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The Great Light Bulb Panic of 2013

I was in my local home improvement store this last week of 2013.  Ironically, I was there to pick up a couple LED lights (my favorite flood-style bulbs are HERE) while others in the same aisle were frantically stocking up on 40- and 60-watt incandescent bulbs before their manufacture and sale is banned on January 1, 2014.  Apparently change is bad.

Take, for example, these headlines: A Real Turn-Off: Last Phase of Light Bulb Ban Takes Effect Jan. 1 or Stock Up Now: January 1 Is Light Bulb Ban or my very favorite: Edison Bulb Ban Means Lights Out on Freedom.

While I’m not a fan of compact fluorescent bulbs by any means, I find it pathetic that consumers are so averse to change that they feel the need to stock up on light bulbs, of all things.  I’d put money down that these same shoppers don’t have the same stash of non-perishable food in their pantry in case of a climate change-induced superstorm.  Or a flashlight with fresh batteries in case an overloaded power grid happens to fail.

Maybe I’m just cynical, but stockpiling light bulbs with the rationale that CFL and LED lights provide a different quality of light strikes me as overreaction when consumers would be hard-pressed to differentiate cyan from magenta or explain what CRI means.  It’s even more ridiculous when a designer unabashedly remarks in a radio interview “I like that they’re old-fashioned” and proudly notes that she uses them to heat her kitchen in the winter, then tries to justify her position, saying new bulbs don’t reproduce colors accurately.  Scientifically, today’s good-quality CFL and LED bulbs actually do a better job of reproducing colors accurately, with CRI ratings in the 80s–versus about 62 for an old-fashioned incandescent bulb.  And a portable space heater would likely be more efficient (and effective!) at heating her apartment than a few light bulbs.

It further strikes me as ridiculous when consumers freak out over mercury content in CFL bulbs (about 5mg) while remaining indifferent or opposed to clean air standards that would improve the mercury-laden emissions from coal-burning power plants (currently about 140-290 lbs/year just from Oregon’s Boardman plant).  To put that in perspective, every one of Oregon’s 3.9 million residents would have to break 3+ CFL bulbs every year to match the amount of mercury emitted annually by Oregon’s one coal-fired power plant.  In Ohio, each of the state’s 11.5 million residents would have to break nearly 19 bulbs each year just to match the mercury pollution from the top 5 most-polluting coal plants (in 2005, Ohio had 119 coal-fired plants, most of which are still being used).

So, can we just stop already with the giant panic attack over the phase-out of inefficient, outdated technology and move on to more important things?  Thank you.

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To Boycott or Not to Boycott? A Shopper’s Conundrum

Last month, musician Sia Furler found herself in hot water after she was accused of singing out of both sides of her mouth.  Turns out that the bisexual singer’s recent collaboration with Eminem didn’t sit well with many folks given Eminem’s rather anti-gay lyrics.

Sia has since pledged to donate her proceeds from the song to the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.  But do you buy it and support the center … or boycott it because it supports Eminem who acts like a jerk?  It’s just another example of the conundrum faced by consumers wondering who pays and who gets hurt by a boycott–a conundrum particularly timely during the holiday season (And because Sia’s birthday is December 18th.  Obviously…).

Handsome young man throwing moneyTravelers often face a similar dilemma.  A couple years ago vacationers and conventioneers steered clear of Arizona, protesting the state’s oppressive new immigration laws.  It made a multi-million dollar impression impression, for sure, but businesses and workers in Arizona who didn’t like the laws were punished just for being in the wrong place.

And the socially-conscious green crowd (not just Kermit) faces its own challenges.  Sure, it’s theoretically more green to purchase goods online from retailers like Amazon who have efficient delivery mechanisms and don’t have to wastefully heat and light retail stores.  But shopping from your armchair often defeats the buy local mantra (not to mention that Amazon had small businesses fuming a couple years ago with their price-check app).

Now in the final push of the holiday consumer season, it’s important to remember that the gifts we buy do support the businesses, owners and policies of the establishments who produce and sell them, even if the “right” decision is about as clear as mud.  In the end, it seems that awareness and simply thinking about purchases and what they support is the best policy toward putting our money where our mouth is.

A newish app called “BUYcott” is available for iPhone and (maybe) Android, which might help sort things out.  I recently downloaded it, but haven’t yet used it.  Have you used it?  Do you have other favorite resources?  Feel free to chime in …

That’s Why It’s Called the Giving Season

‘Tis better to give than to receive, or at least that’s one way it’s been said.

