I was bemused by the article on Mayor Biff Traber’s recent state of the city address which identified housing and revenue as Corvallis’ two biggest challenges.
In the case of Corvallis, one issue begets the other. Back when Oregon State University President Ed Ray set the goal to make OSU the biggest university in Oregon, he leaned heavily upon his pedigree as an economist to convince the leaders of Corvallis how good this growth would be for the city. Pointing to the massive increase in property taxes, the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce, then-mayor Julie Manning, and Traber, then a city councilor, accepted this half-filled equation. And coming out of an economic downturn that had seen city staff layoffs these leaders happily took on the job-producing brunt of OSU student housing, consuming acre after acre of buildable lands for student rentals (while often destroying existing affordable housing at the same time). One could practically hear the money piling up in city coffers.
Why then are we now broke so shortly after? As former City Councilor Bruce Sorte stated repeatedly at the time of these decisions, “Housing does not pay for itself." Sorte is also an economist but in his case he wasn't looking at the books solely from OSU's perspective, nor were his interests in legacy-building. Sorte was looking at the books as a city councilor with long-term community interests at hand.
What others refused to accept is that when comparing the potential revenue stream from new housing one must include the business associated with the housing, not just the taxes paid. This is because the revenue that Oregon cities run on doesn’t come from the housing of its citizens but rather from the businesses where those housed people work ... and OSU does not pay taxes.
What makes the mistake then-councilman Traber and others made even worse is that the prime land used for student housing is exactly the land revenue-producing businesses need. Talk to one of the businesses in town that wants to grow and they’ll tell you one of their greatest challenges to attracting people is the same as OSU's: lack of housing. And so lack of a diversified city economy too took a hit with the plan to cash in on the student housing boom.
Now, everyone is supposed to now jump on board with OSU's plan to build student housing (as has the mayor). Forget that the location violates the Campus Master Plan, which identified the area as one to be maintained with an open space feel. Forget too that the city's vision was to maintain a green corridor from downtown to campus. And forget too the other viable lands OSU could build on. Just like Trump's response to GOP pushback on health care reform, "you asked for reform now you got it," Ed Ray refuses to acknowledge not all plans are created equal.
There are other ways to do this. Last year members of the Corvallis Infill Task Force set out to initiate a Kepner-Tregoe exercise between the community, city staff and OSU. This is a method that ensures all voices are heard and makes decisions transparent allowing everyone to understand and examine the criteria informing a decision. Everyone came on board for this approach with the exception of OSU.
To be sure the mayor and others who run this city are good people but by all appearances they've blindly followed the drumbeat set by Ed Ray. And so the inequality of our city, like OSU salaries do, grows with each passing year while the cost of living far outstrips any increase in pay. Meanwhile, a wealthy few grow wealthier.