service on the loan, while getting little in return.

The Elliott is an 82,500-acre forest in Coos and Douglas Counties. It is an asset of the Common School Fund, which means it must be managed for the financial benefit of K-12 public schools. It was once a thriving commercial forest, generating millions of dollars each year for schools. In 1994, it had an estimated market value of $850 million.

Timber harvesting started to decline in the late 1980s due to environmental litigation. By 2014, timber production was so minimal that the Elliott actually started losing money. This immediately caught the attention of the State Land Board, which owns it. Land Board members in 2015—Governor John Kitzhaber, Secretary of State Kate Brown, and Treasurer Ted Wheeler—feared they would be sued for breach of fiduciary trust if they continued to hold onto a money-losing asset.

Seeing no other options, the Board unanimously voted in August of that year to sell the forest and place the proceeds in the Common School Fund, where they could be profitably invested in stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments.

The Board set the market value of the forest at $220.8 million. After a lengthy outreach process, the Board received a bid for that amount in 2016 from a consortium of buyers led by Lone Rock Timber Co.

However, by the time the bid was evaluated in December, the composition of the Land Board had changed. Kate Brown had become Governor, Tobias Read was Treasurer, and Dennis Richardson was the new Secretary of State. At the first meeting of the board in February 2017, both Read and Richardson stated that they had a fiduciary duty to sell the forest so that $220.8 million could be invested in better-performing assets. Gov. Brown reversed her 2015 vote and urged the Board to reject the offer. The final vote was 2-1 in favor of selling the forest.

This infuriated Oregon’s environmental lobby, even though it was their own lawsuits that had turned the Elliott into a liability. After the vote, pressure mounted on Treasurer Read to change his mind.

Two months later, Read reversed himself. He and Gov. Brown decided that instead of selling the forest for $220.8 million, they would retain it and ask the legislature for permission to borrow $100 million to buy part of the Elliott so that it would no longer be required to make money. The $100 million would be placed in the Common School Fund to make up for the lost timber harvest receipts.

Unfortunately, the $100 million loan will require debt service payments of roughly $200 million, and all of it will have to be paid by Oregon taxpayers. Therefore, the benefits to schools of adding $100 million to the Common School Fund will be diluted or possibly exceeded by debt service.

Moreover, the Land Board had no clear idea of which part of the Elliott will be free of the obligation to produce revenue for schools. The $100 million certainly will not “buy” the entire forest; an unknown portion will still have to be managed for profit, if that’s even possible.

Ordinarily, one could expect the State Treasurer to be the adult in the room regarding a cash offer of $220.8 million and the Board’s fiduciary duty to schools, but this is Oregon. It’s so much easier to just borrow money and talk about something else. Tobias Read is giddy that several of the bond buyers were from “socially responsible investment funds.”

Perhaps if he talks long enough about green investing, taxpayers will forget about the $200 million they owe on the loan.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Rent Control Is a Steal

By Miranda Bonifield

Remember that emotional final episode of the now-classic sitcom Friends? As the group reminisces about the New York apartment that served as the stage for most of the show, Chandler tells his newborn child, “This was your first home…and thanks to rent control, it was a steal.”

His comment was more apt than the screenwriters probably realized. Rent control is a steal. It steals incentive from landlords who are interested in providing housing but can’t make ends meet when they’re no longer in charge of their rates. And especially in combination with aggressive anti-sprawl policies cities like Portland are so fond of, it steals housing opportunities from individuals who need them most.

Rather than solving housing problems, studies have found that in the long run, rent control policies increase housing costs and fuel gentrification. In San Francisco, researchers found that landlords frequently turned their apartment buildings into condominiums and invested in higher-value properties—making it even more expensive to live in the city. And unfortunately, landlords are less interested in maintaining rent-controlled apartments, which does nothing for the tenants’ quality of living.

If people are struggling to find housing, the solution isn’t to limit supply and destroy affordability. That just makes things harder. Instead, state leaders should reduce regulations that constrict housing supply, allowing developers to provide the homes Oregonians need so desperately

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

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Press Release: Report shows Oregon’s “smart growth” policies make housing less affordable for Oregonians

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
John A. Charles, Jr.
503-242-0900
john@cascadepolicy.org

PORTLAND, Ore. – Cascade Policy Institute has released a new report examining the links between anti-sprawl, “smart growth” regulations and increasing housing costs in Oregon. The report measures the extent of supply restrictions in Oregon and their impact on housing prices. It concludes that “smart growth” policies contribute substantially to the decrease in affordable housing and single-family housing options in Oregon.

The report, The Housing Affordability Crisis: The Role of Anti-Sprawl Policy, was written by Randall Pozdena, Ph.D. Pozdena is president of QuantEcon, Inc., an Oregon-based economics consultancy.

Over the last fifty years, many states have adopted “smart growth” or “anti-sprawl” policies. Enough time has elapsed for the effects of these policies to be studied. The evidence shows that many urban areas now have housing prices that make either home ownership or rental increasingly unaffordable.