There’s a great opportunity as we enter into the season of giving to give more than sweaters, neckties, chocolates and battery-powered toys (no, I wasn’t thinking about those toys).  Sure those can be fun, but some of the most meaningful gifts I’ve ever given are not ones that are easily wrapped and tied with a bow.  They’re the gifts that help people I’ve not yet met–and in some cases, may never meet.

I didn’t come up with the idea, but I’m happy to co-opt the concept of #GivingTuesday.  Here’s the deal: the Tuesday following Black Friday and Cyber Monday is dedicated to charitable giving and kicking off a holiday season dedicated to the same.  This year, it’s Tuesday, December 2nd.

From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life. — Arthur Ashe

Just like all the other gifts you may buy this season, the great thing about #GivingTuesday and other charitable giving is that you get to pick what’s meaningful.  So you’re trying to figure out what to give to the uncle who loves to garden, but has everything?  Donate in his name to a nonprofit focused on helping low-income kids connect with the earth (like Growing Gardens, for example).  Or you’re wondering what to give to a relative who loves astronomy, but you have no idea what gear she might need.  Check out a planetarium or your local science museum (like Portland’s OMSI).  The possibilities are endless

We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give. ― Winston S. Churchill

Not only do you get to share the amazing good feeling of doing something great with the person on whose behalf you give, but the people on the receiving end of your donation get that good feeling too.  And while you shouldn’t give with the expectation of also receiving, the best organizations are champs at thank you notes which keep that good feeling going.  Just like the #UNSelfie photo you’re going to snap (check out the image at the top, silly), right?!

So, how about it?  Who will you give to this year?

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Two Cents About Coming Out Day

October 11, 2013 is the 25th Anniversary of National Coming Out Day, a day when gay, lesbian, bisexual and other folks acknowledge their sexual orientation to friends, family, co-workers, or other acquaintances.

Obama NCODWith growing acceptance of gay marriage, Presidential acknowledgement and support of gay rights (or even gay existence, for that matter), and increasing protections in housing and the workplace against discriminatory action, Coming Out Day might not seem as important as it once was.  But it’s not quite that simple

If you identify as straight, think about it this way: when did you last have to come out as heterosexual?

Corny?  Maybe.  I mean, I don’t have to announce I’m gay to everyone I meet all day long, just as others don’t have to proclaim their straight-ness, right?

Not so fast.  Actually, it happens all day, nearly every day.

Take, for example a training class I attended last week.  On day one, members of the class introduced one another to the rest of the group as an ice-breaker.  The first three pairs of classmates all included information about husbands, wives, kids, and grandkids as they introduced one another to the class.  I’m very open with my colleagues, but I still cringed:  the first thing my classmates will remember about me after hearing about my boyfriend/partner/husband is “that’s the gay one,” despite it being a professional training about housing finance.  Everyone in the class who talked about their opposite-sex significant other did, in effect, come out as straight that morning.

And this morning at a meeting of 150 or so contractors and engineers, every person who introduced their business partner and wife (or husband), and presumably guy who announced his newborn son … all of them came out as straight too.

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We also come out every time we fill out paperwork.  The benefits forms for that new job?  Most likely, you came out when you listed your beneficiary (Which, by the way, underscores the need for sexual orientation and gender identify protections in the workplace. People still get fired—or don’t get hired—because they “flaunted” their sexuality by being honest about their next of kin).  And you came out again when you showed up at the holiday party with your spouse.

To make matters more complicated, since same-sex marriage isn’t legal in Oregon, I get the additional distinction of figuring out which description to use for my significant other.  While that is an entirely different tangent I don’t need to go on now, it’s a dilemma straight folks rarely need to navigate.  And another way we “come out” every time we introduce or talk about our boyfriend/girlfriend (too high school?), partner (life partner? business partner?), husband/wife (can I still call him that if we’re not legally married?), or whatever else.  And this doesn’t even cover what I’m supposed to say when someone notices the ring on my finger and asks what my wife does for a living (he doesn’t like being called “wife,” BTW).

So, to everyone, happy coming out day.  Thanks to the pioneers who made it easier for me to tell my friends and family I was different more than 20 years ago.  And thanks to the allies of all types who understand the complexity and anxiety of coming out and create a welcoming environment for all.

