Setting new sights on the city: Steve Novick returns to the campaign trail

By Stacy Brownhill, Staff Writer

Steve Novick, the currenlty uncontested candidate for Randy Leonard’s spot on Portland City Council, has plenty of novel ideas for a City Council facing more change than it’s seen in decades. With Mayor Sam Adams and Leonard leaving, and Commissioner Amanda Fritz facing a tough contest, as many as three of the five Council seats could change next year.

New Jersey-born and Oregon-raised, Novick graduated from University of Oregon at 18 and Harvard Law School at age 21 before launching prolific careers as an environmental lawyer, nonprofit director and community advocate. In 1998, Novick was chief of staff for the Oregon Senate Democrats, and has since eyed positions at city, county, state and federal levels, most notably running a close race for the Senate in 2008. The “fighter with the hard left hook,” a pun addressing his left hand hook prosthesis, currently works for the Oregon Health Authority.

Novick received the endorsement of Gov. John Kitzhaber last week, and has raised more than $100,000 in the mere 52 days since his campaign announcement (in contrast, state Rep. Mary Nolan, Commissioner Amanda Fritz’s opponent, has reported less than half of that amount). Street Roots grabbed coffee and kebabs with Novick this week, and picked his brain on everything from his ideas for health care and public safety to his distaste for gentrification.

Stacy Brownhill: The Portland Housing Bureau Director, Margaret Van Vliet, is moving to lead the state housing agency. In her interview with Street Roots, she talked about the need for housing to be “front and center,” so that when we’re talking about jobs or health or community issues, we’re talking about housing problems that underlie those other things. What are your ideas for creating affordable housing in Portland?

Steve Novick: Creating affordable housing is hard. Rent control and inclusionary zoning are ways to create affordable housing but are against state law, as I understand it. We have the low-income housing tax credit program, which ensures some affordable housing.

Urban renewal is a problematic tool for affordable housing because only 15 percent of the city can be an urban renewal district at any given time, and the districts tend to last awhile. So most people will never live in an urban renewal district.

One question the council has to consider going forward is: Have we done urban renewal in a way that’s made previously affordable housing unaffordable through gentrification? We have to be really careful that we’re not just creating more neighborhoods for rich white people to live in.

I was not aware until recently that we spend $106 million per year of property taxes on urban renewal — that’s like 24 cents of every tax dollar.

To some extent, the city of Portland over the past 20 years has been blinded by cuteness. We keep thinking if we build more cute neighborhoods then that’s an economic development strategy. But we’ve got cute neighborhoods coming out of our ears and we’re still lagging behind comparable cities, like Seattle and Denver, in terms of income and jobs. So I would be very hesitant about where we put more urban renewal money.

Also, offering better jobs is a way of making housing more affordable. If we had a stronger economy, more people would be able to afford housing because they would be making more money.

S.B.: You’ve been hailed as a big supporter of the East Side and proponent for creating equity between communities of color and whites. What are some of your ideas for urban renewal and equity on the East Side?

S.N.: Bus service is a big thing I hear people on the East Side talking about. The 71 bus runs up and down Southeast 122nd Avenue, and I’ve been told it’s the worst combination of demand and lack of service in the city: There are a lot of people who ride it, and it doesn’t come very often. So I would ask TriMet, how much would it cost to run the 71 bus as often as the 14 bus, which comes every 10 minutes?

I feel guilty that a new light rail line is going up by my house in Westmoreland. I would use it, but I don’t need it as much as somebody who can’t afford a car. I think we need to prioritize the poorer areas of the city as we make future transit decisions.

What (Commissioner) Nick (Fish) is trying to do in terms of building new parks in the Outer East Side is also important.

Investing more in schools and less in fancy, cute stuff is part of dealing with equity. People always argue that the city should stick to the basics and that schools aren’t part of the city’s mission, but every politician ignores that.

S.B.: What ideas do you have for helping Portland schools?

S.N.: I think that there are targeted investments that the city could make in the schools. (Commissioner) Dan Saltzman has come up with a special pot of money for social services for kids.

One thing I suggest in my campaign is an annual forum in the summer where we pay for teachers and principals to come and learn from schools with tough demographics where unusually good things seem to be happening.

Another idea that I’ve adopted from Bobbie Regan is to physically expose more kids to college. Let’s take sixth graders on field trips to community colleges. I heard a teenager say at Mayor Adams’ education summit that she hadn’t heard of financial aid until an adult told her.

Another thing I’d like to restore to schools is financial education. Teaching kids about credit cards, mortgage and basic financial literacy used to be a mandatory part of the curriculum, and now it’s barely brushed over.

I don’t think people realize just how hard the schools have been hit. Twenty years ago, we had a school system that was funded largely by local property taxes, and people in Portland would vote for the schools. Now, we have a system where the money that’s raised in Portland is thrown in a statewide pot, and our Portland schools are much, much worse off than they were.

S.B.: With your experience in environmental law, arguing on behalf of the EPA for 10 years and tackling the Love Canal case in the 1980s, what are your thoughts on the Columbia River Crossing? Should they build the bridge?

