I had the pleasure of speaking with Tim DuBois over the phone about his campaign for Portland City Commissioner Position 1, which was Amanda Frtiz’s position on the council for three terms. Tim is a carpenter, husband, and father to two boys. Of the four positions available in city council this election (including the Mayor’s), this may be the least publicized race so far and the best opportunity for someone outside our current political tapestry to win. This is my first interview of this election cycle, and I will post other interviews in the Local Politics category.
We got to talking for quite a while, and I’ve bolded my questions in case you want to scroll to what you’re most interested in. Here’s our conversation:
Addressing homelessness is a major part of your platform. What strategies can the city of Portland use to implement housing first and address other housing concerns?
Housing first in terms of Portland-owned housing—that’s just a matter of passing a bill saying we’re not going to test [for drug use] or have all these barriers. The other elements are more complex. Salt Lake City also went with a central manager, one person who oversees everything. It’s incredibly effective. I think that’s the part that’s probably most central to its effectiveness. However, it kind of runs against the Portland way, which is always “let’s collaborate, let’s have commissions, and let’s have committees for this and that.” That makes things more complicated. The idea is that you get better outcomes, but I don’t think we are getting better outcomes. That’s why if having a whole bunch of organizations trying to make it all work is not working, it’s maybe time to have more of a strict hierarchy on that and just get one person who’s up on top of the chart and in charge, able to make decisions, not have to pass it by four-hundred people. I think we can get quicker results. It would just be smoother.
Would this be an elected official or appointed person?
It would be hired like a city manager. One of the biggest obstacles to solving our homeless crisis is just the political element. That’s why it’s probably best to have that position not be political. It’s someone who’s hired by their ability to show that they can get results. I don’t think that’s always the case when we elect people—that they’ve demonstrated, or in fact can, get results.
As a carpenter, you must be familiar with our permit process. What needs to change in the city system so that the private sector could provide less expensive housing?
Yes! I’m so glad you asked it that way! That’s such a key element. One thing I’ve always been saying is “market rate affordable housing.” I’ve had fellow students say, “isn’t that an oxymoron?” No that is not. It possible; it has happened.
Working with Bureau of Development Services—to start out with, it’s not a good system. They do not have it working in an efficient and smart manner. How that’s reflected is sometimes you think you have a grasp of what will get approved and you go down there, and they’re like “oh no chance.” Often times the people you talk to don’t actually have the answers, and so you keep getting pushed to someone else and someone else. I think that’s partially because the rules are just so incredibly complex. To some degree, all we do is keep adding new regulations on to old ones, and all that does is make it more complicated. As time goes by, there’s never a look back and saying “this is sort of redundant, this is old, let’s get rid of this. Let’s streamline this a little bit.” I think there’s a disconnect between the spirit of the law and requirements and how it’s actually implemented.
One thing that is definitely frustrating is the fact that BDS is still not digitized. They still take blueprints from room to room and have to mark it up on that. This is a well-known problem within city hall. Mayor Wheeler has talked about that. He’s clearly not given it the attention it needs. I think the main problem with it is that anything technology related, we feel like we need to build something from the ground up, and I think that doesn’t need to happen. Milwaukie—they have digital blueprints. Why don’t we just use their software? I’m sure it doesn’t take much to modify that. I mean heck, at home I can take blueprints, put them on my iPad, and mark it up with my pencil. It doesn’t have to be so complicated; we can make this happen. These are concerns with granular problems.
The bigger problems are the permits are expensive. They’re complicated. That only serves to protect existing developers. So if I want to become a developer, figuring out how to work the system is going to be very costly, and it’s just a big barrier to entry. The wealthy developers can afford the two, three years of delay and litigation. Small developers can’t, or small developers that are looking to grow. We get the developers we ask for. Generally speaking, I actually don’t mind our developers. I think they do really good projects, but for someone who complains about them, make it easier for the competition. That’s how you solve that problem.
How would the Masters in Urban and Regional Planning program at Portland State University that you’re about to complete make you a better city councilor?
I’m a little bit of a contrarian planner in that I think we over plan things, and it’s for political reasons. I think that should be very clear. We over plan because we’re trying to accommodate everyone’s selfish interests, and they’re always in conflict. What I’ve learned in planning that I think is incredibly relevant, and I actually think would solve a lot of people’s complaints about how development in this city happens is if you took away all the land-use restrictions that we have, development would actually follow a very predictable pattern. Where jobs are dense, housing is dense. Where jobs are low density, housing is low density. The research is there historically. A lot of European cities are incredibly dense in the city core. The density drops as you get further from the central city. We limit how things can be downtown. Chinatown/Old Town—most of it is not very historic and it’s just neglected, but we don’t allow very dense development there. The central eastside industrial area—industrial doesn’t really belong in the central core. It’s very low density, and as someone who’s worked there, most of the people who work there frankly don’t live in Portland, let alone central eastside. So there’s a lot of commuting necessary for high-value land that has very low job density. We can see at the Burnside Bridge that once you open up a little bit to housing, big buildings get put up. In my planning degree and all the things that I’ve learned, there’s actually order without design. We have very predictable development patterns, but because we can’t build in the central Eastside, the housing that would make sense there that would not really add to our congestion problem — that demand has to go somewhere.
I’ve heard it from planners who work in the office and my neighbor who works at PBOT: they know what is realistic on the ground, what can they get, what can the private sector afford. They are constantly running into conflict with what their commissioner, the person who’s in charge of their department, believes. I already can take that realistic, pragmatic approach to what we can actually get our planners to get the city that we need. That way we don’t have that disconnect, that conflict. I think that could be very valuable.
How should city government structure change and why?