In the face of resulting “affordable housing crises,” cities and states are currently considering additional regulations and subsidy policies to attempt to provide residents with more affordable housing options. There is virtually no public policy discussion of whether regulatory interventions precipitated the housing crisis in the first place, let alone consideration of abandoning these damaging policies.

In The Housing Affordability Crisis, Pozdena examines the links between anti-sprawl regulations and the spectacular increases in housing costs and the virtual disappearance of affordable housing in many markets. Specifically, he measures the extent of site supply restrictions and its impact on housing prices using an economic model of housing markets, data on the economic conditions in housing markets, and trends in development revealed in satellite inventories of U.S. land uses. At the national level, using state and Metropolitan Statistical Area data, Pozdena concludes:

  1. Twenty-three of the 50 states studied fail to provide housing units at a volume adequate to keep housing prices and incomes growing at a rate consistent with affordability. On average, these states under-provided housing units by 6.4 percent of their current stock of housing units.
  1. Those states that fail the affordability and supply adequacy test are overwhelmingly those with documented adoption of one or more aggressive anti-sprawl growth regulatory initiatives.
  1. Annual housing price inflation exceeded annual income growth by 14 percent each year during the study period in those states that failed to provide housing in sufficient quantity to keep it affordable. Extrapolating the findings to the nation, the housing stock is smaller by as much as 4.5 million housing units than it should have been to preserve affordability.

Cascade Policy Institute President and CEO John A. Charles, Jr. said, “Oregon land-use planners have long pretended that Urban Growth Boundaries and other site restrictions have no real effect on housing supply. Dr. Pozdena’s analysis clearly shows that this is wrong. We cannot solve the housing crisis by simply ‘throwing money’ at public housing projects; growth controls need to be reduced or repealed if we want to make the American Dream affordable.”

The full report, The Housing Affordability Crisis: The Role of Anti-Sprawl Policy, can be downloaded here.

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s free-market public policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.

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Can National Parks’ Operations Be Funded with User Fees? National Park Service Says Yes!

By Rachel Dawson

Whether or not you have ever visited a national park, you have contributed to their budgets by paying a federal income tax. These funds help to pay for operational services like removing trash, operating camp grounds, and maintaining roads.

If you want to enjoy a national park in person, you’ll (usually) also pay an entrance fee. Under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, park fees are designated for “repair, maintenance, and facility enhancement related directly to visitor enjoyment, visitor access…” and other visitor services. Under this law, entrance fees do not fund the previously mentioned park operations.

However, the current federal government shutdown changed this. During the shutdown, some of the nation’s most popular parks have used entrance fees to fund necessary operational expenses, due to fear that keeping the parks open during the shutdown would become unsustainable.

This change demonstrates the benefits of giving local park managers more flexibility with the use of visitor fees. Allowing individual parks to have greater control over the use of fees could reduce the parks’ reliance on Congressional (taxpayer) funding allocations, give local staffs more incentive to manage their parks efficiently, and provide a better experience to visitors. That would be an improvement both for the National Parks and for the taxpayers whose money provides for them.

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

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The Housing Affordability Crisis: The Role of Anti-Sprawl Policy

By Randall Pozdena, Ph.D.

Executive Summary

So-called smart growth policies are advocated as a means of avoiding sprawl.  These policies have at their heart a policy of reducing the availability of land for housing in urban areas. In Oregon and some other states, anti-sprawl policy is implemented by regulations that impose urban growth boundaries (UGBs).  Other regulations impose minimum density policies and others reduce spending on highways and increase spending on transit service—especially light rail—as an alternative.  Advocates of anti-sprawl policies argue that such regulations would allow urban growth to proceed at a lower overall cost.

Many states adopted smart growth policies in the last five decades—enough time for the policies to have demonstrated their purported advantages.  The evidence, at least on the housing front, is that the cost-containment claims have not materialized.  Instead, many urban areas are finding themselves with home prices that make ownership and rental of housing increasingly unaffordable.  Cities and states are thus using or considering additional regulations and subsidy policies to provide their residents with more affordable housing.  There is virtually no discussion of whether anti-sprawl regulatory interventions precipitated the housing crisis, let alone consideration of abandoning the policy.

The purpose of this study is to examine the links between anti-sprawl regulations and the spectacular increases in housing costs and the virtual disappearance of affordable housing in many markets.  Specifically, we measure the extent of site supply restrictions and its impact on housing prices using an economic model of housing markets, data on the economic conditions in housing markets, and trends in development revealed in satellite inventories of US land uses.

We apply the analysis to data from all 50 states and identify those states whose development policies reflect constrained site supply and those that do not.  Because Oregon has among the longest-standing and most aggressive implementations of smart growth land use policy, we pay particular attention to the state, and drill down with analyses at the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) level in Oregon to demonstrate that the state-level findings are corroborated for all of its MSAs.

The primary metrics examined in this study are the rate of housing price appreciation, the degree of rigidity (“inelasticity”) of the supply of new homesites, and the degree to which the housing stock has failed to increase enough to affordably provide additional housing services.  Since we note that the adverse trends in house price inflation and slowing of site supply took greatest effect the last 30 years or so, we scrutinize market behavior subsequent to this period.  Because of the onset of the Great Recession in 2007, however, we estimate our models on this period.  This is because we do not wish to conflate the effects of anti-sprawl policy with the collapse of mortgage markets and home construction that persisted for the next half decade.

