Commissioner Steve Novick responds

Commissioner Steve Novick (Candidate for Portland Commissioner, Position 4) responded April 14, 2016:

(1) In what specific ways have you supported arts and culture in Portland?  

Personally, I’ve always been a big music fan (Commissioner Fish likes to point out how often I use musical quotes in Council comments) and an occasional local theatergoer. I really enjoy attending local music events when possible.  My wife Rachel’s family has introduced me to the wider performing arts community (her brother is a professional ballet dancer who got his start here in Portland), and the local theater (her other brother is a nationally recognized playwright whose plays have been performed or workshopped at small local theaters).

I also take advantage of the opportunity to support local artists by buying jewelry for Rachel at the Anne Bocci Boutique and Gallery in Multnomah Village.

(2) Artists and arts organizations add measurable value to our region’s economy, our education system and our quality of life, and yet there are a number of pressing needs in our community that often compete for attention and investment.  What is Portland’s proper role in supporting arts and culture in the region?

Ideally, the city would provide a greater level of financial support to the arts than it does now. But other services – from housing to parks and transportation maintenance – are also underfunded.

It’s become increasingly apparent just how important artists, arts organizations, and the creative community as a whole are to Portland. Beyond the many cultural benefits, the arts industry has become something of a traded sector in our region. Larger productions from Hollywood and beyond have recognized Portland as a great place for productions.  This bodes well for our “arts future”,  but we can’t forget the smaller theaters, artists, and art galleries, and we need to figure out how all we can keep them from being priced out of our city.

The City should be a promoter of our artistic community and a supporter of art programs. But we also should be an advocate for equity issues that help support art and artists, enabling them to stay in our region. We need to create more opportunities for investment in arts organizations that connect with underrepresented areas of our communities, including people experiencing homelessness and at-risk youth. Overall I believe City Council and the arts community must communicate more directly to determine projects that we can support to help increase equity and inclusion. As I have told arts advocates, in the future I want to have a ready list of high priority one-time investments in the arts (since we usually have more “one time” money than ongoing money) so that each year we can weigh them against other proposed one-time investments.

(3) The region’s affordability is a serious concern for all of us, including artists and arts-related businesses. What are your plans for making housing and creative spaces more affordable?

There is little debate that we need to address the problem of housing affordability for middle-income and low-income people, but I would say not enough attention is being paid to how it impacts our creative community and small businesses.  I’m glad the state legislature lifted the ban on inclusionary zoning (although I wish they went a bit further), but I also think we need to deal with the supply and demand aspect of the problem. We need to build more housing, and also build more types of housing.  Portland’s iconic bungalow and Craftsman neighborhoods are the reason why lots of people decide to move to Portland. However, these houses are also very expensive and will become more so as our population grows.

I think the concept of affordability should also include zoning changes so we can build diverse kinds of housing within neighborhoods. Townhouses, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and live-work spaces could offer great homes for people who can’t afford a single family house in Portland but aren’t interested in living in an apartment. Lots of close-in Portland neighborhoods already have lots of this “middle housing,” but much of it was built decades ago before the current zoning code was adopted.  Allowing more mixed use buildings could both address the need for housing, while providing opportunities for creative space and small businesses, which we know help build and define a community. I’m looking at ways to allow more of these kinds of projects, which will help keep our neighborhood housing diverse and affordable. As our city grows, it does so thoughtfully and equitably.

City Council needs to make sure we are staying in contact with arts organizations and businesses to better understand the issues they face, and work together to develop real, workable solutions.

(4) Are there other unmet needs when it comes to shaping Portland’s arts and culture policy for the future? If so, what steps would you take to help ensure those needs are met, and how should they be funded?

There are many unmet needs, from housing and commercial real estate affordability to working out a better collection mechanism for the arts tax, and also working to find more support for arts and culture through regional partners and federal programs. There’s a lot to do.

We must ensure that as the price of real estate throughout Portland increases, artists that haven’t made lots of money are still able to live here, and we also need to help smaller venues that house lots of arts to continue operating even if they aren’t owned by people with lots of money to keep them going. We alleviate some of the pressure through zoning changes, connecting arts organizations with available regional grants or low interest loans, and other ways to help support this community and enable it to thrive in our city.

The City has an opportunity to connect arts organizations and small arts businesses with resources they may not realize are available. One example is the Oregon Facilities Authority, who helps charities of all sizes secure low-cost financing to remodel, expand, construct, or purchase new facilities, through the use of tax-exempt conduit revenue bonds. This could be used to help nonprofit arts organizations purchase their properties, giving them security and helping them remain even as commercial real estate prices continue to rise.

(5) The Arts Education & Access Fund, or arts tax, has delivered on its promise of providing arts specialists for all K-5 schools in Portland, but the fund hasn’t generated enough revenue to support as many grants for arts and culture organizations as envisioned. If elected, would you take any steps to modify the arts tax, improve administration of it, and/or fulfill the voters’ vision of supporting arts education and access through other means?

First and foremost we must recognize the great benefit the Arts Tax has given to our schools, helping to fund important programs that are all too often first on the chopping block.

We also must acknowledge, as you have, that unfortunately the Arts Tax has not done as much for the creative community overall as we had expected. To some extent that is based on factors the city should have been aware of – such as state law requiring that PERS and Social Security be exempt. Some of it has to do with the number of people who just aren’t paying; compliance has improved as we go along, and as we move into territory where the threshold for sending multi-year tax avoiders’ bills to collections goes from $35 to over $100, collection action will make more sense.

Any brand-new taxing mechanism is likely to have high administrative costs. Ultimately, despite the complexities of our property tax system, I think it would have made more sense to have a small property tax. I would be open to considering a switch to that, which would – albeit to a limited degree – also make the tax less regressive.

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