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Candidates have first public face-off

The campaigns for mayor and Portland City Council kicked into high gear last week with the first public forum featuring the major candidates and candidates complaining about not being invited — a sure sign the stakes are getting higher.

The forum also confirmed the No. 1 issue in this year’s election is skyrocketing housing costs.

The mayor’s seat is wide open and commissioners Amanda Fritz and Steve Novick are up for re-election. So far, the races have drawn 18 candidates, though Fritz currently is running unopposed. Many of the candidates have been working behind the scenes for months, quietly building campaign organizations, meeting with supporters, raising funds, and making appearances before special-interest groups that have not been publicized.

The two major candidates for mayor — State Treasurer Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County Commissioner Jules Bailey — also have begun sending out email news releases about their platforms.

But last Tuesday was the first time the major candidates appeared before a large crowd at a public forum. It was hosted by the Regional Arts and Culture Council, a city-county agency that helps fund arts organizations and services. It was attended by Wheeler and Bailey; Novick and his major challenger; Stuart Emmons; and Fritz.

Two candidates questioned why they weren’t invited. One is realtor Fred Stewart, an African-American running against Novick. The other is mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone, who announced after the lineup was set.

Although the forum was intended to focus on arts and culture issues, all of the candidates repeatedly said that the rising cost of housing is the biggest problem facing artists who are not established enough to afford them — which is the vast majority of younger and even older artists. Wheeler recounted meeting a young woman artist with a part-time bartending job who is worried about the rent increasing at the apartment she is sharing with other people. Bailey and the other candidates all agreed that rent increases already are forcing artists to leave town — and that artists also are losing affordable studio spaces in commercial buildings that are being converted to expensive offices.

Housing affordability is likely to dominate the council campaigns even more in coming weeks. Three of the next candidate forums are specifically about housing and related issues. The first is a forum on homelessness hosted by the Union Gospel Mission on Feb. 12. The next is a forum on affordable housing hosted by the Native American Youth and Family Center on Feb. 26. The third is a Feb. 25 forum on residential demolition and infill projects hosted by Restore Oregon, a historic preservation organization.

Affordable housing approaches

Many of the ideas the candidates discussed for addressing the affordable housing crisis were not new, but it was the first time they presented them before a large crowd. About 500 people turned out for the forum at the Gerding Theater at The Armory in the Pearl District, and they applauded every proposal.

Among other things, Wheeler said the city should reduce cost increases it creates on affordable housing and other projects. He said the design review, permitting and inspection processes take too long and cost too much money, and suggested waiving at least some city development charges for affordable housing projects.

“The system needs to be reformed,” said Wheeler, saying the review process cost a developer he knows an additional $150,000 for two homes on the same lot.

Bailey said the city needs to fast-track lower-cost, market-rate housing, too, so that people can more easily move from renting to owning their homes.

“What we need is a strategy that looks at a spectrum of affordable housing,” Bailey said.

Novick proposed increasing the number of lower-cost multifamily housing in neighborhoods, including duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and small apartment buildings with courtyards.

“If you can create more affordable housing in neighborhoods, you reduce the pressure to increase costs elsewhere,” Novick said.

Emmons also advocated creating more small homes in the city, a housing style he is pursuing at his firm, Emmons Architecture.

“We need to lower per-door costs, not just through funding but by thinking smarter,” Emmons said.

Fritz said she supported Mayor Charlie Hales’ promise to dedicate $20 million in city funds to homeless shelters, transitional programs and affordable housing next fiscal year, even though it could mean less money for the arts.

“We have to take care of people living on the streets,” Fritz said.

Despite the serious nature of the discussion, there were some moments of levity.

Wheeler drew laughs when he talked about his failed effort to learn how to play the trumpet as a child.

“It took seven years before someone had the courage to tell me, people without lips shouldn’t play the trumpet,” he said.

Fritz cemented her reputation as the council’s hardest-working member by saying she’s reading the Comprehensive Plan update for entertainment.

And Novick won applause when he said the housing crisis was a symptom of growing inequality in the country and urged the crowd to vote for Bernie Sanders for president.

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