After establishing the linkage between constrained site supply and housing prices and affordability, we turn to the evaluation of the various policies that are in place or proposed to redress these problems.  This analysis is performed for the state of Oregon only.  The State’s wide-ranging and aggressive policies and proposals make it broadly representative of the nature, cost, and effectiveness of these policies—both those in place and those recently proposed.  With theory as a guide, and our acquired knowledge of the reactivity of the housing market to various stimuli, we can then opine on the likely effectiveness of these policies.  We also offer our own suggestions.

At the national level, using state and MSA data, we find the following:

  1. Twenty-three of the 50 states studied fail to provide housing units at a volume adequate to keep housing prices and incomes growing at a rate consistent with affordability. On average, these states under-provided housing units by 6.4 percent of their current stock of housing units.
  2. We demonstrate that those states that fail the affordability and supply adequacy test are overwhelmingly those with documented adoption of one or more aggressive anti-sprawl growth regulatory initiatives.
  3. Annual housing price inflation exceeded annual income growth by 14 percent each year during the study period in those states that failed to provide housing in sufficient quantity to keep it affordable. Extrapolating the findings to the nation, the housing stock is smaller by as much as 4.5 million housing units (in 2015 likely) than it should have been to preserve affordability.

Because Oregon has aggressively pursued anti-sprawl policy, it was given special attention in the study.  We found the following:

  1. All eight of Oregon’s MSA housing markets failed the test of affordability and adequacy of supply over the various study periods for which data was available. The estimated total shortfall in supply equals approximately 18 percent of the existing stock—virtually identical to that found for Oregon using state-level data.
  2. We analyzed the current and proposed housing policies of the state of Oregon. At present, proposals include approximately $2.3 billion by the State and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to assist housing access and over $600 million in new affordability-related programs. This study finds that there is little hope that these policies can redress the scale and extent of Oregon’s affordable housing problems and, in some cases, may worsen them by burdening developers of housing with new regulations.

In summary, this study finds anti-sprawl policy to have been implemented in a manner that has pernicious effects on housing affordability.  Specifically, regulatory constraints on site supply have caused an on-going crisis of housing supply and affordability.  In many markets, the development of land for housing is regulated too aggressively.  Additionally, existing and new programs for addressing housing affordability rely on other regulation and spending programs that will not have the designed effect of providing affordable housing.  This study strongly recommends, instead, relaxation of regulations that limit the land area available for housing development.  Any residual concerns about sprawl should be addressed by reforming current highway and transit pricing and finance practices, which are known to be economically inefficient.

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Better Forest Management Can Prevent Oregon WIldfires

By Justus Armstrong

Wildfires in Oregon this summer have burned thousands of acres, resulting in hazardous air quality conditions and the evacuation of hundreds. As our firefighters face these fires, it’s important to examine the policies and practices that may contribute to increased wildfire risks.

Environmental advocates point to carbon-induced climate change as a factor in intensified droughts and longer fire seasons, but dealing with climate change as a means of dealing with wildfires puts the cart before the horse. Wildfires are a cause of carbon emissions more than a consequence, since burning forests release higher amounts of stored carbon. Before addressing the impacts of carbon on our forests, we must address the impacts of poor forest management.

Proposed strategies for preventing wildfires have included clearing overcrowded forests with commercial logging, or focusing the Forest Service budget on prevention today to save money on firefighting tomorrow. These solutions are a start, but the root of the problem exists at the top. The U.S. Forest Service simply doesn’t have the same incentive to take care of Oregon forests as those most affected by wildfires. In addition to reevaluating regulations that hinder controlled burning and forest clearing, Oregon officials can advocate for the decentralization of federal forest management to state, local, or private levels. Rethinking forest management is one step towards preventing future wildfires.

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

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23 Million Reasons for Metro to Repeal Its Construction Excise Tax

By Jakob Puckett

How much do we have to tax something to make it affordable? You might think that’s counterintuitive, and you’d be right. But that’s exactly what the Portland-area Metro Council is doing with affordable housing through their Construction Excise Tax. So what is this tax? For every construction project valued at over $100,000, Metro taxes 0.12% of its value, with most of the revenue directed to fund grants to plan for affordable housing.

That number may not sound like much, but the Portland City Council also has a Construction Excise Tax, only it’s eight times higher than Metro’s, also for housing land-use planning. So two councils levy the same tax on the same people for the same purpose.

And the money raised rarely goes to constructing housing units. Metro recently approved 10 new grants; and while all of them fund more land-use planning exercises, none of them actually build new housing. This extra paperwork often leads to construction delays, creating an expensive, redundant mess for land developers.

And just how expensive has it been? Metro has renewed this tax twice, raising over $23 million for these projects, which has just made housing construction $23 million more expensive. And, in a city where every dollar put towards new housing counts, that’s 23 million reasons why Metro should repeal its Construction Excise Tax.

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

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