Confessions of a Ninja Lobbyist

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Photography by Ashley Avila

By Jon Chandler

This is my first post in what will be a regular feature for the Best in American Living blog, where we’ll be discussing all sorts of delightful land development and housing issues. Since this is our first date, so to speak, it seems like it would only be polite to introduce myself to before starting to opine with various and sundry deep thoughts.

I am a recovering attorney, recently retired as CEO and chief lobbyist for the Oregon Home Builders Association, a position I held for almost 14 years. Prior to that, I was the Government Affairs director for the OHBA, and before that, I was the main lobbyist and General Counsel for the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland. All told, including a few years as a contract lobbyist with the OHBA as a client, I spent 28 years representing builders and developers in what we affectionately refer to as the People’s Republic of Oregon, working on industry specific issues ranging from statewide land use planning (Urban Growth Boundaries, anyone?) to tax policy to impact fees to environmental regulations to Career and Technical Education. Over that time, I’ve legislated and litigated, won some fights and got rolled on others, argued and worked with elected officials from governors to mayors, danced with the devil when that made sense and fought like banshees when it didn’t.

But since Oregon is more or less a national petri dish for all kinds of land use and development ideas – some loopy, some pretty good, some just plain baffling – I’ve been in the middle of what has truly been a fascinating discussion for nearly three decades.

We got a bunch of stuff right or at least rightish: Oregon was the first state to implement comprehensive statewide land use planning that expressly emphasizes housing and development (on paper, anyway), including a state agency to monitor local land use plans and a special state tribunal to hear land use disputes; one of the first if not the first state to adopt a statutory framework for local impact fees; we’ve had a legislative prohibition of rent control on the books since the mid-80s and on inclusionary zoning since the early 90s; we have a mandatory statewide building code and statewide contractor licensing and regulation.

But we also have had our share of swings and misses: we have one of the worst housing crises in the country for both home ownership and renting – the Portland metro area is routinely towards the top of the least affordable list on NAHB’s Housing Opportunity Index – and a homelessness tragedy to go along with it. We have a growing disconnect between the urban centers of Oregon and the rural parts of the state. Over the last several decades, Oregon’s politics have decayed from a tradition of collaborative problem solving to the traditions of a barroom brawl. We haven’t figured out how to have neighborhood planning that doesn’t turn into NIMBYism; we don’t know how to fix up lousy neighborhoods without displacing the people living there; we’d like our roads and schools and water systems fixed but would just as soon not pay for that to happen.

In other words, UBGs notwithstanding, we’re in about the same mess as everyplace else in the country.

Don’t get me wrong – this won’t be a blog about Oregon, by any means…but that’s the context within which I formed the opinions and thoughts I’ll be sharing each month. As this blog goes forward, we’ll be talking about a broad range of subjects, for example:

  • Housing supply and demand
  • Local control vs state or regional oversight
  • Exclusionary vs Inclusionary policies
  • Neighborhood character
  • Urban Growth Boundaries

And I suspect we’ll work in a few other dandy topics such as transportation, taxes, impact fees and maybe even peek over the fence to look at workforce and broader economic issues.

Like all blogs, this will start as a monologue, but our hope is that it will serve as a catalyst for a robust discussion. We also hope that you’ll suggest topics for future conversations – there are a myriad of public policies that affect your ability to provide housing and we’d love to hear what’s on your mind.

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