PS: Yes, I realize this post is a drastic diversion from most of the content of my blog.  But it seemed timely and relevant, so there.  Thanks for reading to the end.

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Helmet Head (A Recycling Rant)

A while back, I suggested that retailers implement what I called “point of purchase” recycling for consumer goods.  The idea is this: retailers who sell recyclable products (and especially products like CFLs or rechargable batteries that contain hazardous materials) should provide in-store recycling opportunities for those products.

Recently, I found another opportunity where recycling needs to be improved: bicycle helmets.

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The Problem

Bicycle helmets need to be replaced regularly—and always after an accident.  On the short side, Bell Helmets recommends every three years (and Outside Magazine recommends two to four years, depending on frequency and type of use).  On the longer side, the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute doesn’t list any of their own recommendations, but notes Snell Foundation’s recommended five-year replacement interval.  And though I’ve pictured Bontrager and Nutcase helmets, neither of their websites list any information about recommended replacement, except in case of a crash.

Now, I admit that if every cyclist trashed a helmet every three years, it would still be less waste than what is produced by automobiles during that period of time.  And your mom would like to remind you that you should definitely wear your helmet whenever you get on your bike.  But still, it irks me that there are no provisions for recycling and disposal for a product that has a finite and limited lifespan.

The Challenge

The way most helmets are made, they’re hard to recycle.  The combination of plastic and foam components means it’s labor-intensive—but necessary—to separate the various materials.  And then there’s the quandry of what to do with these components after they’ve been separated.  It’s not like there’s a #7 stamped on the plastic shell, indicating compatibility with municipal recycling programs.  And styrofoam other than packing peanuts is just as difficult to recycle.

The recyclable and compostable paper-pulp helmet might be an exception to the helmet disposal challenge, but it’s only intended for temporary use by bike-sharing customers.  And besides its dork-like appearance, I’d question how well it might hold up through a rainy Portland commute (Paper Pulp Helmet says 6 hours, but doesn’t elaborate on whether that’s total or continuous, or how much moisture it can take in that 6 hours).

A couple years ago, and entrepreneurial Portlander tried to start a recycling program in Oregon’s bike-loving town.  From what I can tell, he managed to get several cycling shops to participate.  But he was ultimately stymied in his efforts, presumably by the cost of the endeavor and/or the inability to recycle helmets’ materials.

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The Opportunity

As much as Portlanders love to recycle and love to ride their bikes, one Oregon city is small potatoes compared to the entire market of bicycle helmets (not to mention helmets for other sports like skate or snowboarding).  Helmet manufacturers need to get in on the recycling game.  And they can (and should) do it in two ways:

1) Create programs to recycle expired helmets.  

Most manufacturers already take back helmets through crash-replacement programs, so some infrastructure exists for a recycling take-back initiative.  Heck, even get the marketing department involved by offering a couple bucks off a new helmet when a customer recycles their old one.  Call it the “Customer for Life” program and helmet manufacturers can laugh all the way to the bank with their double entendres!  Helmet manufacturers who need a little extra help could take a page from carpet manufacturer Interface.  Not only does Interface recycle tons of carpet every year, but they make it extra-easy to return used FLOR product in order to ensure the trendy carpet tiles stay out of the landfill.

2) Innovate new, more easily recyclable helmet designs.

Since the greatest recycling challenges that currently exist are that helmets are labor-intensive to recycle and helmet materials aren’t ones that can be recycled easily, why not change this?  I think it’s a fair assumption that cyclists are often more concerned about the environment than your average person (and not just because the stench from a passing garbage truck is more obvious on a bike than inside an air-conditioned car), so environmental impact has the potential to influence helmet buyers’ decisions.  Which equals revenue.  Which is kind of the point of trying to sell something in the first place, right?

In the Mean Time …

Keep riding your bike.  And keep wearing (and regularly replacing) your helmet.  But when you buy a new helmet—or when you’re ready to buy one—send a note to the manufacturer to let them know you’d like them to recycle the old one.  As Margaret Mead said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
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Portland’s Sloppy Parking Job

The City of Portland is trying to resolve a dust-up over neighborhood parking issues—issues driven largely by a few new apartment developments built without providing parking.  The developments sans parking are allowed under the current code because of proximity to transit corridors, but impacts to on-street parking caused by the new apartments have neighbors complaining to the city.  Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) and City Council have attempted to respond quickly.  But have they responded well?  I don’t think so.

