Welcome to Slumburbia, Oregon

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New York Times columnist Tim Egan has written a piece that should be read – no, memorized – by every city councilor and other public official in Bend.

Egan looks at Northern California’s San Joaquin Valley – a region he calls “Slumburbia” – and paints an ugly picture of the economic and human debris left behind by the receding tide of the real estate boom. Except for the part about gang graffiti, which we haven’t seen much of here yet, it could easily be a description of Bend, Oregon:

“Dirty flags advertise rock-bottom discounts on empty starter mansions. On the ground, foreclosure signs are tagged with gang graffiti. Empty lots are untended, cratered with mud puddles from the winter storms …

“Take a pulse: How can a community possibly be healthy when one in eight houses are in some stage of foreclosure? How can a town attract new people when the crime rate has spiked well above the national average? How can a family dream, or even save, when unemployment hovers around 16 percent?”

Why did local officials in the San Joaquin Valley allow the insane over-building that led to the collapse happen? For much the same reason that their counterparts here did: It seemed like an easy way to increase revenue without raising taxes.

The cities of the valley “encouraged the boom, spurred by the state’s broken tax system. Hemmed in by property tax limitations, cities were compelled to increase revenue by the easiest route: expanding urban boundaries. They let developers plow up walnut groves and vineyards and places that were supposed to be strawberry fields forever to pay for services demanded by new school parents and park users.”

Adopting that strategy, though, quickly puts cities on an ever-accelerating treadmill: The new development they bring in to raise revenue generates demand for more city services and facilities, which requires more revenue, which compels them to encourage still more development.

Egan notes that cities that resisted the temptation to sprawl their way to prosperity – places like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland – didn’t get hammered nearly as hard when the real estate bubble burst.

“All of these cities have fairly strict development codes, trying to hem in their excess sprawl. Developers, many of them, hate these restrictions. They said the coastal cities would eventually price the middle class out, and start to empty.

“It hasn’t happened. Just the opposite. The developers’ favorite role models, the laissez faire free-for-alls — Las Vegas, the Phoenix metro area, South Florida, this valley — are the most troubled, the suburban slums.

“Come see: this is what happens when money and market, alone, guide the way we live.”

The people who run Bend have seen – but, as they fight to ram through a huge expansion of the city’s Urban Growth Boundary, hoping the same failed grow-grow-grow strategy that got us into the current mess will get us out of it, it’s obvious they haven’t learned a damn thing.


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