Find Work Find Talent

Photo by Joseph Greer

The Cost of Being Creative in Portlandia

Written By Mahesh Raj Mohan | Oct 4, 2016

The creative economy is alive and well in Portland. Image Comics is moving its headquarters here! Artists have been coming to Portland for decades, and businesses offering creative services have thrived.

I classify my business in the marketing sphere, but the city’s creative energy is a major fuel source for writing, editing, and storytelling. Many other writers and designers are doing better financially than they were five or six years ago. Adding to the cool “creative economy vibes” is the arts tax, passed in 2012, that funds Portland public school arts programs.

All’s well, right? In some ways, yes. Portland’s art and design scene is indeed changing and evolving. And for the past several years, the Portland metro area has experienced a population explosion: rising 7% from 2010 to 2015, bringing our grand total to more than 2 million people, according to Metro.

But there are growing pains. Metro noted in a separate report that Portland has a vacancy rate of 3%, the tightest in the country. The Independent Publishing Resource Center, which opened nearly 20 years ago, announced it’s being forced to move following a 300% rent increase. The Contemporary Craft Museum also had to close recently.

The Independent Publishing Resource Center is an established business. It offers creatives the ability to make art, zines, and graphic novels. It has accrued an impressive list of sponsors, and many Portland creatives attest to its indispensability in PDX.

So we may be growing by leaps and bounds, but what are we at risk of losing? How do we, as a community, balance the economic demands of a growing city with a desire to be an artistic destination?

The Problem is Rent

The city and its surrounding environs are growing and changing, but it’s not always equitable. I’ll (badly) paraphrase Neo in the Matrix, “the problem is … rent.”

Rent increased 63% from 2006 to 2015. Portland Business Journal reported that rents increased by 14% between February and March of 2016 alone.

“Someone who already has some money is able to save yet more money.”

Landlords clearly wield tremendous power. Renters like the IPRC don’t have an equity stake where they rent–they rent the floors, walls, and door. The subject of my first interview for Strange Horizons, Steven Harper Piziks, put it so well recently on his blog: “I’ve never had a landlord install new windows for me so my heating bills would go down. And I’ve never in my life had a landlord who REDUCED my rent. It always went up. People who can’t get a mortgage are forced to pay rent at the whim of the landlord and never get anything back for it. People who can’t afford new windows are forced to pay higher heating bills. Meanwhile, someone who already has some money is able to save yet more money.”

I am empathic to that scenario, especially when it involves young creatives drawn to Portland for its livability, walkability, culture, and coffee.

My wife and I moved to downtown Portland at the turn of the century. We had a difficult time finding a place to live because we were unemployed, and if it hadn’t been for the kindness and flexibility of the owners of a downtown PDX apartment complex … well, I’m not sure what would have happened. I think we would have had no choice but to move somewhere else. I can’t imagine the horror of trying to find a place to live here now.

What happens when that space is no longer affordable?

Fast forward a decade or so, and my small content consultancy had laid down some roots and acquired a few return clients. I’m one of those people who needs pin-drop silence to edit, so I decided it was time to invest in office space. I also thought a business address would make it easier to meet with clients in-person. I rented an office in Beaverton, and a few months later, my rent began to rise precipitously. The rental terms were not, in my opinion, business-friendly. I was locked into my lease term and couldn’t break it unless I paid the entire remaining amount. Plus, I had to give three months notice of my term’s end. The landlord, however, could kick me out whenever they wanted. I decided never to rent office space again, and left after three years.

Aside from construction noise, neighbor noise, and preschooler noise, a lack of space doesn’t necessarily affect the health of my business. Businesses that rely on a physical space to do business need a place to do business. What happens when that space is no longer affordable?

If You Build It…?

More disturbingly, many Portlanders don’t have roofs over their heads at all. I still feel that Anna Griffin’s multi-part story on Portland’s homeless crisis is the best overview of the situation. Since those articles were published, the housing situation has worsened for everyone, but no one suffers more than those who have no place to live. And yes, this includes young people who come here with talent, drive, and even clean rental histories … but still can’t find shelter. If places like the IPRC have nowhere to affordably house their business, then creators will either stop making art, or they will move on to a place where they can create.

It’s important to note that the Portland metro area has plenty of land for apartments and commercial development. That Metro report states, “[rental] trends don’t appear to be driven by a lack of raw land supply at the edges of the region.”

You could make arguments about the “marketability” or the maturity of artistic talent, and whether or not artists have a built-in audience for their work.

But that’s what is so great about the IPRC and the Contemporary Craft Museum. They let artists make their work, find audiences on their own, and get better as artists. There’s no “lose” involved … except when such a resource no longer exists.

Hopeful Silver Linings

There is a happy ending, at least for the IPRC. Their Kickstarter crowd-funding project to pay for a move met its initial goal of $20,000, and even managed to stretch it to $21,882.

The arts tax, which was much-maligned, is an investment in the artists who will shape our world now and in the future. And in 2017, House Speaker Tina Kotek plans to, “end no-cause evictions, lift the state’s ban on rent-control laws and ban all rent increases above a ‘reasonable’ percentage for the foreseeable future,” according to The Oregonian.

Finally, the city will have to address middle housing–whether by building on available raw land, or more radically, reforming the entire renter-landlord relationship. Let’s check back in a year and see what’s changed (hopefully for the better).

Mahesh Raj Mohan owns Enlighten Writing, a content and strategy consultancy with a strong technical writing focus. He is also President of the Copywriter Conclave of Portland. Feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.