Portland Tribune: PSU's Gerald Mildner seen as land-use lightning rod

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Read the original article in the Portland Triune here.

Portland State University associate professor Gerard Mildner doesn’t consider himself radical.

Mildner, who teaches real estate courses at PSU’s School of Business Administration, says he believes in well-established economic principles such as the law of supply and demand.

“I believe in the free enterprise system. It’s what makes our economy work and meets our needs,” says Mildner, 55, who is also academic director of PSU’s research-oriented Center for Real Estate.

So Mildner says he’s been surprised by the reaction to a recent paper he published about future growth in the region. The paper, “Density at Any Cost,” predicts housing costs will increase if Metro, the elected regional government, doesn’t expand the Urban Growth Boundary to create more buildable land. It also questions whether local governments can afford the higher densities required if the UGB is not expanded.

To Mildner, the issues raised in his paper are self-explanatory.

“Growth has costs, and how you grow determines the costs,” Mildner says.

But after the paper was released in the Center for Real Estate Quarterly on Dec. 1, Mildner was denounced as a “libertarian activist” hell bent on destroying Oregon’s land-use planning system. Criticisms came from Metro officials and colleagues at PSU, including Jonathan Fink, PSU’s vice president for research and strategic partnerships. He sent Metro an email saying, “the anti-density positions in Mildner’s paper represent an outlier, unrepresentative of most of our relevant experts.”

Another PSU employee, urban studies professor Ethan Seltzer, called Mildner a “UGB-denier” in an email copied to some of the businesses and government agencies that help fund the center by sponsoring its annual real estate conference.

Mildner thinks the attacks have been so personal for a number of reasons. For starters, he agrees with Fink that he is an outlier — a fiscally conservative Republican in a region and university dominated by liberal Democrats.

“I think it’s a fair comment that hiring in the School of Urban Studies and Planning self-selects for people sympathetic with Oregon’s urban planning system. Given all that, I think all of Jonathan Fink’s statements are correct,” Mildner says.

But more than that, Mildner thinks he is raising questions about something that many public officials in the region have staked their reputations on — sustainability, which includes encouraging increased density to preserve farm and forest lands. That includes his colleagues.

“Sustainability is a trademark for Portland State,” Mildner says.

Mildner says disagreements over even the most popular goals are healthy, however.

“I think that Oregon’s system of land-use planning is imposing serious costs, particularly on housing and economic development, and we need to be honest about the trade-off between our greenbelt strategy and housing costs,” Mildner says.

Critic of light rail
Despite his protests, Mildner has contributed to at least some of the criticisms. He currently is listed as one of several academic advisers to the Cascade Policy Institute, the local free-market think tank whose director, John Charles, has encouraged the anti-light rail petition drives in Clackamas and Washington counties.

For his part, Mildner describes the institute as a nonpartisan educational think tank, similar to those in Washington, D.C., from the Brookings Institution to the Heritage Foundation. They help academics and policymakers exchange ideas, Mildner says.

Although he says much of his original work in light-rail transit was published by the institute in the 1990s, Mildner says he has not been as active with it in the 10 years since the real estate center opened. And he denies that his work with the institute means he is against improved transit service. Mildner says it should just be cost effective.

“The problem with transit is that much of the high-cost suburban service and our expensive light-rail service has no hope of generating revenue to cover costs. Much of our inner-city bus service has revenue that’s greater than its costs,” Mildner says.

Report has backers, foes
Mildner’s paper analyzes the 2014 Urban Growth Report prepared by Metro staff to help the Metro Council decide whether to expand the UGB next year. The report says the UGB does not need to be expanded if enough cities within Metro’s jurisdiction implement their existing land-use plans to increase density.

The council unanimously accepted the report on Dec. 4, three days after Mildner’s paper was published. During the hearing, it was praised as well-researched and accurate by such local land-use planning advocates as: Sheila Martin director of PSU’s Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies; former Metro Councilor Robert Liberty, director of PSU’s Urban Sustainability Accelerator; and Mary Kyle McCurdy, policy director and staff Attorney for 1000 Friends of Oregon.

The ferocity of the attacks on Mildner is puzzling, considering that he is not the only person who has raised questions about the report. Its conclusion also has been challenged by an ad-hoc group representing 24 of 25 mayors in the region.

In a Dec. 3 letter to the council, the Metropolitan Mayors Consortium said the density increases envisioned in the report could drive families looking for affordable single-family houses out of the region. The cities of Wilsonville and Happy Valley sent separate letters to Metro raising such issues.

Several business organizations in the region also sent similar letters to the council, including the Westside Economic Alliance and the Coalition for a Prosperous Region, which represents the Clackamas County Business Alliance, the Columbia Corridor Association, the Commercial Association of Brokers, the NAIOP Oregon Chapter, the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland, the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors, the Portland Business Alliance, and the Westside Economic Alliance.

Even the Metro Council admits the issues raised in Mildner’s paper need to be addressed. Although the council unanimously voted to accept the report on Dec. 4, President Tom Hughes and several of the councilors said housing affordability and future government subsidies need more study before the UGB vote. State law requires the council’s decision by the end of 2015.

Mildner’s path to Portland
Mildner lived in both big and small cities before moving to Portland. He was born in London and his family moved to the United States when he was young. After growing up in two small towns in Michigan and Texas, Mildner attended the University of Chicago, where he earned an undergraduate degree in public affairs in 1982. After that, he attended New York University, where he earned a doctorate in economics in 1991.

As a doctorate student, Mildner worked for the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy Research, a free market-oriented think tank that describes its mission to “develop and disseminate new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility.”

Mildner moved to Portland directly after graduate school in 1991. He taught at PSU’s School of Urban Studies and Planning for many years before moving to the School of Business Administration. Mildner has been involved in the Center for Real Estate from the start. The center’s mission is to manage the real estate programs at the university and serve as the link to the real estate community. It also publishes the Center for Real Estate Quarterly, which includes articles by professors and students on commercial and residential real estate trends in the region.

Tribune photo by Jamie Valdez