In case you missed it, travel back in time a week to read the response I prepared for City Council’s April 4 hearing on BPS’ proposed code changes.  My testimony at the hearing was cut short by Council’s three-minute time limit (meaning I only got through the impacts to, and solutions for affordable housing).  Fortunately, other citizens covered my remaining points, so at least they didn’t go unsaid.

At the conclusion of the hearing, City Council voted to approve the proposed code changes, plus a couple other amendments noted on OregonLive, including Commissioner Nick Fish’s tiered parking requirement which will make some people feel better and others even more irritated.  So what’s missing from the changes they voted for?  A lot:

Street Parking Issues Won’t Be Fixed Just by Adding Off-Street Parking

The amendments do nothing to resolve the issue currently simmering over a partially-constructed 81-unit building without parking that has neighbors seething.  Of course, since the permit was previously approved and the building is already under construction, changing the rules mid-stream would be a disaster.  For the sake of developers who depend on consistent rules, that’s a moot point.  Unfortunately, the developer appears to have no interest in being a good neighbor either, but being a jerk hasn’t yet been outlawed so we’re left dealing with these issues in other ways.

The proposed code amendments require developers of certain buildings to provide off-street parking, but they do very little to discourage residents of these new buildings from using the on-street parking.  Why?  Because the street parking is free.  And in the new buildings, the freshly-mandated parking will likely be, well … not free.  And we’ve all seen what people will do just for a sale (YouTube has compilation videos of Black Friday mayhem, enough said?), so imagine the lengths they will go to for something FREE.  In fact, the city’s own research shows that when free street parking is available, residents will eschew their building’s paid parking in favor of the less-convenient (but FREE) street parking.

So, the city code amendments have the potential to create a bunch of unused parking garages but do nothing to rectify crowded street parking spaces.  What’s a city to do?

The Market Will Fix the Parking Boondoggle.  Or Will It?

A popular refrain that came up during the City Council hearing is that if residents demand parking, the market will deliver it.  Which is kind of true, but since off-street parking typically carries a price tag, it can’t compete with free street parking. Competitive pricing for street parking (via permits, meters, or other means) is essential if a neighborhood expects residents to utilize off street parking they must pay for.

Unfortunately, mentioning parking permits or other fees that might apply to existing residents (who gripe that their free street parking is now hard to find) is apparently taboo for city officials to do in the same context as anything related to new buildings.  Pricing or otherwise addressing street parking is not mentioned anywhere in BPS’ recommendations and was barely uttered by City Commissioners during the hearing, except for one small whisper by Commissioner Steve Novick at the end of the meeting.

Still, whether or not it’s discussed, the market may meet the off-street parking needs of new developments, but only if the market isn’t competing with free street parking provided by the city.

Of course, the neighbors aren’t the only ones impacted by the proposed code changes:

Encouraging Development Promotes Affordability

In my testimony to City Council, I argued that low-income residents are less likely to own cars (a fact supported by the city’s research).  Thus, developments reserved for low-income residents should be exempted from some of the parking requirements that apply to market-rate residences.  But promoting housing affordability—another factor Portland professes to value—goes beyond income restrictions.

Offsetting the demand of Portland’s extremely tight rental market by increasing supply seems to be a simple enough equation, one that many supporters of affordability are championing.  And I agree that increasing supply is a good thing, but not at any cost. City Hall shouldn’t rush into reactionary decisions to stimulate development and increase housing supply, just as it shouldn’t rush into knee-jerk policies to soothe neighbors frustrated about hard-to-find street parking.

Upon Final Inspection

Portland carefully crafted urban growth boundaries and developed “The Portland Plan” to keep the city from becoming sprawling suburbia.  This same effort set a foundation for and encouraged the success of vibrant neighborhoods which are now especially desirable for residents and developers.  This careful planning can ensure the city remains a desirable place to live, work, and play.  But reactionary changes to the code risk dismantling the careful planning that has earned Portland accolades for its desirable neighborhoods and sensible urban planning.

Will BPS and City Council step back from these knee-jerk changes and take the political heat from the handful of upset neighbors in order to reap the long-term benefit from better thought-out plans?  I’m not holding my breath.  I just hope they will follow up sooner rather than later with more holistic updates that provide real solutions to the neighborhoods’ issues.

