Podcast: In the Shed with housing researcher Michael Andersen

    Michael and I outside the Shed.

    The one and only Michael Andersen rolled over to The Shed on Friday and I’m excited to share our 50-minute conversation with you.

    If things would have gone differently, Michael and I might have been working together here in my backyard. Seven years ago, Michael was BikePortland’s news editor, a position he held from 2013 to 2016. I’m typically pretty humble about what happens around here, but I have no problem saying that Michael and I were kicking ass. We had such a great complement of skills when it came to this weird type of community transportation journalism that we do. It just clicked. I loved working with him and — from the Real Estate Beat column, to his detailed coverage of “low-car life” (a phrase he popularized) and national cycling trends (he was working half-time for national nonprofit People for Bikes) — I loved what we produced together.

    Why’d he leave BikePortland? He shared something during our chat Friday about that for the first time. “Because I couldn’t have two children simultaneously,” Michael said. “BikePortland was so all-encompassing that I felt like I couldn’t have done them both of them justice. So, I had to choose my son. Sorry about that.”

    I still don’t forgive him, but I’ve learned to move on. Just kidding! And it feels great to know that Michael went on to much bigger things as a major part of Sightline, a well-respected think tank with nearly two dozen staff that research, develop policy, and write articles about stuff like housing, climate change, environmental economics, democracy, transportation, and so on.

    All this is to say it was really nice to have Michael over for a chat. We of course talked a lot about housing, the politics of density (although he doesn’t use that word and prefers “proximity”), biking, Portland politics, and much more. Here are a few highlights.

    On the co-housing development he lives in today in the Cully neighborhood:

    “I think it’s a perfect example of the sort of thing that low-car life makes possible because the whole development wouldn’t have penciled if there had been demand for more than 20 parking spaces for those 23 homes. But as it is, the developer couldn’t actually sell three of the parking spaces because not enough people wanted to buy them.”

    On his work at Sightline:

    “… We are not trying to get everybody to live closer to each other. What we want as a society, is to let everybody who wants to live closer to each other — and in so doing, cut their energy use in half — should get to do so. We desperately need that to happen, because otherwise our electric bills are going to keep going up, and the world is going to keep being destroyed by pollution and everything else. And it’s not that everybody is ever going to want to live closer to each other. But, to the extent that it is possible to get people to do so, then we should let people do so.

    And we have so many rules and laws that make it either illegal or overly expensive to make that choice to live closer to each other. And so my job at Sightline is to try and call attention to that fact and say, ‘This is a really stupid set of rules that are forcing people to live further from each other, to be disconnected from each other socially, to use more energy, use more money than they really need to, or than they really want to.

    A lot of environmentalism is getting people to do things they don’t want to do. Whereas, I feel like with bike advocacy and housing advocacy, a lot of it is actually letting people live the way they want to. And so that’s really joyful.”

    On the state of the pro-housing movement:

    “I think the housing movement is at one of those peaks right now. There’s a lot of attention. There’s more funding than there has been. There’s more narrative energy. And I think there are electeds like Tina Kotek, the [Oregon] governor right now, and even the Portland City Council, who are not a boat rocking crew for the most part, but do have this consensus that something needs to be changed on housing, even if they don’t really know what it is. So right now the challenge is to capitalize on that energy and get as much done while we can.

    I’m on the older side of this housing scene, and, and I feel like I need to tell the young people, ‘This is not going to last. We don’t have forever. We need to get stuff done while we can.’”

    And asked to bring folks up to speed on where the housing issue is in Portland today, Michael went back 100 years. He shared how racism and classism spurred zoning laws in 1924 that largely created the urban form we have today.

    Then, during an exchange about Portland’s cycling rise and fall, Michael noted a poster of the Sprockettes I have on my wall (the Sprockettes were an all-female mini-bike dance team that ruled Portland streets for 15 years between 2004 and 2019) and we came up with the “Sprockettes Test” as a measure of proximity and good urban planning. That is to say, those little bikes weren’t comfortable to ride long distances, so maybe it was Portland’s relatively compact urban form that allowed the Sprockettes to flourish and get around to gigs easily.

    Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Michael what he wants BikePortlanders to understand about the housing issue:

    “I think most bike people have an intuitive sense of the fact that transportation and housing are really closely associated and you can’t do one without also thinking about the other.

    I think the key idea that I’m trying to communicate lately is that we cannot change the status-quo without changing the status-quo — that the source of the cost of housing is all the rules that we put around housing and not all those rules are bad. Some of those rules are good. Like, you should be able to enter a building in a wheelchair without an assistant. But that’s not free. It’s not free to require compliance with the Fair Housing Act. So we all pay for that and maybe that’s fine, but what we need to do is figure out what are the least bad rules to get rid of.

    And the top of my list of bad rules are getting rid of the mandate that you’re not allowed to share walls, not allowed to share roofs, not allowed to share kitchens in many cases.

    And beyond that, there’s a zillion little rules, but every little additional rule we add, adds a little bit more cost. No one rule is the deal breaker, but they all add up. And so we’ve got to figure out which are the least bad ones, and we’ve got to have an argument about it.”

    Michael also shared who he likes for Portland Mayor, and much more. Listen in the player at the top of this post or find our show wherever you get your podcasts.

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