I received an email today about an upcoming City Club of Corvallis meeting regarding housing affordability.
“Rent burdens are at an all time high in Corvallis, and even city employees often cannot afford to buy a house here,” it starts, and then promises to “examine the drivers behind severe rent burdens and ownership costs..."
Given that the majority of the panel is made up of those whose livelihood comes from development, construction, and real estate sales, it’s an easy guess the "drivers" identified will be centered around development costs. And so there will be a push to reduce development constraints and fees that define not only our neighborhoods' livability but the need for future taxes as well. This is why the cost of our growth continues to fall upon the community to pay for rather than the growth itself.
While other cities find their coffers full from growth spurts, here in Corvallis, where the growth comes from an entity that doesn’t pay taxes, we turn to levy after levy. It’s also unlikely anyone on this panel will speak to Oregon State University President Ed Ray's decision to abandon the Campus Master Plan (an agreement with the city regarding both its size and growth). Unlikely too that anyone will raise the fact that OSU’s new housing proposal on Monroe will produce the most expensive on-campus housing in the history of OSU — or that it’s right across the street from what was the most inexpensive, and popular, on-campus housing (which this same administration chose to permanently close in spite of student and community protest).
This all happens in the one of the most educated cities in the world because, just as we see everywhere, there’s a manic drive for economic growth. Here, the healthy economic growth we see is OSU’s, while the city grows anemic. Sure, in support of this growth we can say higher education is a good cause. We’re not supporting Shell Oil, or Amazon, after all.
But as OSU administrators have demonstrated it’s really about the bottom line rather than higher education. Remember when OSU Vice President Steve Clark presented to this same City Club how much OSU estimated each student brings to Corvallis’ economy? Notice how OSU faculty have had to unionize, for the first time in OSU history, against the continued removal of benefits and job security? And notice how OSU administrators, like most of the people on this City Club panel, have acquired wealth from this growth? It's because successfully passing on OSU costs to the community, or successfully reducing employee benefits, is captured in black ink on the all-important ledger.
Remember what OSU President Ray said when asked about the housing plans for the university's new student growth? His concern was that they might “overbuild” the campus. This is why it was left to the city to solve and left to our community to fund. And remember too the study the Collaboration Corvallis project commissioned to determine what other university towns have seen from growth like this (things like skyrocketing rents, loss of livability, etc.)? Yet when the nature of this housing crisis was revealed to the Board of Trustees, Ray gave a self-effacing 'How did we not think about housing?" when it's clear that they did. (Watch the video of him describing his strategy at the onset of when our “severe rent burdens” began at my website, JeffHessArt.com/cityadrift.)
The crisis we're in is not a mystery and it’s not a result of unforeseen consequences or mere chaos, it was a choice made by OSU. An economic decision made by an economist for the betterment of OSU’s bottom line. Oh, and football.