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A Battle Over Portland’s Parking

Recently, the City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability approved code amendments requiring additional parking for certain high-density residential and mixed-use developments (information on the code updates can be found here).  The BPS-approved code amendments will be reviewed by City Council on April 4.  At this time, the commissioners can approve the changes as proposed … or not.  While I agree that Portland needs to address neighborhood parking issues, I think the changes as proposed are flawed.  Here’s my open letter to the mayor and commissioners:

This week, you will likely vote on a proposal from the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability regarding increased parking standards for new developments.  As a Portland resident working to increase affordable housing options in our city, I believe the changes as proposed have significant issues and fail to address neighborhoods’ parking problems in a holistic and equitable way.  I strongly urge you to reject the proposed code changes and return them to BPS for further refinement, perhaps to be included with updates to the Comprehensive Plan.

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Because of my advocacy for affordable housing, I am especially concerned about the inconsistencies between the proposed increase in required parking and the stated goals for Housing Affordability identified in the Portland Plan.  Specifically, the Portland Plan Housing Affordability Background report recommends on Page 7 that construction of housing “… affordable to low and moderate income should be promoted.  This could include development of more reasonably-priced rental housing units such as smaller units with no parking …”

I understand that large developments with minimal (or no) parking can be a burden on existing neighborhoods that have limited capacity to absorb the number of cars that the developments may bring.  But the new requirements are a flawed solution to Portland’s parking problems.  Furthermore, they create new barriers for developers striving to meet Portland’s affordable housing needs.  These are exactly the barriers that the Portland Plan recommends identifying so the city can address declining housing affordability.

In particular, the new parking requirements discourage transit-oriented affordable housing developments, create barriers, and promote a higher housing and transportation cost burden by:

  • Adding unnecessary expense to projects through parking mandates, increasing the cost burden for affordable housing providers and, by extension, the low-income residents being served
  • Not providing an efficient and cost-effective mechanism by which affordable housing projects could be developed with fewer parking spaces than are mandated for other developments.  While affordable housing developers could pursue land use reviews or variances to request reduced parking capacity, the process is likely to be cumbersome and expensive, defeating the goals of reducing development costs to promote affordability
  • Considering the vocal frustration expressed by opponents of existing high-density developments with minimal off-street parking, I hold further concerns that high-density affordable housing developments could face additional barriers from neighborhood activists who may base their perceptions of affordable housing on outdated and inaccurate—but still widely held—stereotypes.

It is important to note that lower-income residents own fewer cars than residents with higher incomes, so the reduction in mandatory parking for affordable housing developments parallels residents’ reduced likelihood of owning a car.  In fact, BPS acknowledged this in its June 2012 document about parking issues and reducing mandatory parking for these developments aligns closely with the Portland Plan’s goals to reduce low-income residents’ housing and transportation cost burdens.

The city could easily address some of these barriers to housing affordability through code language that allows transit-oriented affordable housing to provide fewer parking spaces than comparative market-rate developments.  This code language could be modeled after existing verbiage for Elderly and Disabled High Density Housing (Chapter 33.229), which requires only one space per eight units.

Beyond mere affordability, I have other concerns about unintended consequences of the proposed code changes:

  • The new requirements put the entire burden of solving neighborhood parking issues on new developments.  This discourages high-density developments that provide living wage construction jobs, city revenue and other economic benefits, not to mention addressing historically low vacancy rates which drive up rents
  • Requiring new development projects to shoulder the entire solution for parking issues is unfair and short sighted.  While existing housing and businesses have enjoyed the luxury of free and convenient off-street parking, they also need to be part of the solution.  This could involve parking meters, permits or other restrictions, but when the entire neighborhood is impacted, the entire neighborhood needs to be part of the solution
  • In addition, while BPS has researched TriMet service history to determine where service is consistent versus where it has been cut, “past performance is no guarantee of future results.”  I realize inter-agency collaboration and agreement is difficult, but if development standards are based on frequent transit service, TriMet needs to commit to provide the level of service which the planning code is based on.

The livability of our city is of great importance to all Portlanders.  Policy related to affordability, transit access and parking impacts all of us, so it is worthwhile to ensure that changes made are comprehensive and carry as few unintended consequences as possible.  The code changes proposed by BPS address some of the issues faced by neighborhoods with new high-density development, but these changes are flawed with barriers and unintended consequences that must be reconciled before adopting any changes.  I urge you not to approve the code changes as proposed.