In the race for a seat on the Portland City Council, candidate Loretta Smith has quietly earned financial support from a key set of local power brokers: real estate developers.
That support has come during the run-up to Tuesday’s election, which many view as a make-or-break moment in the power struggle between real estate developers and tenants’ rights advocates to have the larger voice in City Hall.
Developers in particular worry that rent control may come to Portland if Smith, the underdog in the race, does not win.
On that front they see a likely ally in Smith, who has cast herself as a business-friendly moderate. Developers suspect her opponent, Jo Ann Hardesty, would be a surefire foe.
“Jo Ann believes in rent control. Loretta opposes rent control,” said John DiLorenzo, an attorney who represents apartment complex owners. “We’re dead-set against rent control,” he said, calling the prospect of limiting rents “an existential crisis” for Portland’s housing supply.
As a result, land owners, real estate brokers and construction executives have contributed vastly more to Smith than Hardesty, campaign finance disclosures show.
Smith, a two-term Multnomah County commissioner, has raised about $200,000 from developers since the May primary, when she finished 25 percentage points behind Hardesty. In that same time, Hardesty, a social justice advocate, former state representative and Navy veteran, has snapped up less than $20,000 from donors with real estate ties.
Smith said in a telephone interview that she has developers’ support her because of her moderate take on housing policy and her plan to open the never-used Wapato Jail as a homeless shelter. “They like the fact that I want to clean up the streets,” Smith said.
Hardesty, who declined to comment, has campaigned on a different approach to stanching Portland’s affordable housing and homelessness crises. She believes in vastly expanding renter protections and reforming how the police interact with the homeless. She has chosen some of Portland’s most progressive housing advocates as close advisers.
For developers, having a friend on the city council can be an invaluable asset. Builders have long had clout in City Hall. But they depend upon the mayor and commissioners for amenable zoning and building code rules — and occasional approval of their construction projects over the objections of neighborhood activists.
Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who is retiring from the council after 20 years, is a moderate who generally has not stood in the way of developers.
“We’re at a real pivotal moment in our city in my opinion,” said Tom Brenneke, a Smith supporter who is president of a local development firm. He likened Smith to Saltzman, calling both “balanced and predictable.”
Brenneke and three other real estate executives who have fundraised for Smith all said they support her in part because of her campaign to use Wapato as a homeless shelter and services center.
“Loretta had the guts to stand up and say, ‘Let’s do something productive with Wapato,'” Brenneke said, referencing Smith’s support for the plan despite opposition from the rest of the Multnomah County board of commissioners.
Smith strongly backs the Wapato shelter idea and has made it a central tenet of her city council campaign. She says people on the streets, most of whom struggle with addiction or mental health conditions, need a stable place indoors like the former jail would provide to get stabilized before finding housing.
Hardesty strongly opposes the plan, going so far as to call its supporters “idiots,” in part because it is not being spearheaded by the homeless. The never-used jail is located in an industrial part of far-north Portland far from bus lines, social services centers and neighborhoods. And many question the optics of having people sleep in former jail cells due to poverty or mental health needs.
Chris Nelson, co-founder of development firm Capstone Partners, said in an email he backs Smith’s Wapato plan as a “one bold (albeit controversial) partial solution to addressing this huge problem in our community.”
Moreover, builders said they find Smith more open-minded about development than Hardesty, who supports rent control, has spoken unfavorably about real estate incentives and briefly backed a moratorium on construction of luxury housing.
“Jo Ann made some statements that maybe made our industry nervous,” said Jim Mark, chief executive of commercial real estate firm Melvin Mark Companies. Mark cast Smith, on the other hand, as someone “you can get behind, but who you’re not going to agree with all the time.”
DiLorenzo, who has vocally opposed the city tenants union to which Hardesty is allied, put his views flatly, calling Hardesty “a radical.”
Jim Winkler, president of a firm that builds residential and commercial real estate, said his decision to back Smith was due in large part to what he said is a need for more rational policy coming from City Hall.
“I want someone who’s involved in the decision chain to listen,” Winkler said. “I think we’re more likely to get that with Loretta than Jo Ann.”
For her part, Smith said she’s demonstrated that open mindedness to developers during her eight years as a county commissioner.
“They know that I have an open door even if we disagree,” she said.
— Gordon R. Friedman