S.N.: I agree with a lot of points the critics are making. I would also caution that eventually you probably need to replace a 100-year-old bridge. If there’s an opportunity to get federal money that we might not have down the road, that shouldn’t be dismissed too easily, even if it’s not a high priority at this particular time.

Now, if the people of Portland were being asked to pay for that bridge, then I would not say it’s a high priority. But if it’s combined funding from the federal government, the state governments, and the people of Vancouver, then it doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world to me.

In terms of how many interchanges we have to accommodate more people coming over from Vancouver, and whether we’re just adding to the congestion in the Rose Quarter once they get over here, I think those are important questions to ask.

The argument that the trade unions have — that the CRC is a jobs project — that’s not something I dismiss. If we can put a couple thousand people to work for awhile, I’m not going to say that’s an irrelevant argument.

S.B.: In your campaign, you’ve talked about spending less public-safety money on dramatic reactive procedures, like long prison terms, and spending more on preventative measures. How would that switch in spending work?

S.N.: In the short term I think the city and the county should work more closely together on public-safety issues; do joint budgeting and joint strategy. But my big-picture dream is to work out a deal with the state for the county to get its public safety budget in a lump sum, allowing it to spend more money on prevention programs.

What we have right now is a system with a limited budget for police, a limited budget for supervision, a limited budget for treatment, a limited budget for re-entry programs, but in effect, an unlimited budget for prisons. The state pays for prison, and there’s no incentive for the district attorneys to give shorter sentences.

If the state put the county in charge of its own public-safety budget, it would create a situation where the DAs would have to count the cost of prison sentences and figure out a way to divide it with other costs, like prevention.

People have talked about repealing Measure 11, but you don’t need to repeal Measure 11 if you change the mix of prison versus prevention through the budget.

S.B.: This summer, Street Roots wrote a series on traumatic brain injuries that examined Portland’s health systems, and how we can improve them for people living on the streets. But affordable and navigable health care is an issue for everyone.

You’ve done a lot of work with Oregon Health Authority to streamline Medicaid and generate ideas for Obama’s health care reform. If you could shape health care in Portland however you wanted, what would you do?

S.N.: One of my ideas for economic development is to make Portland a leader in an area that’s not traditionally thought of as economic development but should be: controlling health care costs.

For employers that provide health care, health care is the fastest rising cost. If Portland became a leader in controlling health care costs, that would be an advantage for existing employers and attractive for anybody we’re trying to recruit.

There are some models you could scale to a city. For example, the Atlantic City casino workers’ union adopted a strategy where they identified their highest-cost employees and built a clinic just for them. The clinic included a couple of doctors, a couple of primary nurses and eight health care coaches — professional nudges — who would call people up and check on them. And they managed to significantly reduce their health care costs just with that model.

That’s something I think the city could do as an employer: build a system for high-cost employees that would collectively reduce our health care costs, and invite public and private employers. Then, you can say to new employers, ‘Come to Portland and you’ll get the advantage of this network.’ Over time, if a city has taken the initiative to control health care costs, that’s a significant economic advantage.

Another of my health care interests is getting the city prepared for the huge expansion of Medicaid in 2014, if Obama’s health care reform is not repealed. A lot of people who had no previous health care coverage will be eligible for physical health care, mental health care, and drug and alcohol treatment. Suddenly, we’ll have federal money paying for Medicaid for a population that previously was going begging for services, and that’s something the nonprofit community, the city and the county should be planning for.

S.B.: You’ve spoken out against the Iraq War since 2003. What can Portland be doing better to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who face joblessness and even homelessness?

S.N.: Working with employers to try to make sure to prioritize giving jobs for veterans, to the extent they’re still able to work, that’s something we can do. Getting vets the health care they need and connecting them with resources at the V.A., that’s something we can do.

S.B.: You’re reputed to be something of a budget wonk. How could Portland be spending our dollars better? In particular, what do you think of Commissioner Leonard’s strategy of using water and sewage money for special projects?

S.N.: If it were my choice, I wouldn’t have done the special projects. There’s an argument for doing less (special projects) in order to avoid distraction, and even if it’s a small amount of money, we should spend money for what it’s supposed to be used for. But they are not big-ticket items. They might look bad when they’re on the front page, but they haven’t added a lot to sewer or water bills.

I called up the Water Bureau and asked, ‘How do we compare to other cities?’ It turns out that our water is more expensive than most other major cities in the country, and I’d like to know why. I will keep pushing the Water Bureau on that. If we’re higher than Milwaukie, (for example) let’s ask them what they’re doing differently.

S.B.: What’s on fire in Portland today that nobody else is noticing?

S.N.: There are things that have happened over the past 20 years that I’m not sure a lot of people recognize. Portland is a great city to be an upper middle-class white person because there are all sorts of nice restaurants and pretty places to go. But the Communities of Color Coalition did this report last year that showed in terms of inequities between white people and non-white people, we’re worse than a lot of cities that we think of as comparable, like Seattle. We’ve also gotten significantly poorer in relation to other cities in the past 20 years. I think there are a lot of good-hearted, civically engaged people in Portland who aren’t aware of that.

One response to “Setting new sights on the city: Steve Novick returns to the campaign trail

  1. Pingback: Candidates on housing and homelessness: Novick, White, Williams | For those who can’t afford free speech

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