Hotseat: Kim-Mai Cutler

A San Francisco reporter talks about the rental dystopia Portland hopes to avoid.

The cost of renting an apartment looks like an Uber price surge. Longtime residents are being pushed out. And the shortage of affordable housing is political kryptonite.

But enough about San Francisco. Kim-Mai Cutler is taking a break from all that to visit Portland.

The 30-year-old reporter for website TechCrunch last year wrote a definitive study of the Bay Area's housing crisis—a sprawling explainer titled, "How Burrowing Owls Lead to Vomiting Anarchists." Cutler will speak Friday at a panel hosted by regional planning agency Metro on averting a housing crisis. (This reporter will moderate the discussion.)

She arrives in Portland to a familiar scene.

Average apartment rents here have jumped 7.7 percent this year to $1,110 per month, according to real-estate brokerage Marcus & Millichap. The Community Alliance of Tenants has declared no-fault evictions a citywide "emergency." Mayor Charlie Hales and Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler are lobbing possible fixes back and forth as they prepare for a 2016 mayoral race.

Before flying north, Cutler talked with WW about the cautionary tales Portland can learn from San Francisco—where the average apartment rent is nearing $3,040 a month.

WW: What was the worst mistake San Francisco made that led to its housing crisis?

Kim-Mai Cutler: I don't think there's any one thing. But the priority of slow growth that permeates Northern California in general is pretty counterproductive at this point.

It seems so counterproductive to oppose market-rate housing when you want affordable housing. But it comes up over and over again.

Land is being sold at an extremely high price, and so the amount that you can extract for affordable housing is really unpredictable. And when these lower-income groups oppose [new] housing, it's really because they want to get the percentage higher on a project-by-project basis, in the absence of a higher across-the-board rule.

Are they right?

I don't know. In the United States, you can't see, visually, what every developer is making or spending per line item. It's this weird game in the dark where the lower-income communities don't believe anyone, and they don't trust that the numbers are high enough. And on the developer side, they have no idea where the economic cycle is going to be in two or three years when the project finally gets finished—and whether they're actually going to make money off of the deal. So it's this weird, terrible form of head-butting that is completely inefficient.

What are the results of that?

It really depends on who you talk to. I personally think, across the board, it makes everything go slower and makes it more unpredictable and fractious. But if you do talk to progressive [city] supervisors, they'll say, "Because we're giving developers resistance, we're getting higher-percent commitments now, well above citywide law." So they'll say it's a good thing. At the end of the day, we have about 20,000 people moving to San Francisco per year, and when you produce 5,000 units per year, it's a really tough structural problem.

San Francisco has rent control. Should Portland implement rent control as soon as possible?

Well, 45 percent of the units in San Francisco are covered by rent control. If you have a policy goal of preventing displacement of existing residents, it is a tool that does do that. Only 9 percent of the housing units in San Francisco are market-rate. It builds a really, really strong financial incentive for landlords to evict tenants, because they know if they can get them out, they can bring the rent back up to market, whatever the market rate is. That creates this incredibly shitty situation, because the tenants that are most vulnerable to being evicted—because it's more profitable to evict them—are the longest-standing tenants who are usually old, because, you know, you're the farthest behind whatever the prevailing market rate is. And over time, as people cycle in and out of our rent-controlled stock, they're generally getting wealthier, because no middle- or lower-income people can basically afford to show up in San Francisco anymore.

In Portland, probably the most loathed things in the city are new apartment construction and outsiders—particularly Californians. Who do the Californians hate?

There's a lot of apprehension, people are in love with San Francisco the way it was when they arrived on the first day. And, particularly with older, bohemian San Francisco. The '50s through the '80s were an anomalously cheap period in American urban history because the federal government subsidized the flight of wealthier families out of cities, and there were a lot of special things that happened in that time. Artistic movements, musical movements, political protests. Those conditions don't exist anymore.

Is there any way to keep the character of a place while at the same time not pricing everyone out of it?

I don’t know what “character” means. Does it matter that all the buildings look the same, but now they’re filled with super-ultra-rich people? What precisely are we trying to protect? Is there a specific socioeconomic diversity that we want to protect? Is it a certain architectural look and feel that we want to protect? I think we need to be very specific when we talk about character, because character can be, frankly, quite exclusionary. We protect buildings over people. 

GO: Kim-Mai Cutler speaks on "Averting a Housing Crisis: Is Portland the Next San Francisco?" at Metro Council Chambers, 600 NE Grand Ave. 8 am Friday, Sept. 18. Free.