I think we should go to a city management system where our commissioners wouldn’t be commissioners. They would be city councilmen and councilwomen. Let the people who are incredibly experienced in management of city bureaus have that role and let the politicians do the legislative work that needs to happen. I think this serves the other purpose of breaking down the silos. It’s no mystery that different departments have different inter-governmental needs, and when we’re siloed, maybe there’s a conflict between commissioners, that communication breakdown begins, and projects are insufficient and take longer, probably not the best outcome.
I’m fully in support of charter reform, geographic representation, and a city manager. I think that’s definitely the way we should be doing it. It will not solve all our problems. Certainly we still have to have fiscally responsible legislators. It would definitely solve some of the day-to-day work of our government.
You mentioned geographic representation, so if implemented, how would your policy recommendations affect East Portland?
Financially, I think East Portland will still suffer from some of the problems that they currently have. Think of the classic lack of sidewalks that exist in East Portland. Since I moved here 12 years ago, that has always been a discussion during elections. It just seems that there’s no viable strategy that anyone’s ever come up with. Politically speaking, I think my policy ideas will actually empower people who live in East Portland more than [current policies] do.
Right now, we give quite a bit of power to our neighborhood associations, and I know from my time on our neighborhood association here in Sellwood that participation in that system is not even throughout the city. There are some that meet every couple months, some that struggle incredibly to get people to fill [board] seats and to show up to meetings. If we got that geographical representation, I think it would give more power to people east of 82nd.
What effect would ranked choice voting have in Portland?
The open and accountable elections is a really great way to funds to all people like myself who don’t have that donor base. We go through this election cycle once, and if no one gets 50% of the vote, there’s a whole nother round of matching funds that’s going to cost that system. Per commissioner seat, it could be close to $450,000 to $500,000 from the city coffers for a seat if they were to get full matching. That has a cost, but it doesn’t need to exist. We can have ranked choice voting. You have your instant run off. You reduce the election cycle, which is quite insane how long it is.
From an emotional perspective as a voter, you get to vote your heart first, and then you get to vote for strategy. I think that’s a move we’ve been craving in elections. Places where ranked choice voting is—it’s my understanding that it’s quite popular.
Do you think your platform appeals to both conservative and liberal voters?
Oh yes! Absolutely. I am a progressive person. That is the core of my values and beliefs. I’m proud to be a Progressive Party member. I just believe that you tax and regulate things you want less of. For example, we want people to drive less, so we should regulate that more. We want people in houses, so we should tax and regulate that less. I think that’s very much in line with progressive values, but it also lines up with the theoretical belief of conservatives in that tax and regulation is not the answer to everything, and it isn’t. I would also be making the point that we need to be fiscally prudent in this city. I’ve been saying long before this COVID thing that we’re closing parks and pools when we’re in a booming time. What’s going to happen when the downturn comes? We were not fiscally responsible before this, and we’re going to pay a price for it. This is going to be much more painful than it needs to be, and it’s because we were not smart before this. I believe that those who identify as conservative at least on the fiscal side—I have almost no connection who are more socially conservative—if fiscal responsibility is your thing, I’m coming out for that with the goal of getting progressive policy passed. I do make that connection. I hope the voters can see that potential. My final point on that is you can’t fight for progressive values if you’re broke.
I asked Tim about more specifics in previous fiscal irresponsibility, and he pointed out that the city has limited opportunities to collect revue because of policies limiting property taxes and that the city overregulates new development which is “a lot of revenue we’re turning away.” He also gave examples of city programs undercharging for services that end up being primarily used by higher income families.
Do you have ideas about what the city can improve in the police bureau?
We have the lowest per capita amount of cops per resident of all mid to large cities in the country. That creates other problems. For one, there’s a lot of forced overtime. As someone who has been overworked now for some time, you aren’t as rational, you’re frustrated, your temper gets shorter when you’re overworked. Cops should have predictable schedules. Overtime shouldn’t be mandatory; it should be voluntary. We can think of as parents: if you’re trying to shuffle a schedule of childcare, it would be impossible if a police officer gets home at 6:00 am, and the husband or wife starts work at 7:00. If the officer has forced overtime, everything changes, and now someone can’t work. It encourages people to not have dual income if you have kids, and that’s got to be frustrating for some. That might be why people can’t afford to live in the city and the police officers have to live outside where it’s cheaper and you have that disconnect.
What policy would you introduce to increase the quality of air especially for the Parkrose area since we are among the neighborhoods with the worst air quality?
Pollution is an unusual problem in our city. We are currently ranked by the EPA in the worst 1% of the country for airborne diesel particulate matter. California calls diesel particulate the most dangerous airborne carcinogen. However, Portland air pollution is not an inevitable. The problem is a lack of government leadership, which is rather sad because the fix costs less than the hospital bills for neighboring residents. For the most part, we just need to align City and State officials with our population who overwhelming want human health to be included in the regulation of industry. Neighborhood Associations and faith-based organizations working with Portland Clean Air having been notching wins on this. Thermal oxidizers, baghouses, and other smokestack control devices remove 97-99% of emissions. Other wins may be more difficult like ending the practice allowing unfiltered industrial diesel trucks. Diesel particulate filters remove 90% of emissions. We can regulate diesel emissions in a way that puts health first, without compromising economic opportunity. By 2015 California had virtually no unfiltered diesel trucks left in their state. Long-term the goal should include getting Union Pacific’s Albina and Brooklyn rail yard out of the city to a place that makes more sense for the freight industry. Bottom line is that we can solve this problem. We just need someone in City Hall that is going to be working on this. I’m that someone.
You can read more about Tim DuBois and his campaign for Portland City Council (Commissioner Position 1) at his website.